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Florida Folk Festival preserves state's history

Racing along Interstate 75 at approximately the speed of life, I jumped off at Lake City and began winding my way north on U.S. 41. Flanked by fields and farms, my little car instinctively downshifted to a more pastoral pace. I rolled down the windows and took in the sounds and scents. Given that I had no horse and wagon, this seemed the only appropriate approach to a town that was about to celebrate its link with Florida history.

Every Memorial Day weekend for the past 41 years, the quiet town of White Springs erupts in song and celebration as people from all over the state come together to share a common heritage.

The Florida Folk Festival has become a strong unifying tradition and the state's finest tribute to the cultural legacy left by native and immigrant people. It is a musical and artistic extravaganza, steeped in history and dedicated to its preservation. It is ethnically diverse. It is intergenerational. It is fabulous.

Under the live oaks and longleaf pines at the Stephen Foster Memorial State Park, crafters from all over Florida demonstrated the imagination that early Floridians applied to natural materials. Using their hands or authentic rudimentary tools, they made palm frond hats, corn husk dolls, pan pipes, cow whips, leather shoes and horse shoes.

There were dramatic artists, too. The storytellers and puppeteers gave us old folk tales and American legends, reminding us that entertainment without a fast forward is still the very best kind.

And then there were the musicians. Music was the heart and soul of this festival. The festival grounds resonated with flutes and fiddles and strings of every kind, and a good mix of singing, too. In fact, singing was requisite and everyone did it. To hold back was to miss something essential, and few people did.

From the amphitheater came the music of maritime, gospel, Irish, folk, country and bluegrass. Listeners spread their quilts and deck chairs on the grassy knoll and made a day of it. Those who wanted still more made a night of it, too.

This year the festival's featured performer was Bill Monroe, a Grand Ole Opry veteran. Picking his mandolin faster than the speed of sound, at age 85 he gave a new perspective to old age.

Fired by the fiddles, dancers took to the open-air platform. All day and well into the night, the callers called and the dancers circled and spun. When the platform could no longer contain their numbers, they spilled over onto the grassy lawn. Interested observers soon found themselves in the middle of a circle. The music played and the feet responded. It was as simple as that.

And there were other dancers, too, unlikely artists who demonstrated that dancing could take most any form. This year the festival's theme was transportation, with an emphasis on the Florida railroad and an art form called Gandy dancing.

Named for the company that produced the tools, Gandy dancing was, in fact, back-breaking railroad labor performed to a series of rhythmic calls. The tools ringing against the tracks created various musical tones. The "dancing" was the rhythmic sway and thrust of the men's bodies as they attempted to lift or level the tracks.

All former railroad men, the Gandy dancers ranged in age from 65 to nearly 90. In some sense, these men best represented what the Florida Folk Festival is all about _ the passing of the culture from old to young. At this festival, to be old is to be honored. It is the old who remember the tales, who know the songs, who have spent a lifetime at their art.

If the old are viewed as the cultural reservoir, the young are valued as the wellspring. The state of Florida's apprenticeship program is perhaps the finest example of formal mentoring to be found anywhere. For the past 10 years this program has supported the effort to preserve and promote folk life and folk art by placing apprentices with master artists in various fields.

Informal mentoring is equally valued. An especially heartwarming example was observed during the children's fiddle contest. Performing in front of an intimidatingly large audience, one little boy lost his way in the middle of the tune. He stopped dead still and, dropping his bow to his side, he looked to his father for support.

Both Dad and the audience gave him all the encouragement he needed to try again. He then played flawlessly, adding a flourish in the middle and a tag at the end.

Upon receiving rousing applause, this 5-year-old fiddler took a proper bow, like a seasoned performer, and then gleefully ran from the stage and into his father's arms.

In leaving a legacy for future generations, the Florida Folk Festival is becoming a legacy. With 41 years to its credit, the festival already has seen the passing of many of its old friends _ storyteller Thelma Bolton, musician and storyteller Gamble Rogers and Florida songwriter Will McClean.

These artists have left us a piece of Florida history worth remembering. All they ask is that we continue to tell their stories and sing their songs.

As a keeper of the culture, the Florida Folk Festival is doing its part and doing it very well. It is a state treasure, an historical resource and grand entertainment besides.

Roxie Smith of Dunedin demonstrated the mountain dulcimer at this year's Florida Folk Festival.