Fostering Florida culture
Published: Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 at 3:59 p.m.
Sixty-two years ago, a Florida tradition was born.
62nd Annual Florida Folk Festival
What: More than 300 performances on 11 stages along with Florida arts and crafts, ethnic foods, folk demonstrations, storytelling and more
When: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday, gates open daily at 8 a.m.
Where: Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, 11016 Lillian Saunders Dr., White Springs
Tickets: $30 per day or $60 for the weekend, $5 for ages 6-16 for all three days, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 877-6FL-FOLK. Schedule highlights are listed below. For more see: www.florida
6 p.m.: Opening Ceremonies
6:15 p.m.: Gypsy Star
7 p.m.: Laney Jones & The Lively Spirits
7:45 p.m.: Flagship Romance
8:30 p.m.: Albert Castiglia
9:15 p.m.: Ben Prestage
6 p.m.: Carlos & Carlos
6:45 p.m.: Mark Johnson & Emory Lester
7:15 p.m.: Michael Jordan
8 p.m.: Willie Green and the Willie Green Acoustic Blues Band
8:45 p.m.: Folk Heritage Award Winners Recognition
9:15 p.m.: JJ Grey & Mofro
5:30 p.m.: Banjo Contest Winners/Folkartist Memorial
6 p.m.: Carlos & Carlos
6:45 p.m.: Jamie DeFrates & Susan Brown
7:30 p.m.: Sam Pacetti
8:15 p.m.: Frank Thomas
9 p.m.: Jeanie Fitchen
10 p.m.: Festival finale
The Florida Folk Festival began as a celebration of music, arts, and culture in Florida — a festival run by Floridians, featuring Floridians, and put on for the benefit of Floridians. And, unlike most things in life, it seems to be getting stronger as it gets older.
This year’s festival, which starts Friday and runs through Sunday, features more than 300 artists and performers including international stars like JJ Grey and Mofro, and Mark Johnson.
In 2012, Johnson won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which fits right in with a folk festival, but JJ Grey and Mofro are known for blending blues, rock, funk and other styles. That variety in genre is a hallmark of the festival, notes media coordinator and performer, Tom Shed.
“In 1953, when the festival got started, the term ‘folk’ meant indigenous music,” Shed says. “There was classical and there was folk, and that was it. Now, we’ve got 70 different genres.”
Shed says one thing that has remained constant is the festival’s connection to Florida.
“When you come to this festival, it’s really the music and arts festival of Florida,” he says. “Every artist, every craftsman has to have some connection to Florida. If you want to know what your identity is as a Floridian, this is your place to do it.”
The festival is held on the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, an 850-acre park on the Suwannee River.
“It’s held basically at the center of the state of Florida,” Shed says. “It’s where all of the state comes together — you’re going to find people from the panhandle, from Miami, the Keys, Tampa, Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville — everybody’s coming to celebrate what it means to be a Floridian.”
Along with music, the festival celebrates Florida’s cultural heritage with dance, storytelling, crafts and food from around the state. The variety of cultures represented at the festival is mirrored by the variety of musical performances, which serve as fitting soundtrack to the event regardless of the time of day.
Selecting the musical artists is a difficult process, with hundreds of applicants both famous and unknown vying for a slot on one of the 11 stages.
“There’s easy 300 people that apply that don’t make it,” Shed says.
And, with an expected crowd of 30,000 people, it is easy to understand why so many performers apply. But, their competition is stiff. Other performers this year include long-time country music star Billy Dean, who came out of Quincy in the late-’80s to rack up more than 20 hits on the Billboard country charts. Dean will host workshops in addition to performing.
“He’s not only gong to play, but he’s going to talk to songwriters about writing songs,” Shed says.
“Most of my background is commercial songwriting,” Dean says, “and I thought it would be interesting to give some other fellow songwriters some insight into what type of songwriting that requires. I think it’s a good exercise for anyone because you don’t have a lot of time to get someone’s attention when you’re writing for the radio. It makes you get to the point a little bit quicker. I give them tips like, ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’”
Dean says the festival has been a part of his life since he was a kid.
“I used to go when I was in junior high school,” he says. “I have a picture of me and three of my buddies wearing a straw hat and suspenders singing barber-shop quartet right there by the Suwannee River. Playing under those oak trees and those pines there, that never left me. The fact that they would receive me, even though I made my living in country music, is the highest honor to me, because that’s really what my earliest influences came from. It makes me feel great, and I hope they’ll always have me back. I think that’s the one thing we all have in common — Florida has left such an indelible imprint on our lives.”
There are also other acts varying widely in age and genre, including Shed himself, who is a Grammy Award-nominated country musician, as well as multi-instrumentalist one-man-band, Ben Prestage, and singer/songwriter Elaine Mahon.
“I’m a native of Florida,” Mahon says. “One of those rare Gainesville-born people who stayed here. I love the environmental aspect of Florida and would like to see it preserved, and I think there is a lot of that sentiment shared at the festival.”
Mahon, who also holds a doctorate in Astronomy, says there are many aspects of the festival that make it enticing for artists and fans.
“I think it’s good for Florida citizens to come hear music by other Florida citizens, and also learn about Florida’s history,” she says. “It’s also a community of songwriters and instrumentalists, so that is a great community to touch in with. And, it’s fun to play at night around campfires.”
Ultimately, no matter the genre, the name of the game is to keep the focus on Florida.
“The key focus is to remind the people of Florida that this is theirs,” Shed says. “It’s the real culture of Florida. It’s your festival. It’s put on by the state of Florida for the people of the state of Florida.”