Fine folk and big tails

Yarns about people mingling with nature spring to life on the Hillsborough River.Tales of people, nature come alive while floating on the Hillsborough River.

Published February 23, 2007

HILLSBOROUGH RIVER STATE PARK - As he slid his canoe under a deadfall - the kind that cottonmouths just love to cuddle up in - Pete Gallagher could hear music in his head.

"I think we'll get a verse out of this," he said to his paddling and writing partner, Kelly Green. "We started the song on the Withlacoochee, then added another verse on the Myakka. ... Some mighty big gators on the Myakka."

Green, a fifth-generation Floridian and accomplished folk singer, nodded her head in agreement. "Big gators," she said. "Real big."

Gallagher and Green, hosts of WMNF Community Radio's weekly Florida Folk Music Show (Thursdays, 9-10 a.m. on 88.5-FM), and a group of folk singers accepted an invitation to paddle the Hillsborough River and talk about the great outdoors.

"Most Florida folk singers write about swamps, rivers, scrub ... the land we love," Gallagher explained. "Our songs speak to vanishing wilderness and a lifestyle that has slowly disappeared. There is a natural connection between Florida folk songs and the Florida environment."

When most people think of Florida music, Jimmy Buffett immediately comes to mind. Buffett, a native Mississippian who lived in Key West for a while, sings about "trying to reason with hurricane season."

The real heroes of Florida folk have names that most people have never heard of, such as the late, great Will McClean. Driving back from a fishing trip one early morning, I heard McClean's haunting ballad about a hunter named Cebe Tate, who went stalking panthers near what is now Apalachicola State Forest.

According to McClean's 1945 song: The big rattler struck him above the bent knee. The lick was so hard, a'sprawling he fell. This was the beginning of poor old Tate's hell.

Twelve days later, the hunter crawled out of the swamp, 25 miles from where he entered it. To astonished onlookers, he declared, "My name is old Tate, boys, I've just been through hell!"

Then he died.

"You just don't hear stories like that every day on the radio these days," Gallagher said. "That is what Florida folk is all about."

After hearing McClean's classic, I went on the Internet to research Tate's Hell Swamp, vowing to hike 25 miles through it, rattlers and all, or move home to New Jersey.

When I told Gallagher of my plan, he smiled and said: "That is the way it is supposed to be. The more we can connect our music to the outdoors, the more people will feel a bond to it and want to protect it."

But searching for inspiration in the Florida wilds is not without its hazards. Gallagher and Green came within a few feet of a pair of water moccasins (though I waited until they paddled by before telling them) and later the rest of the group got to see who is really the boss on the Hillsborough.

"There used to be a 12-foot gator that lived here called Big Joe," I explained. "He ruled here for 20 years until a trapper had to shoot him between the eyes when he started hunting boy scouts."

The story was true, embellished, of course, for dramatic affect. But what good folk tale isn't.

I saw Gallagher's eyes widen. He looked at Green, and I could see they were thinking of something.

A little farther down the river, we spotted another bull gator, this one darn near as large as Big Joe.

"Let's paddle a little closer to get a better look," I told the folk singers. "He's soaking up the sun. He's not going anywhere."

I got about 15 feet from the gator and saw him do a push up on the bank. This is where I paddle fast. Real fast.

But Gallagher and Green, gliding a few feet behind me, were not quite as quick.

"Better hurry up," I said. "He looks hungry."

The gator hit the water as they passed and nearly bumped their canoe on its way to deep water.

A few days later, back in the safety of my office, Gallagher e-mailed the final verse of the river song he had written with Green:

The gator found us, he was 12 feet large

Jumped in the water 'cause he's in charge

And swam under our canoe

We paddled like hell out of the Hillsborough slough.

Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.