Twenty years after his passing, Will McLean's voluminous work lives on in the hearts of those who desire to become more intimate with the Sunshine State. Evidence of his lasting legacy can be found each year at the festival that bears his name, where peers and proteges dedicated to keeping McLean's music alive gather to sing his songs and to pass around their own. But for Will McLean Music Festival organizer Margaret Longhill, the annual event, which kicks off today at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, offers something of a special homecoming. With it comes three days of enjoyment in the company of some of her favorite people on the planet.
And though the rigors of overseeing more than 50 performances over three days detracts from some of the fun, she takes pleasure in knowing that her late friend and companion would have loved such a gathering of kindred spirits.
"Will truly enjoyed listening to other people sing," Longhill said this week. "I think he would have been pleased to hear some of the great new Florida songs that have been presented every year and that there are so many young musicians who have come to share his vision of Florida."
McLean, who died in 1990, never achieved fame and fortune for his music. But in his 71 years, he searched his heart for the poetic expressions of Florida life that would come to symbolize his status as the state's Black Hat Troubadour.
McLean's songs spoke of a Florida that eludes residents concerned only with its modern amenities. Hold Back the Waters, perhaps his most famous ballad, was a plaintive account of the hurricane devastation of the Everglades flood of 1928. Others, like earthy Wild Hog and Tate's Hell, spoke of the dangers of pioneer life.
The ability to weave emotion and imagery into his verse not only won McLean fans far and wide, it earned him the respect of many fellow musicians, who came to know him as a warm human being.
Longtime friend and fellow tunesmith Dale Crider said McLean always valued aspects of Florida that few seemed to care for. An outspoken supporter of the environment, McLean wrote songs that serve as a wakeup call to state and local policymakers to protect the state's vanishing beauty.
"The beauty of Will's music was that it made people aware in a way that wasn't threatening to them," said Crider. "It was a more subtle message, but it worked just the same."
After a two-year relocation to Dunnellon, the Will McLean Music Festival's return to the Sertoma Youth Ranch is a welcome one, said Longhill. "It's a beautiful park and we have a lot of good memories there," she said. "I hope we'll be there for years to come."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com.