The 71st Florida Folk Festival: Music, Culture and a Big Surprise

The Florida Folk Festival is the oldest state-sponsored festival of its type in the United States. Like most folk festivals, itโ€™s a mix of varied and diverse cultures in terms of music, history, and crafts, with more than 300 musical performances included Asian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Cuban, old-time, bluegrass, blues, swing, and more. The festival has always been participatory; there are dance sessions, workshops, interest groups, instrument competitions, storytelling, and an active kids program that get attendees involved with the festival.

๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

All this goes down at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, an 88-acre site with 12 stages and performance areas. Having attended this festival a number of times, this yearโ€™s effort was particularly unusual in that the weather was spectacular, which was noted by a number of performers. Most years the temperature hovers in the high 90s; this year was much more seasonable, with nighttime temps down in the fifties. And one of the finest things about this festival is the group of amazingly helpful volunteers and park rangers, who provide shuttles around the park, assist with setting everything up, and are just generally pleasant and accommodating. They really make the festival work.

๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

The Main Stage Amphitheater is located on a hillside in beautiful surroundings. The other stages range from one at a small Seminole Village area to simple tents used for workshops, and another is a gazebo overlooking the Suwannee River, which runs through the middle of the park and can be accessed at numerous locations for a quick dip. A number of locations donโ€™t use sound systems by design.

๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

Among a fine group of headliners this year were Jim Stafford, Billy Dean, The Lee Boys, and John McEuen and the Circle Band.

John McEuen and the Circle Band ๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

Most of the performers and volunteers are allowed to camp on site, and walking through the campground one can hear everything from swing jams and old-time to bluegrass and Americana. The campground is a happening place late at night. One area is becoming legendary for the Sparkle Party and parade, with prizes going to the most impressive outfits.

Sparkle Party ๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

And there was a very big unannounced performance. Over the past 30 years, folklorist/ethnologist and music historian Robert Stone has been documenting the sacred steel gospel tradition in Pentecostal churches in Florida. The music has grown in popularity, in part through such performers as The Lee Boys and Roosevelt Collier. This festival was the home for a Sacred Steel Summit that ran throughout the weekend.

One of the best known steel players is Aubrey Gent,ย who befriended blues legends Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi many years ago and actually married them in 2001. The couple was literally flying back to Florida from a show when they found out about the Summit and decided to attend at the last minute. Rumors were circulating on Saturday, and I ย was fortunate enough be at the Marble Stage when the pair joined Gent for what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those that were there. I was able to get some video clips and edited them together into this extended documentation of this eventโ€ฆ which left everyone breathless.

Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Aubrey Gent ๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

Some of the high points of the festival for me were the perennial appearances of the Peyton Brothers and national guitar champion Allen Shadd playing with singer/flautist Kristen Holloway; she also played with her regular band, Gypsy Wind from Tampa. Former headlinersย Wild Shiners and Gainesvilleโ€™s Uncle Mosie, Cuban band Cortadito, and the hard-core Firewater Tent Revival had great performances. Ben Prestage put on a fine show on the main stage; calling him a one-man band dramatically underestimates his bluesy, swampy songs.

Ben Prestage ๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

There was sadness among many; Kathryn Belle Long, who was scheduled to perform this weekend, passed away two days before the festival.ย  She was well known and respected for her songwriting, winning a Suncoast Emmy Award for the theme song to WFSUโ€™s well known program Local Routes. In 2018 she won first place in the Will McLean Festivalโ€™s โ€œBest New Florida Songโ€ Contest with her composition โ€œTallahassee.โ€ Several performers honored the Tallahassee-based singer/songwriter by performing some of her original songs.

Kathryn Belle Long ๐Ÿ“ธ: Rick Davidson

It was a spectacular weekend: great weather, great music, and lots of fun for all ages. The only challenge is deciding where to go during this festival, with so many options every day.ย  Put it on your calendar for next Memorial Day. You can never tell who might show up!


Florida Folk Festivalย 




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