58 Years Of A Florida Folk Music Tradition

by Liza Mitchell
Over 150 years ago, Stephen Collins Foster penned a song from his Pennsylvania home about a stretch of river hundreds of miles away in sunny Florida. Foster wrote of being far, far away “way down upon the Suwannee River,” randomly selecting the waterway because the name fit the poetic meter of the song.
Foster never visited the Suwannee River, nor did he ever set foot on Florida soil. But his story of the place the old folks called home forever captured the idyllic spirit of the land as he imagined it and sparked the beginning of the American folk movement.
Today, some 159 years later, the annual Florida Folk Festival is held at the scenic Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, nestled along the mossy banks of the legendary river immortalized in Foster’s ode ‘Old Folks at Home.’
The 58th annual festival is held over Memorial Day weekend and features performances from country music stars Mel Tillis and headliner Billy Dean.
Dean, a native of Quincy, Florida, fondly recalls the first time he visited the grounds of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center. He said he performed “at that very place” with his 7th grade music teacher, not knowing that one day he would be returning to the stage as a featured artist.
“When I found out about the folk festival, as a Floridian myself, I hoped the folk community would embrace me if I came out with just my guitar and not try to put on some big slick country music show,” he said in a phone interview from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Having nearly reaching the summit in his bid for country music stardom, Dean said he missed the quiet strength of simple storytelling. The industry, he said, stripped the stories down to bare-bones with just enough meat left to get by.
“I’ve always been torn between country music and folk music,” he said. “I was right on the cusp of a big country music career in Nashville. But in country music, the songs don’t unfold. They don’t take the time to really tell a story.”
Dean said his fans have responded warmly to his less glittery image. They identify with the man on the stage instead of the persona. They aren’t looking for a big city arena show and neither is Dean. It’s all about connecting with people through the stories.
“They can get up close and personal. It’s tangible. They can feel it,” Dean said. “As long as I can do what I love, I have the best of both worlds.”