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Folk music gathering was festival of moments

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001

"Please," begged festival director Margaret Longhill as Seminole Chief Jim Billie took the stage Sunday, "don't do the finger . . . anything but the finger."

Billie, feigning innocence with the same animation with which he had fake-glowered at folk singer Valerie Caracapa a few minutes earlier as she sang a song poking fun at some of his better known exploits, smiled and waved his right hand, minus most of the ring finger he lost to an alligator last year.

But Billie, who arrived by helicopter just in time to contribute his thunderous bass voice to an hour of songs dedicated to his friend, the late Will McLean, already had joyfully taken the finger, preserved in a bottle, out of his pocket and shown it to eager bystanders.

It was a fitting end for more than 3,000 folk musicians and fans who gathered at the Sertoma Youth Ranch north of Dade City for the 12th annual Will McLean Music Festival.

For me, it was a festival of moments.

The first came early on Friday evening, before the festival even began, when I happened on a screen room where singer-songwriter Joey Errigo had dropped in to harmonize with Dennis Devine and Rochelle Morris as they practiced gospel numbers from Devine and Morris' latest CD, Devine & LaRoche, for the next day's performance.

The music I heard there equalled the cost of admission, and the show hadn't even started yet.

Some new combinations, some of them last-minute, brought proceedings to a dead stop while passers-by stopped to listen. Included was a flawless performance by Mary Ann DiNella teaming up on stage with her daughter, Jeannie, for the first time.

St. Augustine acoustic guitarist Clyde Walker passed up his usual solo act to bring friends Wayne Martin (fiddle), Dawn DeWitt (bass) and Ron and Bari Litschauer together as a pickup band that sounded like it had been performing together for years in an act highlighted by Walker bringing his wife, Lorelei, on stage to sing lyrics she had written.

One of the great functions of music festivals is that they bring together musicians who, because of the distances between their homes, don't normally combine to play together.

And so it went for two full days and most of two nights, as singers and instrumentalists moved from campsite to one of the four stages and back again.

Miami singer-songwriter Amy Carol Webb captured the attention of a normally restless and noisy dinner time crowd at 6 p.m. Saturday as she moved them alternately to tears and guffaws of laughter with a style that Billboard magazine has compared to Carole King and Janis Ian. She received a standing ovation, one of very few handed out during the festival by discerning folk fans.

It's probably sexist or size-ist of me, and there is no disrespect intended, but I couldn't help noticing how much big music was coming from tiny women. Mainstay Mindy Simmons and equally diminutive songsters Carrie Blackwell, Bonnie Bickerstaff, Shana Smith and Marie Nofsinger all but blew the speakers out and made it easy for people to find their campsites at night by simply listening.

And, as old folkies know, the campfires (in this case, camp lanterns due to the fire ban) are where some of the best music of the night takes place.

I wasn't sure who my campground neighbors were because I had arrived early, and I was saddened Saturday night when fatigue from a long day sent me headed for bed instead of for my traditional rounds of musical campsites.

After a shower I crawled into my van and my head had no sooner hit the pillow than I realized I was situated between sites occupied by singers James Hawkins, Simmons, and Steve Blackwell and one of my favorite groups, Myriad.

I went to sleep with my own private concert.

I guess I have to make a disclaimer here. I participate in the festival every year, acting as master of ceremonies for a few hours, and I don't usually write about events in which I participate. But I don't make any money (my paycheck for the festival goes to charity) and, for any given weekend, if I had to give up the writing or the music -- you'd be reading something boring about my cats about now.

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