Over the span of his 71 years, Will McLean endeavored to make people see his native state in an honest, emotional light. Through songs, stories and poems, he compelled listeners to consider the irrepressible beauty that lured the earliest settlers to Florida.
He also tried to warn them of a dire fate that awaited should modern-day residents fail to protect the state's precious natural treasures.
McLean's music dealt not only with Florida's rich history, but also with the people who lived it and the creatures that inhabited it.
Songs such as the plaintive ballad Hold Back the Waters recalled the devastating blow a 1928 hurricane dealt to the Everglades region. The rich, earthy Wild Hog served as a reminder of how dangerous and unpredictable pioneer life could be. And Osceola's Last Words offered a poignant look at the great Seminole chief whom few had ever considered.
Twenty-two years after his death, McLean's voluminous work lives on in the hearts of those who respect and want to become more intimate with the Sunshine State. Evidence of his legacy can be found each year at the music festival that bears his name, where protegees and peers gather to sing his songs and to pass around some of their own.
Dale Crider, a Gainesville singer-songwriter who performed often with McLean, and who is part of the musical lineup at this weekend's Will McLean Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, said the Chipley-born singer embodied what he and many others consider essential to being a good songsmith: the ability to convey a story in a simple, straightforward manner.
"There is a real honesty to his music that draws the listener in," Crider said. "Every word he wrote sounded as if he had lived it himself."
Although revered by folk musicians and fans worldwide, McLean never achieved great fame or fortune during his lifetime. Shy and reserved, he rarely performed outside the state, preferring to remain in musical proximity with those closest to him.
However, that didn't stop McLean's songs from finding their way into the repertoires of numerous bluegrass, country and folk groups throughout the nation.
"Will's songs are pretty versatile, musically," said bluegrass mandolinist Red Henry. "I've heard Hold Back the Waters played a hundred different ways by a hundred different musicians."
A year after his death in 1990, McLean was awarded the prestigious Florida Heritage Award. He was posthumously inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1996.
Will McLean Foundation president Margaret Longhill said that although he probably would have been embarrassed to have a festival named in his honor, McLean would have loved the concept of the gathering, which includes two performance stages, plus numerous workshops for artists and songwriters.
Each year, festival organizers stage a contest for Best New Florida Song. The winners are presented during the Saturday program.
"I think that it shows how strong Will's musical legacy remains in our state," Longhill said. "There are so many young musicians who share his vision of Florida. I think he would have been proud of that."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]