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Stetson Kennedy Songwriters Residency breathes new life into Beluthahatchee’s creative heritage

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Stetson Kennedy left behind a riveting legacy. During the Great Depression, he and Zora Neale Hurston collected a now-legendary assemblage of Old Florida folklore. In the 1940s, he successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, giving the rest of the world a first look inside the secretive white supremacist organization. After World War II, he worked the front lines of the early Civil Rights Movement for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the New York Post, and The Nation. And in 1952, Stetson Kennedy invited Woody Guthrie down to northwest St. Johns County, giving the iconic American singer/songwriter a space to write nearly 80 new tunes and finish the manuscript for his autobiography, Seeds of Man.

That very Beluthahatchee Park homestead might be Kennedy’s most pivotal endowment. When he purchased the 70-acre tract in 1948, he set aside a portion of the surrounding property as a wildlife refuge in perpetuity. And after Kennedy died in 2011 at age 94, several of the buildings were transformed into museums and educational exhibits lauding the work of Kennedy, Guthrie, and naturalist William Bartram.

Beluthahatchee’s next step fulfills one of Kennedy’s dying wishes: that the property serve as a refuge, not just for wildlife but for humans, too. The Stetson Kennedy Songwriters Residency, created in conjunction with the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, the St. Johns County Cultural Events Division’s Sing Out Loud Series, the St. Johns County Parks & Recreation Department, and the Jacksonville Songwriter Residency, will invite artists to spend two weeks working on the idyllic property.

“It’s like a little oasis out there,” says singer/songwriter Brad Lauretti, who hatched the idea with the coordinating organizations over the last two years. “You wake up in the morning and see turtles, snakes, ospreys, every kind of bird imaginable, cypress trees … It’s like everything you think about North Florida all in one little place. in Stetson’s backyard.” Lauretti gave the residency a trial run last October and says he was able to write an entire album’s worth of songs in two weeks. “They were pouring out of me,” he marvels. “The magic of the place inspired Stetson and Woody, it inspired me, and we hope it will inspire other songwriters.”

Lauretti gives specific credit to Kennedy’s stepdaughter Karen Roumillat, who lives on the property; St. Johns County naturalist AyoLane Halusky; and St. Johns County Cultural Events Division General Manager Ryan Murphy for making the residency a reality. But before he even met Lauretti, Murphy had his own vision for Beluthahatchee.

“It’s such an underserved piece of St. Johns County history,” he says. “Stetson’s centennial is coming up this fall, so we were already starting to work on something to highlight the area while also highlighting his work. Once we heard that Brad wanted to do a songwriter’s residency out there, we wanted to help him in any way we could — with a video for our Sing Out Loud series, with promotion of the residency to the artists we book at the [St. Augustine] Amphitheatre and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, and with work on a longer documentary about Stetson’s legacy.”

Lauretti says the program wants artists working to further Kennedy’s legacy of championing civil rights, social justice, human rights, and environmental stewardship to apply. The first official songwriter in residency was New York’s Marcellus Hall, acclaimed not only for his work with blues-punk bands like Railroad Jerk and White Hassle, but for his politically attuned illustrations for The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Fortune. “We want songwriters to see what an environmental treasure we have here in Northeast Florida,” Lauretti says. “People who are writing topical songs that address those issues and recognize the power of music to motivate others to protect our culture.”

After his two-week residency, Hall headlined the April 23 Bartram Bash at Alpine Groves Park, a 54-acre tract located one mile south of Beluthahatchee on S.R. 13. Lauretti says it’s a template that will be repeated with all future songwriters in residency. “That way, the artists can perform the music they’ve written,” he says. “And, more important, the public can see what we’re doing and feel the immediacy of it.”

Ryan Murphy says he and his team in the cultural events division are ready to help turn the songwriters residency into a long-term, sustainable program that can attract top-flight musicians to embrace the history of Beluthahatchee. While Lauretti acknowledges that indispensable support, along with the backing of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, he still possesses the same go-getter attitude that brought him to Jacksonville from New York City in 2012. He’s working tirelessly to secure further community support from organizations that align with the residency’s mission statement, so that visiting songwriters can have all their expenses covered while they’re working.

Though he wasn’t able to confirm who will be among the next group of artists, Lauretti did hint that they’d be arriving from all over the world. “And they all understand the historical significance of the place,” he adds. “Beluthahatchee is the only site in the country to be designated a National Literary Landmark twice — once for Stetson Kennedy and once for Woody Guthrie. Maybe someday it will be designated a third time because of someone else’s work. That’s what Stetson wanted — to give artists refuge at Beluthahatchee so they could find the time and place to think and write. Not a lot of people have that in their everyday lives anymore.”

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