Twenty years ago, at a memorial service for Florida troubadour Will McLean, the crowd overflowed the Thomas Center in Gainesville, and, after the service, an impromptu concert began in the parking lot.
Some of Florida's finest folk musicians played, long, late and beautifully — and they'll still be playing in McLean's honor next weekend, Friday through Sunday at the Sertoma Youth Ranch north of Dade City.
"That night at the Thomas Center," said Margaret Longhill, McLean's longtime companion and president emeritus of the Will McLean Foundation for Florida Heritage of Music, "reminded me of a remark Will had once made about 'feeling the love pour out' at his concerts, and you can still feel it."
McLean was born in 1919 near Chipley in the Panhandle and spent most of his life in the woods writing songs — more than 3,000 of them by some counts, nearly all of them about the state's history, legends and scenic beauty.
He developed a nationwide reputation, performing at venues including Carnegie Hall and with folk greats like Pete Seeger.
The festival, a three-day celebration of music, food, crafts, art and fun, has evolved over the past two decades into one of Florida's premier folk events.
Through it all, Longhill, who hates it when I refer to her as the grand dame of Florida Folk, has built, nurtured, protected and loved the foundation and the festival and been the undisputed driving force of its growth and success.
This year, at 90, she announced that she is ready to step aside (by no means out) and begin shifting some of the festival duties to others.
"It has been an exhilarating ride," Longhill said, "and I expect the festival will be even more exciting as a new generation takes over the leadership positions with grace and fresh talent."
Bari Litschauer, for instance, has taken on the job of scheduling more than 80 acts at three venues (and a few smaller workshop tents) over the three days, a delicate task balancing acts, audiences and the occasional ego, which requires talents like knowing that an act on one stage can't perform if their bass player is performing with another act on another stage.
Litschauer and her husband, Ron, who perform as a duo and with the Roadside Revue, also operate the Amp Shop and Music Parlor in West Palm Beach, selling and repairing sound systems and musical instruments. They also produce folk and acoustic CDs for some of the state's top acts, and Ron Litschauer will bring his talents to the festival by overseeing improvements on the festival's main stage that will make it more acoustic-friendly for the musicians.
"We are moving a lot toward showcasing young performers," said Bari Litschauer, adding that at least eight youth acts would perform, and that young musicians would also present workshops on songwriting, guitar, fiddle and banjo.
Headline acts for the festival's most-watched Saturday night slot include performers with national reputations. Sarasota's Mindy Simmons opens the show at 8 p.m.; followed by Rod McDonald, a superb songwriter, performer and, I learned recently, lecturer on Bob Dylan; and then Songweaver Amy Carol Webb of Miami; followed by Larry Mangum of Jacksonville. This, purists will realize, is what folk music is really about, with performers who do not shy away from social or political issues and who remind us that the genre is alive and well.
Friday performances begin at 12:30 p.m. and run until 9:45 p.m. featuring, among others, Veronica Jackson, Lucky Mud, Jeannie Fitchen, Garrison Doles and, one of the aforementioned up-and-coming youth groups, Jubal's Kin.
Three stages will open simultaneously at 10 a.m. Saturday beginning a day and evening of appearances by old favorites like Frank Thomas, Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters, Doug Spears, Mary Ann DiNella and Dennis Devine.
Sunday acts include the Roadside Review and one set you shouldn't miss: "Florida Daughters of Folk," comprised of Jeannie Fitchen, Amy Carol Webb and Mindy Simmons. This will be the third year the three have appeared together and it is a show-stopper every time.
Southwind, Tom Shed and Peter's Road Swamp Blues band will appear Sunday on the Cypress Stage.
As usual, the festival will conclude with the Hour of Power beginning at 5 p.m. Sunday with selected artists performing one Will McLean song each until the traditional finale of every available performers singing Hold Back The Water.
In the interests of transparency, let me acknowledge that I have had the honor of being affiliated with the festival for all but two of its years, and that its promoters and organizers have allowed me to serve as one of several masters of ceremonies … mostly because they have heard me sing and will do anything to make sure that I never do that (in public) again.
The Sertoma Youth Ranch is situated 7 miles west of Dade City. From Interstate 75, take exit 293 (Blanton Road), go east for about a mile and a half, turn north at Clay Hill Road, then continue on Myers Road to the ranch.
Tickets at the gate are $35 for the entire weekend (divide $35 by 80 acts to get an idea of the value); $15 for Friday only, $18 for Saturday only and $15 for Sunday only.
If the campground is not full, there will be on-site camping available. For information on camping call (352) 465-7208. For information about the festival visit www.willmclean.com.
See you there.