The Real Florida Doesn’t Usually Make Headlines
What: Florida Folk Festival
When: May 22 – 24, 2015 (Memorial Day Weekend)
Where: Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs, FL
The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park on the Suwannee River in White Springs has been the home of the Florida Folk Festival for 62 years. Since it’s beginning in 1952, it has maintained a distinct trajectory from many folk music festivals in the state by focusing the cultures and stories that inspire and drive the incredible music that Floridians have made over the generations. The Florida Folk Festival isn’t just about folk music, it’s about traditional Florida cultures.Larry Mangum has played somewhere around 18 of the Florida Folk Festivals since the 80s and is deeply involved in the “Florida folk family.” He says, “In Florida we have a large and close Florida folk family. It includes hundreds of musicians and thousands of fans. We meet at numerous events around the state and it’s always a family reunion… The Florida Folk Festival is somewhat different from all the rest since it is about folk culture and heritage, not just music. It serves to educate all ages about the beauty and history of our great state.”
The Festival is presented under the auspices of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks. According to their website (floridafolkfestival.com), the programing is centered around some academic and serious-sounding organizations: “Folk artists and tradition-bearers presented each year in the Folklife Area reflect research and field documentation conducted by the Florida Department of State’s Folklife Program.”
But don’t let that make you think it is a stoic, academic event. “Definitely not a serious event! Very laid back and friendly. No pressure, no bullshit, no anger; only happy faces. But still a classroom where you can’t help but learn,” says Mangum.
Music Inspired by Man’s Relationship to Nature
All of this is not to say the music isn’t still at the heart of what brings people from all over the state. When you look at the lineup, and see there is a wide range of genres, from country and bluegrass to blues and even rock, you might wonder what exactly is “folk music?”
“Musical documentaries!” is Magnum’s definition. “It means, basically, acoustic music drawing from folk, country, bluegrass and blues with stories about the people and culture.”
This year’s event will feature newcomers such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Flagship Romance alongside the stalwarts of the event such as Mangum, Bob Patterson, Frank Thomas and a litany of others. But every group must have a Florida connection in order to be invited.
The overriding theme that brings lovers of all of the genres contained in the “folk music” definition, according to Mangum, is “friendship, family, quality music, and a great love for the beauty of this unique place we call home. Our community produces hundreds of songs intended to remind folks of the need to try to preserve this special place.”
All Weekend Long
When you come for the whole weekend experience, you get far more than just the performances on the schedule. “Musicians and volunteers camp at the site, so those who drive in for the day generally miss the great music that happens in the camping area,” Mangum explains.
When you attend for the entire weekend, it becomes less like a conventional festival and you are able to access that close-knit family vibe. These musicians are family, friends, and peers. A night sitting around a campfire can quickly turn into an old-fashioned guitar-pull.
“I love everything about the festival, but the best parts for me are campfire song circles and jams that can breakout at anytime of the day – mostly at night. The song circles are more intimate, with people sharing original music, while the jams can be a large number of people playing anything that comes to mind.”
The music is, without question, the primary draw. But once you get there, there is so much more to do than just the music. There are demonstrations and workshops where you can try your own hand at playing mandolin, telling stories, or making a pine needle basket. Attendees learn how to collect family histories, call a square dance, and even information about native plant and animal species.
Folk Shopping & Eating
Attendees also have the opportunity to shop for one-of-a-kind handcrafted items from Florida’s traditional and contemporary craftsmen. And the food? Oh Lord, the food. From collard greens, cornbread, chicken pilau and hoppin’ john to shrimp gumbo, barbecue, curries, gyros and lime fizzes, you will find plenty of food to keep you fat and happy.
“Oh, and it’s often hot enough to fry an egg on your car hood!” adds Mangum. But after the sun sets, you can settle in for concerts by moonlight or dance the night away at the Heritage Stage.
“It’s like being in love or the love one feels for their children. It’s like a secret that thousands of people know, but it’s very hard to describe unless you’ve been there.”
Advance tickets are $25 per day or $50 for the weekend for adults, children 6-16 are $5 for the weekend, and children under 6 are free. Admission at the gate is $30 per day or $60 for the weekend for adults. Visit www.floridafolkfestival.com for more information.