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Folk music, Florida style

At this two-day marathon of music you can sit back, relax and let your toes tap. Or bring your own fiddle or guitar and join in.

By JORGE SANCHEZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


Tune up the six-string and get back to nature this weekend as the legacy of Florida folk music is celebrated at the annual Will McLean Music Festival.

With music on three stages and a jam beneath nearly every live oak, the Will McLean festival is a picker's paradise. The focus is on folk music, the genre of the strong-voiced balladeer tenderly singing of love or lament while strumming simple chords on an acoustic guitar.

About 50 performers are scheduled to share their music at the stages. Although there is no official headliner, the cream of the folkie crop will attend. Among these are Dale Crider, Simple Gifts, Frank Thomas and Ann Thomas, Myriad and Sam Pacetti.

Winners of the festival's songwriting contest will perform their songs at noon Saturday at the main stage. The winners are Robbin Bach, Jacksonville, for Ichetucknee Blues; Marie Nofsinger, Delray Beach, for Sweet Home Florida; and Lucinda Kidd Hackney, Naples, for Gator in the Slough.

The festival also features the Circle of Song, a jam session led by performers. Topics change hourly, and Saturday's topics include Florida songs, guitar and fiddle, acoustic blues and songwriting. Sunday's Circle sessions feature gospel, fingerpicking and flatpicking guitar and four-part a capella harmony singing.

Aspiring back-porch pickers will want to attend the acoustic workshops, commonly known as Folk 101. These are instructional sessions with free lessons by accomplished musicians teaching their favorite folk licks. Among them are Charley Groth on Autoharp, Ray Belanger on dulcimer, and lessons on many different guitar styles.

Poetry, storytelling and contra dancing will take place at yet another site, the Azalea Stage, on both days. There is an open microphone each day at the conclusion of the Azalea sessions for anyone who wants to share a poem or story.

The festival concludes Sunday at 4 p.m. with the Hour of Power, when performers take the main stage to sing their favorite Will McLean songs. The finale comes with all voices rising in McLean's Hold Back the Waters, his tale about the 1928 hurricane that devastated the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

And just who was Will McLean?

He's the father of Florida folk music. Known as the Black-Hat Troubadour, McLean wrote thousands of songs, typically railing against what he saw as the devastation of Florida by development. This may explain why he usually preferred to live in the woods.

McLean, who died in 1990, is one of those rare entertainers whose legacy seems to grow richer with every passing year. He was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1996. As a songwriter, he had a knack for blending the offbeat and factual to come up with a descriptive song. Recordings of his music on CDs and tapes will be available at the festival at the Friends of Florida Folk booth.

The festival site is an oak-covered campground nestled among large orange groves. Amenities include a diner, showers and bathrooms.

PREVIEW

The Will McLean Music Festival is Saturday and Sunday at Sertoma Youth Ranch, 7 miles west of Dade City on State Road 41. Take exit 60 off I-75, and go 1.5 miles east. Two-day tickets at the gate are $20, Saturday tickets are $12, Sunday $10. Camping is an extra $7 a day, electrical hookup is $12. For camping information, call (352) 754-3082. The Will McLean Foundation Web site is http://www.willmclean.com.

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