The American Folk singer conjures up images of some long-haired, bearded dude wearing homemade clothing and closing his eyes as he plucks away at his banjo and passionately sings about peace and love at a hemp rally. The reason for this stereotype is simple: it’s basically true. Folk music, on the other hand, has so many different definitions, fusions, and permutations that it’s hardly worth trying to define. It can be heard everywhere from classic Dylan albums to present day Geico commercials, and you’ve probably even overheard a few what is and isn’t folk debates within your own particular music milieu. One thing is for sure: you know it when you hear it—and you’ll be able to hear plenty of it at the upcoming 62nd Annual Florida Folk Festival.
The Florida Folk Fest takes place at the Stephen Foster Folk Center State Park in White Springs, Florida, and the strumming goes on, shine or rain (and don’t a few downpours really just add to the fun of an outdoor festival anyway?). Taking place along the historic Suwannee River on Memorial Day Weekend, the event includes food, music workshops, and jam sessions, as it celebrates Florida’s land, people, and rich and diverse cultural heritage. Being a state that has its not-so-pleasant moments constantly highlighted by hecklers in national media and entertainment, Florida probably needs a festival that reminds us of its bright spots.
Obviously, there is a lot competing for your entertainment dollar on Memorial Day weekend, but Florida Folk Fest has come with some heavy hitters this year. Headlining the event will be J.J. Grey & Mofro and, for an event centered on nature, this pairing is super-natural. No stranger to the swamps and forests of northern Florida, Grey has the nickname Buckshot and grew up on a 20-acre farm in Whitehouse, Florida, west of Jacksonville. There, he would hunt and fish with his grandfather when he wasn’t busy getting acquainted with the music in the local juke joints. Many of Grey’s songs reflect his love of the North Florida wilderness. Cautious to label himself an environmentalist, Grey has now also joined groups such The Snook & Gamefish Foundation and the St. Johns Riverkeeper in an attempt to stave off some of the threats to wildlife that are brought on by development in the region. Though he’s become a world-renowned musician, Grey still refers to himself in humble terms. “I’m just a salmon swimming upstream,” says Grey.
Bringing soul to the blackwater scene will be Albert Castiglia. He’ll have you slapping your knees—and not just to kill mosquitoes—to his fresh takes on the old folk classics. Debuting with the Miami Blues Authority in 1990, he was named “Best Blues Guitarist” in Miami in 1997 by New Times magazine, a local alternative paper. After spending a little time in Chicago to learn a thing or two from the blues legends, he returned to Florida and began playing his trademark fusion of north and south, blues and rock.
Ben Prestage is another perfect fit for the Florida Folk Festival, what with his family’s hard-fought, rural background. Hearing some of his tales, you’d never question this man’s country street cred (or lack-of-a-street cred, in this case). “I grew up in rural Florida,” says Prestage, “on a 14-mile-long dirt road, near the headwaters of the Everglades. It was 7 miles either direction to the nearest paved road, and when you got to pavement, you still weren’t near a town. It was panther, gator, and cottonmouth country. Out there, there was only one kind of music in the house. Whether it was being played on an instrument, or on a recording, it was blues.”
It was a chance encounter—which, of course, involved a rural activity—that eventually turned Prestage onto folk. “One day, though, in my early teens, I went to help a neighbor build a chicken-coop on his property. When we went inside to eat lunch, I asked him about a banjo I saw in the corner. He picked it up, and I heard Bluegrass music for the first time. He was from a musical family and learned old-time banjo from his father from the South Ohio/North Kentucky hills. He lived half a mile away, but it was so quiet out there, you could hear that banjo all the way to my house if he was on his porch and I was on mine. He made homemade wine with my dad, and when he’d come over, he’d bring his banjo and show me how to pick with my fingers instead of a plectrum.”
Rounding out the four big acts is the duo Mark Johnson and Emory Lester. Though a lot of today’s music has songs featuring another artist, there has always been something particularly special about the folk duo. Johnson and Lester are that classic, playful folk pair, with native Floridian Johnson fiddling the claw hammer banjo, while Lester is one of today’s foremost experts of the acoustic mandolin. Mark and Emory have toured across the U.S. and even played with comedian Steve Martin on Late Night with David Letterman in 2012. Martin will not be in attendance at this year’s Folk Festival, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt anyone if you felt like wearing a fake arrow through your head.
While the musical acts will no doubt be front and center, the true star of the Florida Folk Festival is the wilderness. The Suwannee River was erroneously called the “Swanee Ribber” in the song ‘Old Folks at Home’ by Stephen Foster, the “father of American music,” and the “Swanee” has been the subject of many songs that tend to feature banjos and tales of plantation life. Who knows, after a few beers (or puffs) at the festival, “Swanee Ribber” may be your chosen method of pronunciation as well. The Suwannee River has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. The Suwannee Wilderness Trail is a cooperative effort by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District, and the cities, businesses, and citizens of the eight-county region of the Suwannee River Basin and encompasses 170 river-miles from Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park to the Gulf of Mexico.
The festival begins at 10 am on Friday, May 23rd with an Education theme throughout the day. At 6pm there are Opening Ceremonies. Camping is not offered on the festival grounds during the event, but it can be done in surrounding areas, where additional lodging such as cabins is also available. For adults, advance tickets are $25 per day ($30 at the gate) or $50 ($60 at the gate) for the weekend.
Pets aren’t allowed at the festival, so leave Fido at home. Kids under the age of six are admitted free, so go ahead and bring little Susie and Tommy, who will have plenty there to keep them occupied as they take in some fresh air and interact with nature…if you can pry them away from those amazing, technicolor iPads, that is. If you listen closely, you can already hear the banjos in the distance.