Listen and Watch song samples from the new “Tribute” CD below:
(To pre-order a CD, please send $15.00 to: Jessie Townsend, 13501 SE 171st Lane Hawthorne, FL 32640)
Jessie and Lee Townsend recently went back into the studio to record six more songs to add to their CD Sampler. The CD will now have 12 songs and be titled, “Tribute” as it will have songs from several of Florida’s best songwriters past and present including Will McLean, Steve Blackwell, Jim Ballew, Dale Crider, Don Grooms and Ann Thomas to name a few.
Below you will find music videos of five of the songs included on the project followed by audio samples from all of the songs on the CD including “Crying Bird,” written by the late Will McLean about the potential demise of the Florida Limpkin; “Lonesome Wind Blues,” written by the late Wayne Raney and made popular by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe; “When I Die” written by the late Jim Ballew; “Oh Kissimmee River” written by environmental troubadour Dale Crider from Windsor, FL and “Wild Birds” written by the late Don Grooms.
Jessie and Lee were joined in the studio for this CD by Chris Henry (guitar, mandolin and vocal harmony), Red Henry (fiddle, mandolin and vocal harmony), David McBrady (bass and vocal harmony), Jason Thomas (mandolin). Gabe Valla (rhythm guitar), Christian Ward (fiddle), Elisabeth Williamson (vocal harmony) and Lon Williamson (bass).
Lonesome Wind Blues
When I Die
Oh Kissimmee River
Kentucky Borderline(written by Rhonda Vincent and Terry Herd) Performing on this fast-paced bluegrass tune that was the 2004 IBMA Song of the Year are Lee on banjo, Jessie singing the lead vocal, Jason Thomas on mandolin, Gabe Valla on rhythm guitar, Christian Ward on fiddle, David McBrady on bass and Elisabeth Williamson singing vocal harmony.
Bury Me Beneath The Willow This traditional bluegrass song features Jessie singing the lead vocal, Lee on guitar and David McBrady on bass and vocal harmony.
Nails In My Coffin(written by Gerald Irby) This song orginally written in 1946 features Lee on banjo and rhythm guitar, Jessie singing lead vocal, Elisabeth Williamson on vocal harmony, Christian Ward on fiddle and David McBrady on bass and vocal harmony.
If I Needed You(written by Townes Van Zandt) features Jessie singing the lead vocal, Lee on guitar, Christian Ward on fiddle, David McBrady on bass and Elisabeth Williamson and David McBrady on vocal harmony.
Macclenny Farewell(written by Will McLean) This love song written by the late Father of Florida Folk features Jessie on the lead vocal, Lee on guitar and David McBrady on bass.
The Line(written by Steve Blackwell) The line was written by the late Steve Blackwell from Punta Gorda who penned this beautiful song about someone reflecting on all of the family members who have gone on before. This rendition of the song features Jessie singing the lead vocal, Lee on guitar and Lon Williamson on bass.
Oh Kissimmee River (written by Dale Crider) Oh Kissimmee River written by environmental troubadour from Windsor, FL, Dale Crider, brings attention to the disastrous environmental effects of trying to straighten the Kissimmee River. This version features Jessie singing the lead vocal, Lee on banjo, Chris Henry on guitar, Red Henry on mandolin and David McBrady on bass.
When I Die (written by Jim Ballew) When I Die is one of the most beautiful songs ever written by the late Jim Ballew. It features Jessie on vocals, Lee on guitar, Chris Henry on mandolin, Red Henry on fiddle and David McBrady on bass.
Cryin’ Bird (written by Will McLean) Cryin’ Bird by Will McLean brings attention to the potential extinction of Florida’s Limpkin because of the lack of food resources the Limpkin eats in the Wakulla River. Jessie sings vocal, Lee plays guitar, Chris Henry plays mandolin, Red Henry is on the fiddle and David McBrady is on bass. Elisabeth Williamson adds vocal harmony.
Lonesome Wind Blues (written by Wayne Raney) Lonesome Wind Blues is a very traditional bluegrass song. It was originally recorded in 1947 by Wayne Raney and later made famous by the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe. In this version Jessie sings the vocals with harmony added by Chris and Red Henry. Lee plays banjo, Chris Henry plays guitar, Red Henry is on the mandolin and David McBrady is on the bass.
Wild Birds (written by Don Grooms) Wild Birds is a love song written by the late Don Grooms. Jessie sings the vocals, Lee is on guitar, Chris Henry is on mandolin, Red Henry is on fiddle and David McBrady is on bass.
Lost Tourist’s Letter Home (written by Ann Thomas) In this tongue-in-cheek song the late Ann Thomas pokes fun at what a lost tourist would write home about if he or she got off a tour bus in the middle of Florida. Jessie sings vocals, Lee plays banjo, Chris Henry is on guitar, Red Henry is on mandolin and David McBrady is on bass
Jessie and Lee have been performing for several years. Venues have included the Florida Folk Festival, the Will McLean Festival, the Alachua and Micanopy Festivals, bluegrass events in Waldo, the Christmas Candelight program at Disney World and a variety of other church services and community events.
To pre-order a CD, please send $15.00 to:
Jessie Townsend 13501 SE 171st Lane
Hawthorne, FL 32640
The Father of Florida Folk, the late Will McLean, loved to entertain and share songs, poems and stories of the lore and legends of Florida. Unfortunately, most of those performances were not captured on video or audio tape. When those performances were recorded, it was special indeed.
Here are four such videos made possible when his music buddy, the late Don Grooms, brought Will to a studio in Gainesville. The first video is Will singing his most famous song, “Hold Back The Waters,” about the 1928 hurricane that drowned between three and four thousand people around Lake Okeechobee. (You will see Will when he starts singing at about :24 seconds in)
It’s been said Will McLean wrote his song, “Florida Sand,” after returning home from WWII where he had been taken as a POW in the Philippines. When he landed in Florida he kissed the ground and said he would only write about his beloved Florida Sand. In this video his friend Lais provided dance interpretation of the song.
Will McLean spent many of his early years with his grandfather who took him to a variety of places in Florida. Those travels influenced Will’s songwriting, poems and stories. Many of those writings bring attention to Will’s concern about Florida’s environment. That concern is very evident in his song, “Lament.” Lais also interprets this song through dance.
Today hundreds of singer songwriters have been inspired to write songs about Florida because of Will McLean’s passion for the state. Will’s dear music buddy, the late Don Grooms, wrote one of his most famous songs, “Vitachuko,” because of Will’s inspiration. It’s about the bloody skirmish between Native American Chief Vitachuko and Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto. Grooms said when he played it for McLean Will said, “Grooms you have finally justified your existence.” In this recording Will accompanies Grooms by playing harmonica. The late Tim DeMass is playing bass. (You will see a closeup of Will on the harmonica at about two minutes into the video and at the end of the song.)
To go back to the page “Will McLean: The Father of Florida Folk” CLICK HERE:
To go to the official Will McLean website CLICK HERE
The 1988 Pines and Palms television program hosted by the late Don Grooms featured several singer songwriters who have since passed on. They may have left this earthly life, but their music lives on. Their songs can still be heard on the stages of many music festivals around the state.
In 1988, Grooms who was working as a telecommunication professor at the University of Florida, gathered together several of his greatest music friends including Bobby Hicks from the Tampa area, Seminole Chief James Billie from South Florida, Frank and Ann Thomas from Lake Wales and Dale and Linda Crider from Windsor.
The program was recorded in the studios of WUFT-TV in Gainesville. This is a very rare recording as many of the archival tapes from that time period have been destroyed or have been lost. Thanks to Frank Counts who was the producer-director for this program, this copy still exists. Frank was a telecommunication assistant professor at UF and worked for 37 years as the Production Manager for WUFT-TV before his retirement in 2010.
The program ran nearly an hour. To make it easier to watch, the program is broken up into four separate segments below:
Pines and Palms Part 1
Part 1 includes Bobby Hicks singing, “I’m Florida Need I Say More,” Frank and Ann Thomas singing, “Cracker Cowman,” and Don Grooms singing, “Winnebago.”
Pines and Palms Part 2
Part 2 includes James Billie singing his “Big Alligator” song and a song about a bashful star. Also featured are two songs from Dale and Linda Crider: “Under the Southern Bald Eagle” and “Last Live Photo”
Pines and Palms Part 3
Part 3 includes Don Grooms as he sings “Vitachuko.” Bobby Hicks sings his Condo/Hurricane song. Frank and Ann Thomas sing their song “Buttermilk Biscuits” and their song about “Sam Jones.” James Billie sings his song “Back To The Swamp.”
Pines and Palms Part 4
Part 4 includes Bobby Hicks singing a song about “Zachariah Creech,” Dale and Linda Crider perform their “Proof In the Wild Turkey Sign,” and Don Grooms sings, “Walk Proud My Son.”
The 2016 Will McLean Music Festival was a tremendous success for the Jessie and Lee TownsendBand. If you didn’t have an opportunity to go, you can watch a few of their performances on the Magnolia, Azalea and Cypress Stages below. Thanks to Red Henry, Andy Garfield and David McBrady for lending their musical talents to the weekend. Jessie and Lee couldn’t have done it without you.
The overall goal of their music sets was to honor many of the Florida songwriters who have passed on, but who have left a wonderful legacy with their music including Will McLean, Don Grooms, Jim Ballew, and Ann Thomas. They also wanted to include music from two of their favorite musicians, environmental troubadour Dale Crider and the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.
In the 1970s Dale Crider from Windsor was working as a wildlife biologist for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. Through his job he saw firsthand the negative effects on the environment of the government’s decision to straighten the Kissimmee River in Florida and wrote a song about it. Here is the Jessie and Lee Townsend Band’s rendition of Dale’s song, “Oh Kissimmee River.”
The late Will McLean (1919-1990) wrote hundreds of songs, stories and poems. Many were about Florida’s critters and unique characters as well as Florida history. He also wrote a love song called, “Macclenny Farewell.” Here is Jessie and Lee’s version of that song accompanied by Andy Garfield on guitar and David McBrady on bass on the Azalea Stage at the festival.
Will McLean loved to write about Florida’s unique creatures….from sea turtles crawling up on the beach on Conch Island to sandhill cranes and panthers. He also wrote a beautiful song about the Florida Limpkin called, “Cryin’ Bird.” Here is Jessie and Lee’s interpretation of that song performed on the Magnolia Stage during the Hour of Power at the festival.
The late Jim Ballew often played with the late Gamble Rogers, Paul Champion and Will McLean at festivals around the state. He was not only a great musician, but a fine songwriter. One of his most beautiful songs was called, “When I Die.” Jessie and Lee Townsend recently learned this beautiful song and were accompanied by Red Henry on fiddle, Andy Garfield on guitar and David McBrady on bass on the Cypress Stage at the Will McLean Festival.
Frank and Ann Thomas entertained Florida audiences for decades. Many of their songs capture Florida history. The late Ann Thomas also had a comical side as in her song, “Lost Tourist’s Letter Home.” Here is the Jessieand Lee Townsend Band’s rendition of her song performed on the Azalea Stage.
The late Don Grooms wrote some very funny songs….but he also had some very serious and poignant songs such as Vitachuko and Tsali about important native American leaders. In “Wild Birds” he wrote about a difficult relationship where one of the persons just couldn’t stay in one place for long. Here is the Jessie and Lee Townsend Band’s version of the song performed on the Cypress Stage.
Another highlight for Jessie and Lee at the 2016 Will McLean Music Festival was the opportunity to participate in a special tribute to longtime Will McLean Foundation Director, Margaret Longhill on Saturday night. Jessie and Lee represented the young people who have been inspired by Longhill to perform Florida songs. During the presentation they performed Will McLean’s love song, “Macclenny Farewell.” They were joined on stage by bass player David McBrady. The song is about 27 minutes into the presentation below:
Jessie and Lee love bluegrass music, especially Bill Monroe tunes. Here are three versions of Bill Monroe’s Lonesome Wind Blues. The first is from their set on the Cypress Stage with some great picking by Red Henry, Andy Garfield and David McBrady at the Cypress Stage.
The Jessie and Lee Townsend band also performed Bill Monroe’s song, “Lonesome Wind Blues” on the Azalea Stage.
And here’s the version of the song while jamming in the parking lot:
Lee Townsend and Andy Garfield have been performing together since they played in a high school bluegrass band at P.K. Yonge High School in Gainesville. Since then they’ve performed at a wide variety of events and festivals in North Central Florida. Here they are performing, ” Up 18 North,” written by the Kruger Brothers, on the Azalea Stage at the 2016 Will McLean Festival.
Jessie and Lee Townsend’s CD, “Tribute” Now Available
Jessie and Lee have recorded their first professional CD at Gatorbone Studios in Keystone Heights. Click here to listen to song samples and to find out how to order one.
Click here to hear full length archival interviews with Will McLean (recorded by Donna Green-Townsend in 1985 & 1987)
Will McLean is considered the “Father of Florida Folk.” The “Black Hat Troubadour” travelled all across his beloved state writing hundreds of poems, songs and stories. After his death in 1990 he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Each year Florida singer songwriters gather at the Will McLean Folk Festival to honor him. McLean wanted to save Florida through his music. Each year the Will McLean Foundation holds a “Best New Florida Song Contest” to keep McLean’s mission alive.
Donna Green-Townsend interviewed McLean 5 years before his death in 1985 and again in 1987. She also talked with some of the musicians who were inspired to write about Florida because of Will McLean. (Scroll down to see the full feature transcript. You can also hear Will’s most popular songs below)
In 1988 Will McLean joined storyteller Cousin Thelma Boltin and his music buddy Gamble Rogers in Cross Creek, FL for the 50th Anniversary of “The Yearling” celebration at the farm of the late Pulitizer Prize-winning author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. See a few snippets from a rare video recorded at that event below:
In January of 1990, following a Memorial Service at Gainesville’s Historic Thomas Center, friends gathered at Gore’s Landing to disperse Will McLean’s ashes into the Ocklawaha River. Before he died, McLean told Margaret Longhill that he had hoped to light a small campfire one last time at Gore’s Landing, his favorite campsite. Some of those in attendance were Margaret Longhill, Don Grooms, Dale Crider and family, Donna Green-Townsend and family, Wayne Martin and Bobby Hicks to name a few. In this brief never before published or broadcast recording, you will hear a small portion of that special ceremony at the river:
Transcription of the feature above:
Will McLean, “It’s very important that Florida keep her past and I’m but one of the few writers and I have not even scratched the surface of the richness and the deepness of the lore and legends of Florida.” (Florida Sand)
Musician Pete Seeger once wrote, “Will McLean’s songs will be sung as long as there is a Florida.” McLean lived a simple life, always steering away from fame and fortune just when it seemed he had achieved it. Most of the time he travelled the state in dilapidated vehicles, only taking with him a bag of taters and onions, a fishing hook and a bottle of cheap wine, pawning many of his guitars. In a never-before aired interview, McLean shared his story in 1985, just five years before his death.
Will McLean, “I’m a millionaire a million times over. I’m not talking about money rich. I’m rich in the beauty of Florida and nature.”
That earthy spirit lives on today in many of the Florida songwriters attending the annual Will McLean Music Festival named in his honor. Singer Songwriter from Windsor, Dale Crider, “I think he made a lot of people in Florida aware that they could write and sing and dance and perform Florida.”
Florida’s Black Hat Troubadour was known for his genteel manner, but his voice thundered on the marble stage of the Florida Folklife Festival in White Springs as he captured stories in song about green turtles laying eggs on the shores of St. Augustine (Conch Island)
and Sandhill Cranes in Payne’s Prairie, and some not so pretty stories about a wild hog in Gulf Hammock (Wild Hog)
and a panther chase resulting in a deadly encounter with a snake in Tate’s Hell. (Tate’s Hell)
Singer-Songwriter Don Groomswas one of Will McLean’s closest musical buddies, “Will liked songs about individual human beings and if you pay attention to his repertoire of songs there was Cush Holston, Scotty the drummer, the guy in Tate’s Hell, Osceola.” (Osceola)
Will McLean inspired many songwriters to explore the heritage of the state and themselves. Grooms, a Native American, remembers how McLean encouraged him to write the story of the bloody skirmish between the Spanish explorers and Native Americans in Payne’s Prairie.
Don Grooms, “I came up with a five minute song called “Vitachuco” and I played it for Will and he said play that for me again and after I finished he said, ‘Grooms you have finally justified your existence.” (Vitachuco)
One of the first singer/songwriters to carry on Will McLean’s love for Florida through song is musician and wildlife biologist Dale Crider. Crider has entertained national and international audiences with his wildlife and wilderness songs, and he credits his beginning to Will McLean: (Hold Back The Waters)
Dale Crider, “Hold Back the Waters was the song that started my whole career in writing about the environment. Will was singing that on stage at the Florida Folklife Festival and I said, ya, ya, if it can be that good you know to sing about a place or a region or an object in Florida, I can do that.”
Both Dale Crider and Don Grooms helped to disperse Will McLean’s ashes into the Ocklawaha River on January 18th, 1990. Dale emotionally recalls how his friend’s last wishes coincided so well with his on-going desire to return to the land where the wind is born.
Dale Crider, “And I envisioned that that night there were herons and egrets that caught minnows that had Will’s ashes in them and flew him up to the tree tops and roosted him that night and actually his soul could have been transferred to something like a hawk.” (My Soul Is A Hawk)
Will loved to watch the Florida Sandhill Cranes “dance and prance” on Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville, FL. One of his more beloved songs described the experience. Here’s a video recorded of sandhill cranes produced by Donna Green-Townsend with Will singing his “Courtship Dance of the Florida Sandhill Crane” to music played by musician and luthier David Beede and Kate Kennedy (music recorded at one of Will’s last live recorded concerts at the historic Thomas Center in Gainesville in Nov. of 1985).
Will McLean and Cousin Thelma Boltin Share Christmas Memories (aired on WUFT in December of 1987)
Transcription of the Feature: (Oh Christmas Tree) Computerized teddy bears and video cassette recorders are a long way from the gifts of fruit and simple toys of Christmases past. Folklorist Cousin Thelma Boltin and singer song writer Will McLean share some of their most memorable Christmases.
Cousin Thelma Boltin: “In early times everybody went out and cut their own Christmas trees. It was unthinkable to buy a tree and there was no such thing as an artificial tree. That would have been disgraceful to have an artificial tree. And it was always a great day when we decided we’d go get the tree and we didn’t get it too long before Christmas. But in the early days we’d go out with the horse and wagon and then in modern times we’d go out in the model T or in the Coca Cola Truck because my daddy was the Coca Cola man. And we loved to get a Cedar, that was our favorite kind. But if we couldn’t find a Cedar, as they got scarce, um, we’d get a shortleaf pine. It smells so wonderful in the house. It’s a little more difficult to decorate than the Cedar and a Cypress was pretty but boy it was sticky and hard to handle and do anything with. And once or twice I can remember, and this was before our Cedar was protected, and thank goodness it is protected, it’s against the law to cut Cedar down anywhere, I mean cut Holly, and we would get a Holly tree. And of course that was sticky, but it was beautiful because especially if it were full of berries.” (OH CHRISTMAS TREE).
Cousin Thelma Boltin: “We never did decorate our tree until Christmas Eve and we used the parlor on state occasions and this was a state occasion so the fire would be built in the fireplace and the candles put on the mantlepiece and then we’d decorate our tree. In early days, I don’t believe, we never did put candles on our tree. Momma considered that too dangerous and we hailed with delight the day when we could get strings of electric lights to put on the tree. And of course, it was easy to get pretty ornaments from Woolworths and from what was the other ten cent store, we had two in town, McCrowry’s and get beautiful ornaments. We never did string popcorn to go on our tree but we put ropes of tinsel on it. And oh we just thought our tree was the prettiest one in the neighborhood of course. A child asked me today if we ever slept in the living room you know with the tree and we said ‘oh no, Santy Claus couldn’t come if we stayed with the Christmas tree. But of course we were up long before day to see what Santy had left us.” (Jolly ‘Ole St. Nick)
Will McLean: “Well, my first recollection is of a contraption bought that you could ride on. I got a little ‘ole bitty, tiny kind of like a kitty car thing. It was all painted up good uh, kind of a tricycle and I don’t know why I thought about that. It was the first thing that came to my mind. And of course over the fireplace we’d hang uh an old knit, Thelma you remember those old socks that uh they used to cost about a nickel a pair, old red and blue socks. Kind of cotton socks. We’d nail them up over the mantel and this was Christmas Eve.” (Silent Night)
Will McLean: “Lady Boltin asked me once about if I could recall shootin’ firecrackers on Christmas. And uh, I couldn’t remember ever at that early stage, early Christmases, shootin’ any kind of a firecracker or explosives. But to get back to the stockin’ and Christmas mornin’, uh most the times I would have a little ‘ole 25 cent American Ace harmonica in the stockin’ wrapped in tissue paper and I’d have a piece of ‘ole peppermint stick candy and usually an apple, and an orange and a banana and I hope this won’t create any problems, three little nuts that uh, they were Brazil nuts. You remember what we used to call them?(laugh) But anyway, that was Christmas and of course on Christmas Day the big ‘ole table in the dining room. There’d be about 25 or 30 people there. And kids runnin’ around everywhere. All the families and mothers and their children there. Uh, lord you could just smell the wonderful, wonderful and that, those were my Christmases up until I was about nine years of age. And it’s good to go back there and think about it in time and place, be with my granddaddy and the people that I loved and who loved me.” (Chesnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
Cousin Thelma Boltin: “One of the things that we always got, we wore them out one year to the next were skates. We loved Skates and always asked Santy to bring us skates (laugh). And always on Christmas Eve for supper we had oyster stew. That was the Christmas Eve supper ‘cuz it was easy to fix and everybody liked it. We could do it in a hurry and get in the living room to fix the tree (chuckle). And that went on for many, many years. And then I went off to college and I shocked the neighbors by not going to FSU or Florida State College for women in those days. They weren’t allowed. Ladies didn’t go to the University until the late 40s you know. So I went to Emmerson College in Boston and that was truly Yankee land in everyway and so I had my first White Christmas up there. (White Christmas) I was such a long way away that I stayed up there for the Christmas holidays and I had made friends with a fellow freshman. Her name was Juliet Phillips and she took pity on me and invited me out to her home in Jamaica Plain and oh it was a thrill. Everybody in Jamaica Plain it seemed to me put lighted candles in their windows from the attic to the basement and to get out on the street and see all those candles just after dark was a thrilling thing. And we decided that we would go into Boston. This was on Christmas Eve and up on Beacon Hill there was a tradition of having carol singers and bellringers and no cars were allowed up there. Everybody walked. And uh, many homes up there had open house and they’d be serving oh hot cider and goodies, doughnuts and the carol singers would be first on this corner and then on that corner. And then we’d come upon the bellringers. Then right at midnight over on the piazza a beautiful old Trinity church uh trumpeters stepped out and played ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’.” (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)
Many of Will McLean’s stories, poems, music recordings and photos are being housed in a special library at the College of Central Florida. Gallery of Photos below are courtesy of the Will McLean Foundation
(originally aired on Florida Public Radio in January of 1998)
Don Grooms won the prestigious Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1996. Grooms, who taught for more than three decades in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, was influenced by the late “Father of Florida Folk,” Will McLean. Grooms passed away on January 10, 1998. Donna Green-Townsend talked with some of the musicians who knew him best.
In the late 1980s Don Grooms brought his musical buddies Will McLean and Tim DeMass into the studio to record his song Vitachuko. Tim DeMass is on bass and the Father of Florida Folk, Will McLean, played harmonica. Grooms said in an interview that when he first played the song for McLean Will said, “Grooms you have finally justified your existence.”
Don Grooms and Tim DeMass also recorded Don’s song Hills of Caroline and Tsali.
Singer songwriter and musician Tom Shed played a pivotal role in helping Don Grooms produce his CD “Walk Proud.” In this special, which aired in the late 90s, Shed talks about why this project was so special. You’ll also hear many of Don Grooms’ best songs.
In September of 1988 Grooms hosted a a television program called, “Pines and Palms”on WUFT-TV. Guests included Frank and Ann Thomas, Dale and Linda Crider, James Billie and Bobby Hicks. The hour long program can be seen by clicking this link.
Ten years later, in May of 1998, five months after Grooms died, Don’s friends in the folk music community gave him a tribute on the main stage at the Florida Folk Festival. The tribute became part of “The Gatherings”series of programs aired on WUFT. Here’s the link to that tribute.
Below is the full transcript of the tribute program on Don Grooms featured above which was included in the 26-part series called, “The Gatherings”
This week on the Gatherings we feature a special tribute to Don Grooms, a man who’s influence on Florida Folk music and art earned him the 1996 Florida Folk Heritage Award.
Florida lost a folk music giant in 1998 with the death of folk singer/songwriter Don Grooms of Gainesville. Grooms was a mainstay of the state’s oldest official folk festival. Less than a year before his death the thousands gathered in White Springs heard and sang along with the artist whose Cherokee looks and humorous lyrics made him stand out from the rest. He wrote songs about his native American heritage, love songs and he had a flair for social commentary—both serious and humorous. One of the crowd favorites was Grooms’ song Winnebagos” which poked fun at the tourists and snowbirds traveling the interstate to Florida.
In May of 1997, Florida’s Don Grooms performed at the Florida Folk Festival for the last time. One of the songs he performed that Memorial Weekend was his song Winnebago, a social commentary on tourism. Although he was a crowd favorite in recent years, many folk music lovers may not know the story behind his success at White Springs. In one of his last interviews before his death, Grooms shared how while working as a judge at an old time fiddler’s convention in Union Grove North Carolina, he was approached by a singer/songwriter who soon became his closest music buddy…..the late Will McLean. It was McLean who introduced Grooms more than two decades ago at White Springs and brought him out of a self-imposed musical slump. Grooms said,
“ I reached a point once before, twice before where you get a standing ovation and then after a while it becomes necessary and uh, so I walked away from it and Will insisted I go to the festival with him and then right in the middle of his set he said, “And there’s this guy I’d like you to hear,” so uh he did that about the next three festivals I was at and then I was hooked again.”
Grooms’ primary income came from his teaching position at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in Gainesville, a position he held for thirty years. But his true love was always folk music and he found ways to mesh the two loves when 27 years ago in what could be classified now as a bittersweet program, Don served as host and producer of a television special called Florida Sand on WUFT-TV in Gainesville. The program featured Groom’s friends and folk music legends Gamble Rogers, Will McLean and Dale Crider:
Singer songwriter and friend Dale Crider says his fondest memory of Grooms will be the day they both helped to disperse the ashes of Will McLean into the Ocklawaha River in 1990.
“I appeared on the stage with Don a number of times, but the way I felt closest with him was in touching Will McLean’s ashes. We both had our hands in Will McLean’s ashes down at Gore’s Landing at the same time and we sort of like pitched it into the water and fed the minnows. And Don was always a smoker and Will was always a smoker and Don had gone and gotten some cigarettes and pitched the cigarettes after Will. I wouldn’t have thought of that you know, but it was very important that Will have some smokes on his way downriver and some cheap wine.”
Although Crider says he wasn’t particularly fond of such Grooms’ songs as “A Wet Dog Stinks”….he says he will always remember Grooms’ humor.
“He had a lot of good musicians that played with him, but he was mostly an entertainer, he wanted to make people laugh and he wanted to write songs that would make them laugh too.”
Longtime pickin’ buddy and studio engineer for many of Don’s songs, Ray Valla of Gainesville particularly liked Don’s liver song, “I Draw The Line.”
“Basically the song is about all these wild meat from the forest that Indians basically eat, raccoon and possum and deer and all these animals that would be outrageous to think about eating now. It’s sort of a funny song. Anyway, he goes into a long description of all this meat that he’s eaten in the wild and uh the lyrics and the song someone serves him liver and the song says that’s where he draws the line. He’s not going to eat that. Pretty funny. But Don had some great material.”
Grooms’ musical kinmanship included close relationships with not only Dale Crider and Ray Valla, but other Florida folk greats including the late Gamble Rogers, Paul Champion and Jim Ballew. But it was Will McLean who inspired Grooms, a native American himself, to write one of his more serious and favorite songs about the bloody skirmish between Desoto and the native Americans in Paynes Prairie in North Central Florida. Grooms said,
“When Will first came into my life, I’d written songs before, but they were some of them pretty good, but I wrote, “They’ll Have To Carry me Back to ‘Ole Virginia”…and Will would say, that’s pretty good, but it doesn’t have a lot of meaning to it so uh, I had read all about Paynes Prairie and DeSoto’s bloody trip through Florida. So I started researching in the P. K. Yonge library of Florida history book about the various things that had occurred there and I was sifting through it in my head until I came up with a five minute song called “Vitachuko.” And I played it for Will and he said play that for me again and I finished and he said, “Grooms you have finally justified your existence.” But I took 400 years of Paynes Prairie history and put it into a song and finally got it down to four minutes, but I still get requests for it every now and then. When I recorded it Will played harmonica. And he loved it and always insisted I do it and his harmonica just hung in the air.”
“Vitachucko” is one of the songs on Groom’s “Walk Proud My Son,” his most famous CD. The producer for that endeavor was Tom Sheddan, one of Don Groom’s pickin’ buddies and a former College of Journalism and Telecommunications student. Sheddan says it was a labor of love.
“After hearing Don’s song “Vitachucko” and some of his older songs like “Dirty Dan the Bicycle Man,” I heard someone that was expressing a voice that I really felt inspired to do something about to help him take that voice and share it with a lot of other people.”
Sheddan gathered the musicians together two decades ago and produced the recording in one take. He says he felt if he handled the business of making that CD, Grooms could concentrate on the art.
“We borrowed and Ampex 601 and brought it over to his house and started recording and setting up mics and bringing people in and assembling all the pieces. And as we put all the pieces together I explained to him how I would do it and what I would do. So we pressed a thousand copies. I mastered it at Randy Clings at RCA studios in Nashville, Tennessee. And we mixed it with Ray Valla on a four track reel to reel. It had to be done Grand ‘Ole Opry style. I tried isolating Don. That term refers to everybody playing at the same time. It’s like a one-take experience. We had like nine people in the studio only a little bigger than the one we’re in now like a 12 by 12 studio with 9 people, trying not to step on each other and bleed into each other’s microphones and not let the energy die, trying to hold the album together. But uh, we had a really good time making it. It was really good energy. The main thing is Don means everything he’s saying and you can actually hear it in his voice.”
Music friend Loyd Baldwin played fiddle with Grooms through the years.
“Many of Don’s songs dealt with the treatment of native Americans, what they went through for 400 years since Europeans have been here in the states. Uh, Don is Cherokee on his mother’s side. In fact he grew up on a reservation up near Cherokee, North Carolina. In fact one song that he wrote called “Tsali” is in honor of a Cherokee chief. I remember vividly the way Don used to introduce this song. We played a gig together at a little town called Paisley on the south end of the Ocala National Forest on July 4th, 1976 and I remember standing on the back of a flatbed truck and hear Don stand up, his voice just as clear as a bell, saying well Jesus may have died for you Americans but Tsali died for me.”
Another of Grooms’ closest musical buddies was the Chief of the Seminole Indian Tribe in Florida, James Billie. Chief Billie said Grooms had a spiritual connection to people and he called his friend a lyrical genius. Chief Billie credits Grooms for the musical switch he made in his own musical career.
“Don says, hey you sound like you could sing some folk songs and get away from the rock and roll and so from that I started writing and “Halpatachobee” was the one he really helped me. I had written the entire song except for the words halpatachobee didn’t even pause, just that phrase I couldn’t believe it. This man was a genius with words.”
Grooms described folk music this way.
“Our kind of music’s got meaning and stuff in it. More than just my baby left me so I’m going to let the air out of her tires uh, but at least ours have meaning and impart information. You’ve got to entertain people as well as inform.”
Grooms received national attention when Sing Out Magazine featured the song he wrote and dedicated to his mother. Walk Proud my Son has practically become an anthem at folk festivals.
“Well the one that almost everybody does, even Gamble. Somebody said they had a recording of Gamble singing Walk Proud My Son. And I know he did it on most of his shows. I even got a call from a guy in Chicago. Well they traced me down through Sing Out Magazine. So he uh, said that one, everybody likes it. A friend of mine sent a copy of that to President Bush and later on to President Clinton and said if you people would learn something from this song you’d use up some of them old battleships and airplanes and recycle them. He got a couple of nice letters back from them.”
At nearly every Florida Folk Festival around the state you can find someone singing “Walk Proud My Son” on some stage. Another tradition inspired by Grooms takes place on the gazebo stage above the Suwannee River. Grooms’ longtime music buddy Frank Thomas leads the audience through the Florida state song on the festival’s last day, something started by Grooms.
Don Grooms’ life inspired not only Frank Thomas, but others like Gainesville singer/songwriter Mark Smith. The songs truly touched Grooms.
“Frank Thomas wrote a song about me that I am the new patriarch of the folk people and then Mark Smith wrote one that I’m the only spot in Dixie where the mountains meet the sand. And uh, a couple of years ago, maybe it was last year, they took part of their set and did their songs and I told them I ought to have the decency to go ahead and die or something. (laugh)
Singer/songwriter Mark Smith said,
“I had not been around Will McLean or Gamble Rogers particularly. Don was one of my folk heroes. He was the person sort of the senior performer person when I came along. And I thought this was a tribute I could give to him while he was living. It was a privilege for me to be able to share that with him.”
Tim DeMaas from South Carolina remembers the good ‘ole pickin’ days with Don Grooms.
“If there’s one word to desbribe Don it’s passionate.”
DeMaas was not only a former student of Grooms, but he actually took up the bass fiddle so he could play music with him. During a radio interview in a memorial tribute to his friend, DeMaas recalls how Grooms could have audiences in tears one minute and laughing the next. He especially remembers how difficult it was at times because Grooms did not like to rehearse ahead of time.
“Don did not believe in practicing…it was one of his most enduring qualities.”
In March of 1997, Donna Green-Townsend interviewed Don Grooms as part of a reflective feature on the late Will McLean who died in 1990. McLean, who is considered the “Father of Florida Folk” and who was the first folk artist inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, was a good friend of Grooms. McLean inspired Grooms to write one of his best songs, “Vitachuco” about the bloody skirmish between Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men and the Native American Indians living on Payne’s Prairie.” When Grooms recorded it, Will McLean played the harmonica in the song.
Thousands of visitors “came home to Florida” last weekend. That was the theme of this year’s 45th Annual Florida Folklife Festival in White Springs. Many of the state’s well-known recording artists as well as the “not-so-famous” entertained audiences on a variety of outdoor stages. Donna Green-Townsend attended this year’s festival and reports the success of the event can be felt through the three senses: smell, sight and sound.