Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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Will McLean Music Festival offers must-see, must-hear moments

There will be a moment — at least one, and maybe more during the Will McLean Music Festival festival next weekend — that people will remember, talk about, and be glad they were there to see.

At least that is the way it has happened at most of the past 22 annual presentations of the festival.

For instance:

Florida folk music legend Don Grooms had taken the stage for the last set at a festival in the mid 1990s, and, with a full repertoire of humorous, poignant, socially active and original songs at his disposal, began to softly sing Florida's state song, The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).

It was the end of the festival, and everyone was a little ragged and tired and distracted. As I tried to figure out what he was doing, festival director Margaret Longhill leaned in from the side of the stage and soundly booed him.

With one folk icon booing another, whom she loved, it was time for me to put on my reporter hat and find out what was going on.

Then, when I heard Grooms use the words "ribber" for river and "ebber" for ever, I knew what was happening. He was singing what was then the official version of the song, which featured pseudo-slave dialect and was originally written about another river in another state and was intended to be performed by a white man in black face with the Christy Minstrel show.

Grooms, with several others in the Florida folk movement, was trying to get the state to substitute another song, and his simple presentation without any speeches or sign-waving brought it painfully home that the song was just wrong.

Longhill's booing was actually a form of applause.

With or without his help, the Legislature finally, in 2008, a decade after Grooms' death, changed the lyrics to a bowdlerized, but less offensive, version.

I offer that for those of you old folkies who might think social and political activism and folk music no longer mix.

You will hear other songs like Frank Thomas' Old Cracker Cowman and his late wife Ann's The Storyteller decry the destruction from unguided development and threats to marine life that are modern-day Florida problems. Frank has remarried and his current wife, Lisa, performs Ann's song, knowing others will be making comparisons but aware of the importance of the work — and does it exceptionally well.

Festival-goers will get to see Amy Carol Webb hold the audience spellbound with her rendition of Will McLean's poem, My Soul Is a Hawk, a task that used to be mine and which she does a hundred times better. Webb, who recently became an ordained minister, will also captivate (if the past is any indication) audiences with a variety of songs about everything from alcohol recovery to love to the healing power of music. She, along with Mindy Simmons and Frank Thomas, are the headline acts for Saturday night. Nationally known performer Rod McDonald headlines on Friday night.

An important part of the festival has always been the passing on of music, lyrics, traditions and skills from one generation to another. That is nowhere more evident than in seeing Dennis Devine, a do-everything musician who is 61, performing with 12-year-old Ingrid Richter, whom he has been mentoring for the past three years. Ingrid, who has also been studying classical violin since she was 6, will sometimes throw a Mozart or Vivaldi piece into the mix of mountain and bluegrass tunes, and then with a twinkle in her eye, pause at the end before playing the "shave and a haircut" ending. It isn't hard to figure out who put her up to it.

Sometimes the moment is as simple as watching longtime champion fiddler Wayne Martin break a string while playing and replace the string while continuing to play.

Mindy Simmons, a regular, will be back from Sarasota this year with her well regarded original material, punctuated every once in a while by a Peggy Lee song.

Dozens of acts will perform on two main stages and several smaller ones, which the venue at the Sertoma Youth Ranch makes possible without too much sound bleed-over.

I emcee for occasional sets at the festival but when I am not on stage I will be prowling the grounds to hear the likes of Tom Shed, James Hawkins, Carly Bak, Clyde Walker, Southwind, Ken Skeens and Leigh Goldsmith, and Mary Ann DiNella performing as a duo with her daughter, Jeannie.

I have two more past moments I want to share:

Last year singer-songwriter Pete Hennings was just coming back from a months-long battle with esophageal cancer. There was doubt whether Hennings, frankly, would be alive for the festival, and then, with his prognosis improving, whether he would be able to perform. The band, consisting of Hennings, Pete Price (another cancer survivor) and Mike Jurgensen, rewrote its arrangements so that Hennings could play without straining his throat by singing.

Only the band knew that Hennings was going to try to sing if he could, and when he leaned into the mike and nailed it, pretty much the only dry eyes in the house belonged to people who didn't know what he had been through.

At another festival, Dennis Devine and I wound up at a late-night campfire jam with a south Florida land-use attorney who has changed his name legally to his performing name, Boomslang. Joining in was Dr. Glenn Geiger, who at the time was a professor at the University of South Florida, and the evening really got off the ground when, strolling out of a fog bank, came Seminole Tribal Chairman Jim Billie.

"What are you going to write about this," Devine asked as we walked away.

"Easy," I answered. "I just heard music performed by a doctor, a lawyer and an Indian chief."

See you at the festival.

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