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HER SONGS GIVE VOICE

History isn't always made in the rumble of distant artillery, the shrill frenzy of social discord or the pompous meanderings of governmental bodies.

Sometimes it happens in a quiet, beautiful place against the auditory backdrop of children playing in the tannin-browned waters of the Suwannee River, with the smell of frying green tomatoes from a nearby food booth in the air.

It was there that a small but appreciative audience heard the crystal-clear soprano voice of a woman singing from the pain of a recently cracked heart; singing tastefully about a subject that seldom surfaces above the normally placid and traditionally puritan waters of the Florida Folk Festival's musical pond.

And many who were there had no idea that Bonnie Whitehurst, in her own quiet way, was changing things a little.

Whitehurst, 40, a child prodigy grown into a folk artist in the most eclectic sense of the term, doesn't come across as a revolutionary, and even had a doubt or two about her song choice _ Fred Small's Every Thing Possible, which, like some of Small's other songs, deals with same-sex relationships.

"I agonized over that," she said, "and the intent wasn't to offend or shock, but there were things going on in my life and the lives of others at the time that made me want to go ahead and sing it."

The Florida folk movement, with a few notable exceptions, runs heavily toward issues like manatees, mangroves and mismanagement of resources. True enough, the movement's patriarch, Don Grooms, has taken potshots at motor homes, the CIA and television evangelists; Lake Wales' Frank Thomas has been known to punch racism in its white-sheeted nose and Tampa-St. Petersburg based Southwind has covered a wide gamut from South Africa to El Salvador to motherhood and poverty.

But squirmy issues _ the ones that nobody brings up at dinner parties _ are generally not part of the genteel tradition of the White Springs Florida Folk Festival.

Abortion, gay rights, sexism, racism and class struggle are infrequent visitors to a movement that has at least some of its roots in the struggles of farm workers and miners in the '30s, African-Americans for the past 150 years, pacifists in the '60s and the downtrodden of the last two centuries.

The late Cousin Thelma Boltin, the grand dame who ruled the festival with a steel fist for most of its 44-year history, was known to literally pull the plug on musicians whose lyrics, costumes or instrumentation met with her disapproval. She would stop an entire concert if a man in the outdoor audience took off his shirt. Women performers who dare venture on stage today wearing pants still say they can feel her withering stare and are quite certain they would be struck dead if they tried it in shorts.

And so a few educated ears perked up when Whitehurst sang:

Some women love women.

Some men love men.

Some raise children.

Some never do.

Small, the gifted songwriter, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., often lashes out at modern and historical wrongs and several of his songs deal openly and poignantly with the subject of gay rights.

Whitehurst was aghast at a recent Florida case where a judge awarded child custody to a convicted murder rather than to his wife, who was a lesbian.

"I guess I was feeling it a little more that day in White Springs," said Whitehurst, "because I had lost custody of my own children three days earlier."

Sexual orientation did not play a part in her dispute with her ex-husband, well-known Clearwater artist Gareth Whitehurst and, citing her children's privacy and sensitivities, she declines to discuss the case on the record.

"It isn't just lesbians," she said. "I'm seeing a lot of sexism and reverse sexism in a system people used to see loaded in favor of the mother. I'm seeing women lose custody because they smoke, because they are in mixed-race relationships, one because she had a sister who was a lesbian watch her child while she was at work, other working mothers because they had to leave their children with professional day care. It's just wrong."

And, she points out, the Small song is not an anthem for gay rights, but rather a celebration of humanity and love in all of its forms.

Whitehurst is well known to local audiences for an unbelievably eclectic repertoire combined with expertise in playing many instruments.

She began training as a classical pianist at 3. She also frequently accompanies herself on a harp, guitar, lap and hammered dulcimers, a psaltry, autoharp, penny whistle and several percussion instruments.

She has a bachelor's degree in ethnomusicology from Oakland University in Rochester, Minn., and a master's in music theory from the University of South Florida.

A Methodist turned Unitarian Universalist, she not only serves as a vocalist and musician at her own church in Clearwater, but performs at Spiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor and serves as cantor at Congregation B'nai Emmunah synagogue in Tarpon Springs.

Her most recent release, the multilingual and multicultural Songs of the Broadloom, was released in 1994. Like her other releases, it was recorded and mixed by Dade City engineer Bill Dudley, who has a statewide reputation in the field. It includes folk music as diverse as the Romanian Joc din Bihor and the Serbian Niska Banja and Will McLean's Florida Sand.

She also plays at a variety of arts and civic events throughout the state, and her recent re-entry into the White Springs Florida Folk Festival saw her rise from a one-time status working as a volunteer cleaning toilets in the musicians' campground to performing on that event's Marble and Amphitheater stages.

She is one of the few performing folk musicians in Florida who rely solely on their music as a source of income. "You have to stay very busy playing a lot of places for a lot of people to do that," she said.

And there is more to come.

Whitehurst's earlier works contain a smattering of self-written songs, but she plans to change that with a work in progress planned for release late this year or early next year. Songs of Myself, the working title, will feature 16 original songs on subjects such as town characters, children, the end of relationships and, yes, child custody.

One of those songs, a sort of 1990s version of the traditional Grandma's Featherbed is titled Grandma's Waterbed and breaks _ yet again _ new ground for music heard in folk circles in the Sunshine State in ways best not spoiled for prospective listeners.

"I definitely see Songs of Myself as a turning point in my life and in my career," Whitehurst said, "but that's no reason not to have a little fun while I'm at it."

Bonnie Whitehurst in concert

Bonnie Whitehurst will appear at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Village Garden Coffee House, 37836 Meridian Ave., Dade City. Cover $7. Reservations required. Call (352) 567-1877. Whitehurst will also appear at 8 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Studio Art Center, 114 NE Fifth St., Crystal River. Call (352) 795-2289. Tickets $5.

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