“From one ‘looney’ to another.”
So reads the inscription in my copy of Ron Johnson’s new book, North Florida Folk Music: History and Tradition. He’s referencing the time we spent together many years ago in the cast of Theatre Jacksonville’s presentation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Though I had known Johnson as a member of the music community, we had never spent any real time together. Our stint as fellow cast members was brief, but Johnson and I were afforded the opportunity to play mental patients, and that was a damn good time.
Our association following the production was limited due to our busy lives, until a few weeks ago when I ran into Johnson while walking around my neighborhood. Turns out, he lives two streets over — and he had just completed the aforementioned book. And, against his better judgment, he asked me to review it.
So, with the above disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed.
North Florida Folk Music is, in a word, fantastic. On balance, this is not a work of academia, and Johnson recognizes this in his introduction: “This work is not meant to be a scholarly or historical study of any significance. … The book is primarily to entertain you, the reader, as I introduce you to the world of folk music in Northeast Florida as I have come to know it.” In this light, we can enjoy this slim-yet-thorough volume as we would enjoy a fireside conversation with its author.
The book is wisely divided into two main sections: “History” and “Traditions.” The first offers a short but comprehensive timeline of the progress of folk songwriting from the founding of Florida by the French and Spanish armies up through World War II and beyond. The second portion, a more significant chunk, picks apart the rich and varied landscape of Florida folk, focusing on the people rather than the music. (Indeed, it is the people that make the music and thus, the history.)
The opening chapters are especially intriguing, as they dig into the roots of folk, buried deep in the minstrel tradition. A brief look into the life and work of Stephen Foster, who penned our state song, “Old Folks at Home (Suwannee River),” reveals much about the budding folk tradition. Foster was possibly, as Johnson points out, the first pop star in history, one of the first men to be paid to write popular music for the masses. Since there were no viable recording devices available in the mid-1800s, when Foster did the bulk of his work, the sales of sheet music was how they measured “hits.” And he sold a lot of sheet music.
Also part of this early chapter is Johnson’s dip into the racist themes that cropped up in the minstrel songs. Foster mentions darkies in “Old Folks at Home.” Even earlier, “Turkey in the Straw” (aka “The Ice Cream Truck Song”) was riddled with racist lyrics. Johnson makes an effort here to explain away some of this, contending that Foster, an abolitionist supporter, and his ilk, wrote these songs to present blacks as human beings worthy of respect. I found myself longing for a deeper examination of this topic, but, again, that wasn’t Johnson’s objective. And, to be sure, much ink has already been spilled about this phenomenon; Johnson wisely moves on into a deeper study of our region’s musical traditions.
Johnson traverses wide and difficult terrain in his work, trying simultaneously to define folk music — Is it music whose nameless authors have been absorbed by history, their songs passed down, with lyrics constantly changing to reflect each generation’s struggles? Or is it music made by modern-day folkies whose authorship is known and, sometimes, profitable? — and to document it. It’s an arduous task, and Johnson views it all through his personal lens.
He fondly remembers Gamble Rogers and “Black Hat Troubadour” Will McLean. He covers Northeast Florida’s many folk festivals large and small. And, like the music itself, he follows the lineage from artist to artist, in one case quoting Rogers, who claimed Charlie Robertson was “the best folk singer” he had ever known. There’s yodelers (The Makley Family), environmentalist songwriters (Dale Crider) and a few present-day tunesmiths (Bob Patterson and Larry Mangum; the book’s forward is written by Mangum). It’s this personal investment that makes Johnson’s book eminently readable.
My few misgivings regarding North Florida Folk Music — the overuse of the exclamation point, some overzealous editorializing — are excusable, considering Johnson’s personal immersion in the scene, he himself a songwriter, guitarist and musicologist. He can’t separate himself from the people or the music, and in light of his introduction, that is perfectly OK. What we get is a wonderfully engaging history from one man’s point of view, unencumbered by the rigors of academia, but no less complete or factual. This is folk history told by a real folkie, and it’s a read any musician — or Floridian — would benefit from undertaking.