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Making a case for folk artists

This is mostly a column about Gamble Rogers and Will McLean, and why they should be in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

But, in a way, it is also about Doug Gauss, a soft-spoken, persuasive guy who looks like somebody you would rather not get into a bar fight with, but is actually a sensitive man who doesn't forget his friends when they are gone.

Before I ever heard him perform publicly, I heard Gauss on his Welcome to Florideo, part of which he made in live performance with both Rogers and McLean, and I heard the easy rapport he had with those two entertainers whose names are bywords in the annals of Florida folk music and storytelling.

Gauss was close to both men and now speaks for what he calls the Snipes Ford Historical Society, a loosely knit group of supporters of Florida folk traditions.

Snipes Ford was a mythical town that Rogers described as "so primitive the Rabbi's name was Bubba and the Baptist Church had its own SWAT team."

When he isn't working or performing, it's not unusual to find Gauss championing some cause or another. The last time I wrote about him he was leading a _ so far unsuccessful _ movement to have Old Folks At Home removed as the Florida State Song. The song was written for a minstrel show by Stephen Foster, who had never seen the Suwannee River and who was more concerned with rhyme scheme and the arrangement of consonants than with a fair representation of Florida, its beauty or its residents. And the legal, official version is written in a thick, archaic pseudo-dialect that purports to be African-American. The entire effect, one African-American co-worker of mine once said, "sounds a lot more like some white person's idea of the perfect ending for Gone With the Wind."

Gauss is a former state employee who still works in a state capital where the governor has been known to wear a Davy Crockett hat, refer to himself as a "he-coon," and fire a potato gun so that media, children and the usual crowd of sycophants can marvel. So it took a certain courage for Gauss to take on years of tradition and the institution of slavery (which hasn't, alas, lost its appeal to all of the state's residents) in one fell swoop.

But he did.

And he has been no less adamant in his belief that McLean, who died of a heart attack in 1990 while undergoing treatment for lung cancer, and Rogers, who drowned in 1991 while trying to rescue a Canadian tourist caught in an undertow near Flagler Beach, belong in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

McLean, who wrote more than 3,000 folk songs, many of them pioneering the pro-environment movement, was a 1990 recipient of the state's Folk Heritage Award. An annual folk festival is held in his honor and the government of Marion County erected a monument to him at Gore's Landing on the Oklawaha River.

Rogers was the son of a prominent Florida family _ his grandfather designed the Florida Supreme Court Building. And he was a member of the nationally known Serendipity Singers but performed as a solo storyteller and musician for most of his 30-year career. The heroic act that cost him his life earned him the Carnegie Medal of Heroism.

Gauss thinks, and nobody who knew either man disagrees, that Rogers and McLean belong on the same list of names as Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John Ringling, John D. MacDonald, Ray Charles and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

During one recent year the Florida Arts Council bypassed McLean's nomination and, instead, placed Burt Reynolds in the Hall of Fame _ but that was before the divorce and the dumb interview he gave in that ugly purple suit.

Gauss said letters supporting either or both nominations should be addressed to Florida Secretary of State Sandra B. Mortham, who attended part of this year's White Springs Folk Festival and had a chance to see the influence of both men. Mail can be sent to Mortham at the Capitol, Tallahassee, FL 32399.