So Much More Than Folk Music—The Florida Folk Festival Offers a True Floridian Experience Over Memorial Day Weekend

Main stage crowd at the Florida Folk Festival

Hang out beneath the pine trees, majestic Live Oak, and flowering Magnolias along the banks of the meandering Suwanee River while you take in all Florida has to offer. The largest art, music, and culture festival in the state is just around the corner and you’re invited.

The 67th Annual Florida Folk Festival, a three-day celebration spanning Memorial Day weekend, highlights the best of the state’s music, dance, stories, crafts, and food. With more than 300 scheduled performances and over 50 acres of festivities, this family-friendly event offers plenty of adventure. Come out for the music and stay for cultural experiences, great Southern food, square dancing, discussions about Florida’s ecology, Seminole living history, or demonstrations and workshops, and leave with a better understanding of Florida’s unique culture.  Guests drive in from all corners of the state for a one-of-a-kind celebration of Floridian identity

What does it mean to be a Floridian, exactly? With over 113 million visitors annually and upwards of 18 million residents, Florida is a lot of things to a lot of people. “A lot of people get caught in the rut,” says Jacksonville musician Tom Shed, a proud promoter of the Florida Folk Festival who will be performing at the event, “They know where the theater is, they know where the beach is, they know where the grocery store is, and they know where their house or apartment is. But have they really discovered that they live in a place that a hundred million people a year save up their money just to come to visit? I think that’s an important point and this is where you get to find that out.”

Couples dancing at the Florida Folk Festival

Breathe in Florida’s rich and varied history at Florida Remembered. Meet characters straight out of the past who weave colorful tales of how Florida came to be. Watch open-fire cooking demonstrations, log hewing and shingle making, quilting, weaving, leatherworking, corn grinding, soap making, and blacksmithing in action. Learn what it was like to live and work in a Cracker Cow Camp or serve as a soldier during the Civil War or Seminole Wars. The Florida Folklife Area explores Florida’s cultural diversity and how newcomers enrich our communities.

Step into Seminole Camp and experience Florida’s rich Native American culture firsthand. Seminole artists demonstrate patchwork sewing, beadwork, dollmaking, basketry, and the preparation of Seminole foods or perform on the Cheekee-chobee Performance Stage.  You’re in for a vast and varied education far more powerful than anything you might find in the pages of a textbook.

Later, browse hand-crafted furniture, pottery, musical instruments, carvings, canned confections, paintings, Florida heritage books and more. A portion of each vendor’s sales support the festival, and patronizing local artisans supports the state’s vibrant art community.

Artist showing off his work at the Florida Folk Festival

A celebration of everything that makes Florida unique—from its history to the quilt of cultures composing our state—“Folk Festival” doesn’t adequately describe all this event has to offer. “This sort of defines the hill we have to climb every year, because today when you talk to a millennial about folk music, they think of the painted school buses and tie-dye hippies sitting around a fire singing Koombaya,” Shed laughs, “It is not that.  It is the music, art, culture, dance, a celebration of all things Florida. It’s the cultural history and the physical history that created Florida. It’s far more than a folk festival… it’s really the music and art festival of Florida. You will see a celebration of art, dance, crafts, food, music and every one of those has a connection to the state of Florida. There’re a thousand festivals in the state of Florida. This is the only one by the state of Florida for the state of Florida.”        

Unlike many music festivals, this one is designed to be enjoyed by the entire family. Tickets are affordable– $25 daily per adult or $50 for the entire three-day event. Children 6-16 can experience the entire weekend for only $5, and kids under 6 are free. “It’s for everyone and we do have everyone come here, but it’s a family friendly event on a weekend where popular areas are often populated with alcohol infused people. That’s not going to be there,” Shed says, “They have a Kids Area and people who have been supervising that for years who run it. They have kids crafts, little kid shows, young adult performances, and some of the folk artists come over and sing for the kids too and do sing-alongs and tie-ins.”  With a jam-packed kids lineup, there’s plenty to keep young guests occupied.

Child with crafts at the Florida Folk Festival

Another event highlight is the Old-Time Banjo Contest, a knee-tapping jamboree of pre-bluegrass banjo music, and the Florida State Fiddle Contest. Whether you are a fan or want to compete with the best of the best, this is an experience not to be missed.

Others attend the Florida Folk Festival to sway under the stars each evening with hundreds of new friends. Honoring Florida’s varied cultural backgrounds, dance demonstrations abound while worships and dance events encourage guests to learn new steps and join the fun. “People come from all over the state of Florida and they have a 100-foot by 300-foot dance floor custom built for them. They have 5 bands a night and professional callers coming in and they’ll teach you the dance,” Shed says, “There are several hundred people who come—they have no idea there’s anything else going on at the festival. That’s what they come for.”

Dance party at the Florida Folk Festival

Music is a huge component of the weekend. With 11 performing areas and 300 scheduled performances, there’s something for everyone. Shuttle buses transport guests from one area to the next and there are plenty of cooling stations to beat the Florida heat. Go for a day, or grab a hotel room or campground spot in nearby Lake City or Live Oak and enjoy it all. “You can make a weekend out of it and really have an incredible experience because if you go to one stage and you don’t like what’s going on, in 30 minutes it will change. Or there’s another stage within very short walking distance.”

Among the performers are John McEuen & The Stringwizards, Ben Prestage, Rod MacDonald, and Toney Rocks (Friday, May 24), Mindy Simmons, Wild Shriners, The Firewater Tent Revival, and John Anderson (Saturday, May 25), and Frank Thomas, Tom Shed, Brother Brother, Billy Dean, and a Festival Finale with the Bullard Brother & Friends (Sunday, May 26).

Folk Musician Tom Shed to play at the Florida Folk Festival
Tom Shed

Tom Shed will be performing four times throughout the festival weekend. The third-generation Floridian is a lifetime member of the National Musician’s Association, a member of the National Songwriter’s Association, and a voting member of the Recording Academy. He dislikes the term “folk music” for both the festival and his own musical style. There’s isn’t a genre that encompasses his music. “I write songs about something,” he says. “Genre takes music and turns it into a craft. It’s like cutting off the wings of a bird. Music is art.” Shed has traveled the world performing and has participated in the Florida Folk Festival for many years. He’s passionate about the festival and the valuable work it does preserving Florida’s cultural legacy.

Shed reminisces about attending the festival with late EU Jacksonville Newspaper Publisher, Will Henley. “Will and I used to sit and play guitar every year,” he fondly recalls, “We used to have Will at the Folk Festival. I always got him a golf cart. We rode around and had a good time.”

WHITE SPRINGS, FLA. 5/27/17-The Krickets perform Saturday on the River Gazebo Stage during the Florida Folk Festival at Stephen Foster State Park. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO
WHITE SPRINGS, FLA. 5/27/17-The Krickets perform Saturday on the River Gazebo Stage during the Florida Folk Festival at Stephen Foster State Park. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

“If you’re going to live in a place a hundred million people come to visit, you ought to know the place. We need to keep really good care of it,” Shed encourages Jacksonvillians to add the Florida Folk Festival to their Memorial Day Weekend itinerary this year. “It can impact every single person’s life in such a way your life is enriched by coming out and experiencing this. It makes you proud to be a Floridian. If you’ve only been here 2 weeks or you’ve been here for generations, this is an event put on by the state of Florida, by the people of the state of Florida, for the people of Florida. It’s a celebration.”

The Florida Folk Festival spans May 24-26th at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida, just over an hour west of Downtown Jacksonville. Festival gates open at 8 a.m. and final performances end around 11 p.m. More information is available on the Florida State Park website.

Friday

Day/Date

Begin Time

Stage

Group Name

Friday, May 24

6:30 PM

Amphitheater

Opening Ceremonies

Friday, May 24

7:00 PM

Amphitheater

Cortadito

Friday, May 24

7:45 PM

Amphitheater

Toney Rocks

Friday, May 24

8:30 PM

Amphitheater

Rod MacDonald

Friday, May 24

9:15 PM

Amphitheater

The Firewater Tent Revival

Friday, May 24

10:00 PM

Amphitheater

John McEuen & The Stringwizards

Saturday

Day/Date

Begin Time

Stage

Group Name

Saturday, May 25

5:30 PM

Amphitheater

Fiddle Contest Winners

Saturday, May 25

6:00 PM

Amphitheater

Taller Balancé Bomba Afro-Borícua

Saturday, May 25

6:45 PM

Amphitheater

Mindy Simmons

Saturday, May 25

7:30 PM

Amphitheater

Wild Shiners

Saturday, May 25

8:15 PM

Amphitheater

Ben Prestage

Saturday, May 25

9:00 PM

Amphitheater

Folk Heritage Award Winners Recognition

Saturday, May 25

9:30 PM

Amphitheater

John Anderson

Sunday

Day/Date

Begin Time

Stage

Group Name

Sunday, May 26

6:30 PM

Amphitheater

Banjo Contest Winners/Folkartist Memorial

Sunday, May 26

7:00 PM

Amphitheater

Frank Thomas

Sunday, May 26

7:45 PM

Amphitheater

Tom Shed

Sunday, May 26

8:30 PM

Amphitheater

Brother Brother

Sunday, May 26

9:15 PM

Amphitheater

Billy Dean

Sunday, May 26

10:15 PM

Amphitheater

Festival Finale with the Bullard Brother & Friends

About Jennifer Melville

Jennifer Melville is a contributing writer for EU Jacksonville, South Magazine, Folio Magazine, Green Prints, Focus on the Family, and various other print and online publications. She’s a military wife, mother of four, and a leader in the NE Florida homeschooling community. You can check out more of her work on her website, Azalea Publications or follow her on Twitter.

october, 2021

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