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Politics in folkieland: Music soars above din

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

When I first got involved in Florida folk music in the 1980s, I promised myself to stay out of the politics associated with the movement.

No movement, group or special interest is without politics. Politics permeate Little Leagues, churches, scouting, civic associations (and how!), and I'll bet even book clubs have subgroups of audio-book lovers who spend a lot of time worrying about what those sneaky print-lovers are up to.

So it was no surprise that there was outrage throughout folkieland when the Legislature trimmed $1-million from the Florida Folk Festival's budget and the secretary of state's office bowed out of running it.

It looked for a while like the festival might not make it into this, its 50th anniversary year.

But George Steinbrenner, a Tampa millionaire who is often unfairly maligned, has kicked in $78,000, and the governor's budget has added another $110,000 to help out, along with $8,000 raised by festival supporters. The Florida Park Service will assume responsibility for getting the festival back on the road.

It was interesting in the meanwhile. Some hysterics claimed the entire move to get rid of the festival was some nefarious plot hatched by Secretary of State Katherine Harris to fill in the dull moments between sabotaging elections and applying the heavy makeup that her critics kept claiming was somehow linked to her competence.

Some folk enthusiasts were more subdued, remembering that we are involved in a war that has badly damaged the state's economy, and that when hard choices are being made about the welfare and care of the children and the elderly, priorities change.

But there were those who argued that music, especially the genre that got a lot of people through the dust bowl days and the Great Depression, is more needed, not less, in bad times than in good. And, they pointed out, quite a few expenditures of the type generally known as "turkeys" were surviving the ax they were facing.

"I'm going to be at White Springs (home of the folk festival) this Memorial Day weekend," said banjo player Ernie Williams, "and if we have to just sit in the campground and do it around the campfire, we'll just start all over again and do that."

Williams wasn't the only one who felt that way.

In fact many of those complaining about the state's dumping the festival were those who traditionally had complained about how the state was running it.

One of the good things about this year's scare that the festival might indeed be doomed was that it crystallized some of the debates that have gone on in folk circles for years.

For instance, is the Florida Folk Festival a folk festival that is taking place in Florida, or is it a festival of Florida folk music, culture and traditions?

Florida folk music (he said, throwing out his own definition to be trampled) is a relatively eclectic mix of country, bluegrass and traditional folk, mostly centered on Florida themes.

Folk music performed in Florida, however, can run the gamut from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, and can, indeed, come from any of the traditions: Greek, Spanish, Native American and others.

Recent efforts at finding a happy resolution between the definitions haven't really succeeded.

Folk purists also wonder, sometimes aloud, how someone like Bo Diddley, the headline act at the festival seven years ago, who modestly takes credit for having invented rock 'n' roll, qualifies as a a folk musician. And some musicians, especially those who make their living performing, have often wondered about (and sometimes boycotted because of) the formula determining who gets paid how much.

And finally, there are those who feel that the festival should only be centered on authentic historic Florida folk music and should place less emphasis on singer-songwriters bringing their latest products to perform. There are also a few of us who remember when some of the now-traditional songs were the new stuff being brought out for the first time.

As I said, we haven't settled the debates, any of them, even if they have now been given full and glorious voice. But I'll bet if you make it to White Springs Memorial Day weekend, you'll be able to hear some fine music over the talking.

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