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McLean Music Festival features Florida rhythm

The state's history, politics and the environment are all put to music at the annual Will McLean Music Festival.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Pete Price of Ozello performs a few songs for friends at their campsite at the Will McLean Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch in southeastern Hernando County.
DADE CITY -- One of the first things you'll notice at the Will McLean Music Festival is that almost everybody's lips are moving.

"It's participatory," explains Cathy DeWitt, a Gainesville radio personality who also performs Florida folk music with her all-women group Patchwork. "Everybody sort of learns the tunes and can sing along."

They sing about Florida history, politics, the environment -- just about any topic you might imagine.

"It's about people, places, events that we're all familiar with as Floridians," DeWitt said. "It's a pretty big scene, the Florida folk scene."

More than 3,000 people turn out annually to the Sertoma Youth Ranch, along the eastern Hernando-Pasco county line, to celebrate the music of "Florida's troubadour." Will McLean received the 1989 Florida Heritage Award for his cultural contributions to the state, and was named to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1996.

Almost to a person, performers and listeners alike describe the event as a family reunion. Organizer Margaret Longhill of Dunnellon suggested that the culture of Florida folk is important now more than ever.

"Especially at this juncture in our history, people need family, they need music, they need to be close to nature, and they need to take a look at what's really important in their lives," she said.

She paused to listen to the music of Suz and Charles Chapman, performing on a nearby stage. They sang, "Let your conscience be your compass/ Whatever path you choose."

"That's just beautiful," Longhill remarked, as the song continued. "Isn't that good?"

Paul Garfinkel of Jacksonville, a member of the Ashley Group, said the appeal of the music is in the message.

"It's not just the Britney Spears vocal manipulation, show your navel music," he said, taking a break from practice near the group's camping trailers. "It's stuff that's worth listening to. It's more than just ear candy. It's music we hope stimulates people's thought process."

The appeal was not limited to any age group. Workshops drew everyone from seniors to toddlers who wanted to learn how to play the music better.

Courtney Spitzer, 16, of Melrose near Gainesville, wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with a red skull and crossbones that seemed to show her preference for nu-metal more than folk. But she welcomed the chance to improve her fiddling skills.

"I've been going to these festivals since forever, and I've never really been able to participate. I wanted to participate," she said. As for the music, she added, "I don't listen to it 24/7, but it's cool."

Perry and Linda Allen of St. Petersburg sat beneath the trees, sipping sodas and just taking in the sounds. They don't perform at all, but have come to the past six McLean festivals.

"It's good music, and I only get to hear it two or three times a year," Perry Allen said.

"The nice part of this festival, that's different from the others, is the performers are camped with everybody else," Linda Allen said. "There's a lot of jamming after hours."

Garfinkel agreed that some of the best things happen around the campfires, long after the stages have shut down for the night.

"It's kind of like visiting family," said Al Scortino of Sebastian, another member of the Ashley Group.

The Will McLean Music Festival continues through 6 p.m. today. It concludes with an "Hour of Power," where participants will share the songs and stories of Will McLean.

If you go

The Will McLean Music Festival concludes from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the Sertoma Youth Ranch in southeastern Hernando County. Admission is $10. To reach the ranch, take Spring Lake Highway south from State Road 50, east of Brooksville. Turn east onto Church Road and take Church to Myers Road. Turn south onto Myers, and the ranch will be on the west side of the road. For information, call (352) 465-7208.

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