Swamp Song: Woody Guthrie at Stetson Kennedy's Northeast Florida Home

The dedication of a local literary landmark celebrates the shared history of Jacksonville-born Stetson Kennedy and folk singer Woody Guthrie.

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This article was pulled from the Folio Archives. It was originally published on March 4, 2003. 

When Woody Guthrie promised to visit his Northeast Florida pen-pal Stetson Kennedy, he said one day he’d probably “come staggering up to your front porch there,” guitar in hand.

In fact, when Woody Guthrie pulled into Jacksonville in the late 1940s, he arrived at the bus station downtown — miles from Kennedy’s front porch. He phoned Stetson for a ride. When Kennedy arrived at the Bay Street bus terminal, he remembers finding Guthrie stretched out on the sidewalk, head resting on his guitar case. Dismayed pedestrians stepped around him, not sure whether he was dead or just dead drunk.

He was neither, Kennedy says with a twinkle: just asleep.

After rousting the famed folk singer, Kennedy asked him if he had any baggage. Guthrie responded by unbuttoning his shirt, revealing another underneath. Then he unbuttoned the second shirt, then a third. In all, Kennedy says, Guthrie was wearing five shirts. Aside from his guitar, it was all the baggage he’d brought.

Sitting on the back porch of his northern St. Johns County home, Stetson Kennedy recalls Guthrie’s visit in a series of dry chuckles. Now 86 years old, Kennedy has become a touchstone for a tumultuous era and its icons. A contemporary of some of the most remarkable minds of the last century, Kennedy’s speech is peppered with references to author Zora Neale Hurston, poets Carl Sandberg and Langston Hughes, folklorist Alan Lomax and — particularly — his good friend and folk singer Woody Guthrie. His memory moves easily from the group’s youthful heyday in New York, when dozens gathered for weekend-long parties that were part literary salon/part hedonistic indulgence, to the Civil Rights activism for which Kennedy is perhaps best known. An unwavering advocate for racial equality, Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ’40s, and published numerous books and articles on the Jim Crow South. He protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in St. Augustine and Jacksonville — not as a child, like many of those who remember those marches today, but as a middle-aged man. But it was Kennedy’s first contribution to history— his work collecting the region’s songs and folklore — that grabbed Guthrie’s attention and led to their long friendship. Kennedy’s book, “Palmetto Country,” which Kennedy describes as a “barefoot social history of Florida,” enthralled Guthrie, who sent the author a fan letter. “[It] gives me a better trip and taste and look and feel for Florida than I got in the forty-seven states I’ve actually been in body and tramped in boot,” Guthrie wrote.

Today, as Kennedy stands on the back porch at his homestead “Beluthahatchee,” feeding fish to the resident herons, he can easily recall Guthrie’s many visits. The folk singer slept in a hammock strung between two oak trees and played his guitar to the swamp’s amphibian choir. He wrote his autobiography, “The Seeds of Man, at Beluthahatchee, as well as some of his best-loved songs. For both men, this wild, woodsy land served at a necessary retreat, a salve for the spirit and a source of inspiration.

In two weeks, this property will be named a Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA. The designation, which will be made official during an Arlo Guthrie concert at The Florida Theatre on Thursday, March 13, is one of just a few dozen in the nation and the first in Northeast Florida. But it won’t be the last. The library association has already agreed to place a second plaque at Beluthahatchee after Kennedy’s death in recognition of his contributions to the literary landscape and to humanity.

“After I drop dead, they’ll put up a plaque for me, too,” says Kennedy with a hearty laugh. “I guess I’m in no hurry.” 

William Stetson Kennedy was raised “First Baptist, from cradle doll to the young men’s department” in a conservative, upper-class Jacksonville family. The family’s connections ran both to the Stetson hat company and Stetson University, and his father was head deacon at the city’s most powerful church. His escape from this confining existence led him to the backwoods of Florida (where he recorded the songs and stories of turpentine camp workers), to Paris (where Jean-Paul Sartre published his Jim Crow Guide to segregation laws in the United States), to Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn (where he and Guthrie played with their kids, and discussed labor issues and civil rights).

But throughout his travels, Kennedy always called one place “home”: Beluthahatchee. The property, located just south of Julington Creek on State Road 13, was once a sprawling 50-acre lot. The land was purchased by Kennedy's father for $200 an acre as a retreat from his wife’s society family. And a retreat it was. Although the area has been transformed over the years — S.R. 13 now links vast residential subdivisions and rows of franchised businesses — it was as remote as an island in Kennedy’s youth. (Kennedy half-jokes that everyone south of Julington Creek used to have the same last name before a bridge replaced the row­ boat as the only way into Jacksonville.)

Now 86, Kennedy is still working on six books. A movie about his life is currently on hold, but there is still interest in the project in Hollywood.

Over the years, Kennedy has been forced to sell the land piecemeal — “fire sales,” he explains — and today, Kennedy's portion of Beluthahatchee is just 2 acres. But it still feels remote, and faces the flooded wetland that Kennedy helped create, by damming a portion of Mill Creek. An ardent environmentalist, Kennedy hastens to explain that his creation didn't destroy anything, but simply embellished a swampy habitat that is today home to osprey, great blue herons and even an alligator, which has taken up residence under Kennedy’s back porch. The lake is stark and beautiful, dotted with moss-covered trees and lofty nests.

“My tabernacle is the open sky,” says Kennedy, explaining why he broke with his family’s faith. “It’s the only church I need.”

The name Beluthahatchee has its roots in a piece of folklore unearthed by Zora Neale Hursron. Before the acclaimed author wrote her seminal “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she worked for Kennedy in the 1930s. As director of folklore for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration’s Writer’s Project, Kennedy directed a staff of amateur folklorists who sought out and taped the songs and legends that defined rural Florida culture. Hurston regularly sent far manila envelopes filled with fresh stories from her Eatonville home. One such envelope contained a story about “Beluthahatchee'' — a Florida version of Shangri-la, a place “where all unpleasantness was forgiven and forgotten, and harmony reigned supreme.”

Kennedy felt that sense of peace at “his” Beluthahatchee. “It has an atmosphere that sort of calms,” he explains. “The name just fits.”

When Kennedy began living in Beluthahatchee, it was more rustic than comfortable. The only structure was a Florida Motor Lines bus with wooden lean-tos built on either end. The toiler was a wooden armchair with the seat cut out. And the only company was folks crazy enough to come visit.

Although Kennedy’s dad left the land to all his children, Kennedy bought out his four siblings. “They considered it a snake pit,” he says with a triumphant smile. “They wouldn’t set foot here.” 

It wasn’t until 1972 that Kennedy built a house on the property and moved in with his wife, Joyce (who died last year). But the lack of traditional amenities didn’t keep Beluthahatchee from becoming a regular hangout for those who ran in Kennedy’s circles. Musicians, writers, civil rights activists, folklorists — all came and stayed at the camp. They listened to the deafening frogs (Guthrie dubbed them an “Oriental chorus”), they fished, they ate. Nobody came as much or stayed as long as Woody Guthrie, however. After showing up in the late ’40s, he visited every year — more times than Kennedy can remember — for several weeks or months at a time. One visit lasted more than a year. Guthrie appreciated the solitude of the place, the simplicity of the life. He slept in a hammock with a rubber roof, surrounded by mosquito netting and, true to legend, Kennedy says, he usually slept with his boots on (though he didn’t always wear clothes). He also ate standing up. (“That was from his days hoboing,” explains Kennedy. “If a railroad dick came up, he’d have to be prepared to run.”)

For all the time they spent together, though, Kennedy doesn’t recall a lot of conversation. “We didn't do much talking,” explains Kennedy, “because we were in total agreement about everything.” 

Life wasn’t all bliss at Beluthahatchee. Both Kennedy and Guthrie were under constant surveillance by the FBl for their labor and civil rights activism, and Kennedy’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan had earned him the enmity of what was the nation’s most insidious and terrifying terrorist group. Helicopters flew over to spy on the camp, and federal agents routinely camped out at the end of the driveway to monitor comings and goings. Once, Kennedy says, FBI agents interviewed a lawyer friend of his to find out more about Guthrie’s stays at Beluthahatchee. When the lawyer asked why the feds were spying on the singer, one of the agents produced a photograph of Guthrie holding a guitar imprinted with the words “this machine kills fascists" — a slogan he wrote on most of his guitars.

“That was their only evidence,” says Kennedy. “It was that kind of world then.”

Kennedy’s FBI file, which he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, was more than 800 pages long. Although most of the pages are blacked out, the file included references to the presence of “one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie reported to be living at Beluthahatchee.”

More frightening than the feds was the threat of retaliation from the Klan. Kennedy infiltrated Atlanta’s Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern Number One, considered one of the most dangerous in the country, in the late 1940s. He joined using the name John S. Perkins, a reference to his uncle, Brady Perkins, who was once the Grand Titan of the Florida Realm of the Klan (a move that didn’t do much to heal Kennedy’s rift with his relatives). Kennedy spent most of the ’40s and early ’50s working the Klan from the inside, exposing members and revealing the group’s terrorist plans. His role put him in jeopardy of discovery — the five Klan detectives who tried to track the mole were also members of Atlanta’s police force — and at one point, the Klan issued a $1,000-a-pound bounty on his 135-pound body.

Kennedy mocked the Klan, calling them the Dumb Klux and the Koo Koo Klan, but he never underestimated them. Each resident of Beluthahatchee was given a gun and a position to defend in the event of a Klan raid. For the most part, the guns were used for sport. Woody Guthrie preferred to use his — a Kennedy family heirloom from World War I — targeting gallon wine jugs. But Guthrie was no slacker. On one occasion, when Kennedy sounded the alarm as a drill, Guthrie ran to his station so fast he burned his feet racing through hot coals.

The pair didn’t always stay inside the Beluthahatchee compound. In fact, one of the main reasons Guthrie loved visiting, Kennedy says, was because he could go to Key’s Chili Parlor in downtown Jacksonville. The Forsyth Street restaurant was a local landmark — “all of Jacksonville ate chili there,” says Kennedy, noting that the secret ingredient was beef hearts. “And Woody was very fond of chili.”

Guthrie’s last visit to Beluthahatchee ended in tragedy. One morning, while trying to reheat day-old coffee, he threw kerosene on the campfire. The flames engulfed him instantly. Though Guthrie and his girlfriend were able to put out the fire, Guthrie was forced to hitchhike to what is now Shands Jacksonville for emergency care. “Nobody would pick him up," explains Kennedy, who was out of the country at the time of the accident. “He had to stand out there on the highway with his skin falling off until someone finally picked him up.” 

The Beluthahatchee of today is decidedly quieter than 50 years ago. Kennedy’s house, a snug cedar cabin, is decorated with old glass bottles and nature’s debris. A cozy fire burns in the corner fireplace, and Kennedy’s book-filled office dominates the second floor.

It is a working household — Kennedy is still juggling deadlines for six books including his autobiography — and the phone and fax machines ring frequently. But the buzz around the household is more industrious than revolutionary. If Kennedy were younger, he would still be our marching and demonstrating — against war, against multinationals, against environmental degradation. But his age has forced him to set his eyes on his legacy — and Beluthahatchee is its center. The upcoming Arlo Guthrie concert is the formal designation of the property as a literary landmark, but proceeds from the $20-a-seat performance will go to benefit the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. After Kennedy's death, Beluthahatchee will serve as a retreat for individuals or groups dedicated to human rights issues and cultural or environmental preservation. Kennedy’s library will remain intact for others to use, and both plaques — recognizing the contributions of good friends and great humanitarians Guthrie and Kennedy — will hang at the home.

Kennedy will leave his favorite place to future generations. One can only hope his spirit passes to them as well.

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