Tag Archives: Father of Florida Folk

Archival videos of the Father of Florida Folk Will McLean

Will McLean performing
Will McLean performing

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 five such videos.

The first is the January 24, 1990 memorial service for Will at the Thomas Center in Gainesville. On that day in 1990 hundreds of people filled the Thomas Center in Gainesville, FL to capacity. They were all there to pay tribute to the Father of Florida Folk, Will McLean, who had just passed away from cancer a few days before. This archival video features many of his friends sharing not only their own precious stories about Will and how he touched their lives, but also sharing their versions of Will’s original songs. Some of those friends in attendance included Gamble Rogers, Don Grooms, Dale Crider, Jeanie Fitchen, Doug Gaus, Frank and Ann Thomas, Wayne Martin, Dennis Devine, Mary Ann DiNella, Barbara Sheen Todd, Margaret Longhill, Donna Green-Townsend and Bobby Hicks to name a few. There were not only tears, but laughter as many of the speakers shared personal memories demonstrating Will McLean’s sense of humor. Following the ceremony many friends travelled to McLean’s favorite camping spot, Gore’s Landing in Marion County to disperse his ashes into the Ocklawaha River. Will McLean’s desire to “save Florida through music” continues today through a music festival held in his honor. The festival is usually held the 2nd weekend of March at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, 7 miles west of Dade City and near Brooksville. For more information about the Will McLean Festival and Foundation go online to willmclean.com

 

The next four videos were 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)

 

 

Will McLean served during WWII
Will McLean served during WWII

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.

 

 

Early photo of Will McLean's grandparents
Early photo of Will McLean’s grandparents

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.

 

 

Will McLean, Tim DeMass and Don
Will McLean, Tim DeMass and Don Grooms

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.)

 

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Don Grooms and Will McLean
Don Grooms and Will McLean
Will McLean resting beside his guitar
Will McLean resting beside his guitar

 

 

 

My Friendship With “The Black Hat Troubadour” Will McLean

 

Will Mclean who was the first folk artist inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1996
Will McLean, the first folk artist inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame in 1996

By the time I met Will McLean he had already penned most of the hundreds of songs and poems he has become famous for.  He’d already performed at Carnegie Hall and made friends with the late Pete Seeger.  His glory days performing on the “Old Marble Stage” at the Florida Folk Festival were long since past.  The truth is, the day I met him I didn’t even really know him by name.  But I think therein lies the reason we became fast friends.  Will McLean was one of the most humble men I’d ever met.

It was in mid-November in 1985.  I was working in the WUFT-FM newsroom in Weimer Hall at the University of Florida when a tall man dressed all in black (that’s how I remember it) walked into my office and kindly, almost demurely, asked if he could post some fliers on the bulletin boards in the hallway to promote his concert that was to take place that following Sunday night November 17th in the Thomas Center in downtown Gainesville.  Just having someone come in and ask to post something was rare.  Thinking back on it, I’m surprised I didn’t just say yes or no.  I remember being intrigued by this man because of the soft-spoken way in which he asked me.  Maybe it was the way he was dressed and his stature that caused me to begin asking him questions, questions that today I’m a bit embarrassed that I asked, but so glad I did.

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Photo on Will McLean’s “Florida Sand” album

I remember questioning him about what kind of songs he’d written.  Instead of being surprised and offended that I didn’t know who he was he began to softly tell me some of the song titles and what they were about.  That’s where my friendship with Will McLean really began.  When he got to the song, “Hold Back the Waters,” my heart actually fluttered.  I had no idea how popular that song really was or the true history behind the song of the 1928 hurricane in Florida over Lake Okeechobee.  Geez, people in Florida had been singing this song like an anthem for more than 20 years.  But in 1985 I had only been living in Florida for a little more than two years and was just getting to know Florida history and area musicians.  But, I knew that song.  I fell in love with “Hold Back The Waters” when I was helping produce a national music series while out in the state of Kansas called, “The Walnut Valley Festival.”  The public radio station I was working for as news director, KHCC-FM, had produced 26 one-hour programs for national distribution.

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Album cover to record by Red and Murphy & Company I purchased at the Walnut Valley Festival in the early 1980s

My job was to interview all the musicians and produce features for the series.  It was my first real introduction to a genre of music you just don’t come across on the radio every day.  One of the groups performing in 1982 was Red and Murphy Henry, a bluegrass family band from Florida (now Virginia).  I can distinctly remember Murphy Henry introducing the song, Hold Back The Waters, saying it was about a hurricane.  Of all the songs I heard at the Walnut Valley Festival those two years in the early 1980s, this was the one song I sat down and wrote out the lyrics to and learned to sing. Listening back to the original tape I can hear Murphy Henry mentioning Will McLean’s name, but at the time I learned it I wasn’t as interested in the artist who wrote it as much as in the story of this devastating storm that pushed Lake Okeechobee’s waters over its banks and drowned between 3,000 to 4,000 people.

truck carrying victims of 1928 hurricaneThe 1928 storm was before television and the weather channel and before hurricanes even had names.  It intrigued me that the Seminoles living in Florida may have warned the storm was coming but people didn’t pay attention.  This storm is the reason there is now a dike all around Lake Okeechobee in South Florida.  There are many accounts from people recalling the storm describing how they were tied to trees by their families so they wouldn’t be swept away.  There are stories about the mass graves following the storm….some marked and some unmarked.  Yes, this was an intriguing song about history and my first introduction to what hurricanes could really do.

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Photo on Will McLean’s “Florida Sand” album

I loved “Hold Back The Waters.”  As soon as Will McLean mentioned it I remember blurting out, “I know that song.”  When I told him where I first heard it his eyes just lit up.  I wasn’t prepared for him to then ask, “Why don’t you come to my concert and sing it with me.”  He had just met me.  He didn’t know if I could sing or not.  I’m sure I thanked him kindly for asking, but he surely didn’t need me to come and sing.  It was his concert after all.  He insisted.

 

 

 

Will McLean waiting to performBefore he left the station I introduced him to our operations manager and our chief engineer and it was decided that WUFT would send its remote recording truck to the concert.  I remember sitting in a little room at the Thomas Center that night in November of 1985 practicing the song with Will.  I was so afraid I’d forget the words or forget how to play it on my guitar.  My fears were relieved when I saw Murphy Henry walk into the Thomas Center, the person I first heard sing the song out in Kansas.  It turned out that I didn’t have to worry about playing the guitar, I only had to sing the song with Will and Murphy.  My fears about forgetting the words disappeared.  Here is the introduction to the song that night in 1985

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and here’s the recording of Will McLean, Murphy Henry and me singing “Hold Back The Waters.”

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In 1985 I was engaged to be married to Lee Townsend from Cross Creek.  He was with me at the Thomas Center.  As it turns out, Lee knew Will for a different reason.  When he was working as a mechanic in Gainesville he often worked on Will’s old vehicles, doing his best to keep them running, many long after they should have been abandoned.  That night Will dedicated a poem to us. It was a poem so appropriate for a couple who lived in the woods in Cross Creek.

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Florida's Black Hat Troubadour I will only say that following that November concert, for whatever reason, that professional recording got stashed away on a shelf and misplaced for nearly 12 years….a whole different story in itself.  Eventually, it resurfaced at just the right time because the new program director at WUFT-FM, Bill Beckett, had an appreciation for what this recording meant to history.  Working together with the Executive Director of the Will McLean Foundation, Margaret Longhill, we turned the recording into the CD, “Will McLean and Friends, Live at the Thomas Center.”  I met Margaret Longhill the same week I met Will in 1985.  She truly understood how rare this professional recording of Will McLean was.  We’ve been friends now for nearly 32 years.

Will McLean standing beside the van he used to travel around the state writing songs about his Florida sand
Will McLean standing beside the van he used to travel around the state writing songs about his Florida sand

Because of the way Will McLean lived, he had very few possessions.  After his wife Alice died of cancer Will spent most of his last years travelling around in an old beat up van and hanging out at campgrounds where he could fish or just plug in his extension cord at the homes of various friends.  He pawned many of his guitars to obtain money to buy wine and  he gave away cassette tapes of his recordings to just about everyone he met.  I think he enjoyed revisiting the places around Florida where his grandpa had taken him as a boy.  Those trips were the inspiration for many of his songs and poems.

Not all of the stories about Will McLean are pretty, but he was a unique individual….a treasure.  About a month after the Thomas Center concert Will came to Cross Creek to help me celebrate my 28th birthday.  I remember having a nice little music jam on my screened porch over Cross Creek.  What I also remember is that Will chose to just sit back and listen to everyone else sing and play, not wanting to be in the spotlight.  As much as I wanted him to play for us, I can now look back and appreciate how he didn’t want to be center stage the way some musicians do.  I liked that quality in him.

The same thing happened on March 15, 1986 at my wedding reception in Cross Creek.  Someone told me Will McLean had just arrived and was looking for me.  He had a wedding present for my husband Lee and me.  It was a cassette full of recordings he had made around the campfires at the Florida Folk Festival and other places.  Not wanting to be the focus of my wedding reception he kindly gave us his “best wishes” and disappeared. After getting to know Will better over the coming months I invited him into the WUFT studios to do a long interview in 1987.  You can hear my first interview with Will in 1985 when I was just getting to know him and the second interview where I knew Will a little better by clicking here.  Let’s just say I’m really glad I have those recordings.  There are stories in those interviews that needed to be preserved forever.

Painting of Will McLean by Marianne Dinella
Painting of Will McLean by Marianne Dinella

Will died in 1990 from cancer.  Friends gathered for his memorial in the Thomas Center, the same venue where I sang with him less than five years before.  Both floors of the Thomas Center were packed.  Many of his friends performed Will’s songs and told stories of how they knew him including the late Gamble Rogers, Don Grooms, Bobby Hicks, Dale Crider, Seminole Chief James Billie, Jeanie Fitchen, Mary Ann Dinella, Doug Gauss and Wayne Martin.  The list is long.  There were tears and much laughter as well.  I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard.  He touched so many of us in so many ways.  This is the first time I’ve ever really written my thoughts about it.  Thank goodness someone actually video-taped the service.  It is a real treasure to see.

 

Will McLean holding a puppy on a chilly day Afterwards many of us went to Gore’s Landing by the Ocklawaha River to disperse Will’s ashes.  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.  Gore’s Landing was one of Will’s favorite places to camp.  I saw him there while my family was also camping not long before he got so sick.

 

 

Sign dedicated to Will McLean at Gore's Landing
Sign dedicated to Will McLean at Gore’s Landing

Margaret Longhill chose the Ocklawaha River because before he died, McLean had told her that he had hoped to light a small campfire one last time at Gore’s Landing, his favorite campsite.  In this brief recording, you will hear a small portion of that special ceremony at the river:

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the late Will McLean considered to be the "Father of Florida folk"
The late Will McLean considered to be the “Father of Florida folk”

In 1996 because of his artistic contributions Will became the first folk artist inducted into the prestigious Florida Artists Hall of Fame.  Friday, March 10th – Sunday, March 12th marks the 28th anniversary of the Will McLean Folk Festival.  

One of the highlights of the festival is the hour when the winners of the Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest perform their winning songs.  Will always wanted to “Save Florida Through Music.”  It’s amazing how many songs there are now about his beloved “Florida Sand.”

 If you’ve never been to the Will McLean Folk Festival you really should check it out.  It’s truly a “songwriters festival.”  It’s held at the Sertoma Youth Ranch just 7 miles west of Dade City at the bottom of an orange grove.  It’s small in comparison to many music festivals, but that’s why it’s so special.  The performers and the people who attend are all in the same campground, playing music throughout the night.  

Jessie and Lee Townsend
Jessie and Lee Townsend

My children have grown up there.  In 2016 my son Lee and daughter Jessie Townsend performed on both Saturday and Sunday at the festival and honored many songwriters who have passed on in a special “Florida Set.”  Meanwhile, my daughter Ellie helped with publicity on the Will McLean Facebook page and my son-in-law Andrew Floyd coordinates all the vendors at the festival.  

As the late singer-songwriter Pete Seeger said, “Will McLean’s songs will be sung as long as there is a Florida.”  Rest in Peace Will McLean, my friend.

Will McLean Archival Audio Interviews from 1985 and 1987 (never before published)

Will McLean waiting to perform
The Black Hat Troubadour Will McLean

(Raw Interviews from 1985 and 1987 featured below)

(all photos courtesy of Margaret Longhill and the Will McLean Foundation)

In November of 1985 Will McLean showed up at my office at WUFT-FM on the University of Florida campus.    McLean, known to many as the “Black Hat Troubadour”  penned hundreds of songs, stories and poems about what he called his “beloved Florida sand.” McLean, who died in 1990, was the first folk artist inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

As I documented in earlier posts, McLean wanted to hang up some fliers about his November 17th, 1985 concert at the historic Thomas Center in Gainesville.  I had only lived in Florida about a year and a half at that point.  Though I had never met him and didn’t know a lot about him I did know one of his songs very well.  “Hold Back The Waters.” It was about the 1928 Hurricane that killed between 3,000 to 4,000 people.  The song had become very popular in folk music circles.  That fact alone enticed me to ask Will to sit down for an interview in 1985.  A couple of years later, after I’d gotten to know him better, I asked Will to come in for a second interview.  The two interviews have been in my personal audio archives for nearly 30 years.  I thought it was about time I shared them on my website.

Author’s note:  My voice sounds very young in these old interviews.  Also, the interviews below are from cassette dubs from the original reel to reel tapes.  Some of the 1985 cassette dubs have gotten a little scratchy over time.  I am anxious to see how the original reel to reels will sound if I can get my hands on a reel to reel machine.  The 1987 dubs from the cassette below sound much better.  I’m including both years for the sake of archival history).

I’m posting the interviews in a couple of different ways.  You can either listen to the interviews in their entirety or listen to them in separated segments (see below).

scan0004Will McLean Interview in 1985

1985 Full Interview

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Early photo of Will McLean's grandparents
Early photo of Will McLean’s grandparents

Segment 1:  Will shares stories about his grandfather and mother

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Segment 2:  Will talks about the public radio Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor

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Florida’s Black Hat Troubadour, the late Will McLean

Segment 3:  Will shares the story of his song “Hold Back The Waters”

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(l to r) Dale Crider, Will McLean and Gamble Rogers

Here’s the song Hold Back The Waters:

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Segment 4:  Will shares the story of performing at Carnegie Hall in NYC with Pete Seeger

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Will McLean0024Segment 5:  Will talks about giving his music away and his song Macclenny Farewell

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Here’s the song Macclenny Farewell:

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Will McLean 1981Segment 6:  Will shares the story of his wife Alice’s cancer battle and finding new love

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Segment 7:  Will talks about environmental concerns

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(left to right) Paul Champion, Gamble Rogers and Will McLean
(l to r) Paul Champion, Gamble Rogers and Will McLean

Segment 8:  Will talks about his friends Gamble Rogers, Paul Champion and Cousin Thelma Boltin

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Cousin Thelma Boltin, Gamble Rogers and Will McLean 1988 50th Anniv of The Yearling in Cross Creek (photo by Iris Greenfield)
Cousin Thelma Boltin, Gamble Rogers and Will McLean 1988 50th Anniv of The Yearling in Cross Creek (photo by Iris Greenfield)

Segment 9:  Will talks about the Florida songs he’s written that he’s most proud of

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Lottie and Will McLean as children from Chipley, Florida
Lottie and Will McLean as children from Chipley, Florida

 

 

Here is Will’s song Florida Sand:

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Here’s Away O’ee:

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Segment 10:  Will shares more about his Carnegie Hall performance in NYC

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Will McLean0048Will McLean Interview in 1987

Full interview with Will McLean in 1987 Part One

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Part Two of the full interview in 1987 Will addresses whether he’d ever go back to Rosewood to try and gather material for a song

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Shorter separated segments:

Will McLean0206Segment 1:  Will shares the story behind his song The Ballad of Scotty

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Here’s the song Ballad of Scotty

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Will McLean (14)Segment 2:  Will talks about the inspiration for his song Wild Hog

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Here’s the song Wild Hog:

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Will McLean (12)Segment 3:  Will shares the story of Cush Holston

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Here’s Will’s song Cush Holston:

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Will McLean (20)Segment 4:  Will gives the background on Tate’s Hell

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Here’s Will’s song Tate’s Hell:

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 Segment 5:  Will talks about his grandfather

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Will McLean performing on a set with audience on stage
Will McLean performing on a set with audience on stage

Segment 6:  Will talks about “who” he is and why

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Segment 7:  Will shares the story of being run out of Rosewood (he refers to it as Rosehill)

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Will McLean (3)Segment 8:  Will talks about the 1928 hurricane and his song Hold Back The Waters and his relationship with the Seminoles

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Here are Will’s songs Seminole and Osceola’s Last Words:

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Lais doing dance interpretation while Will McLean performed at the Florida Folk Festival
Lais doing dance interpretation while Will McLean performed at the Florida Folk Festival

Segment 9:  Will talks about his dream for a ballet featuring his songs of Florida

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The late Cousin Thelma Boltin with Will McLean circa 1988 in Cross Creek

Segment 10:  Will talks about what he’s been writing lately

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Segment 11:  Will talking about whether he would go back to Rosewood to try and gather song material

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Segment 12:  Will talks about environmental concerns for Florida

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Pete Seeger’s ties to Will McLean, the “Father of Florida Folk”

Singer Songwriter Pete Seeger, a good friend of Will McLean
Singer Songwriter Pete Seeger, a good friend of Will McLean

One of the most enduring and loved folk singers in the U.S. has died.  Pete Seeger, who had America singing such iconic tunes as, “If I Had a Hammer” died Monday at the age of 94 at a hospital in New York.  President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song, but more importantly, he believed inthe power of community …to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.  Over the years, Pete used his voice, and his hammer, to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation.  And he always invited us to sing along.  For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

In March, 2014 Singer Songwriter from Delray Beach, Rod MacDonald, asked several other musicians and the audience at the Will McLean Folk Festival to join him in a tribute to the late Pete Seeger:

Florida's Black Hat Troubadour
Florida’s Black Hat Troubadour

While most people will be recalling the dozens of classics he helped make famous, like Turn, Turn, Turn, Where Have All The Flowers Gone, and Woodie Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, among others, there are many in the Sunshine State who will remember how Seeger reached out to the “Black Hat Troubadour” in Florida, the late Will McLean.  The two songwriters shared a deep respect for one another.

“Will McLean’s songs will be sung as long as there is a Florida.”  That’s how Pete Seeger described his friend.  That quote was shared at the 1990 memorial service for McLean who was the first folk artist inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.  President Emerita of the Will McLean Foundation, Margaret Longhill, says, Seeger and McLean were both genuine people with a great songwriting connection.  They both liked to write songs about everyday people and they both liked to have their audiences sing along.  “Pete Seeger’s songs will live forever in the hearts of those who seek truth, justice and love,” says Longhill.

the late Will McLean considered to be the "Father of Florida folk"
The late Will McLean considered to be the “Father of Florida folk”

Longhill remembers attending a Pete Seeger concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater with McLean in the mid 1980s.  Prior to the concert Seeger and McLean chatted as friends backstage.  During the concert Seeger said to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to know  in this audience tonight is America’s greatest living songwriter, Will McLean.  Will McLean stand up,” recalls Longhill.

Longhill says the story that’s been passed down is that McLean and Seeger  became acquainted after McLean wrote a letter to Seeger saying, “I’m a Florida folk singer and I don’t have a guitar.”  Soon after Seeger sent him a 12-string guitar.  During McLean’s memorial service in 1990 many of his musician friends recalled with humor how that guitar was pawned as were many other guitars that followed.

While Pete Seeger will always be remembered for his part in the folk music revival in the 1960s, many in Florida will also think of him for providing McLean and the late Gamble Rogers the opportunity to perform at a folk music concert in Carnegie Hall in New York City.  Seeger loved Mclean’s earthy songs about unique characters and places in Florida such as Wild Hog, Tate’s Hell and Osceola’s Last Words.

Though Seeger travelled and wrote songs all around the country, McLean wasn’t interested in seeking fame and fortune and preferred to remain in Florida and write about his beloved “Florida Sand.”  But the two songwriters continued to have great respect for one another. Seeger even performed one of McLean’s best known Florida songs about Chief Osceola during the nationally televised “Johnny Cash Show” in 1970.  He performs that song with Cash about a minute and thirty seconds into the video.

Here’s a segment from a November 1985 interview with Donna Green-Townsend where McLean shares the story of performing at Carnegie Hall in NYC with Pete Seeger

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Here’s more about that special trip to Carnegie Hall in NYC from the November, 1985 interview with Donna Green-Townsend

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The Will McLean Foundation continues to hold a festival each year in honor of the state’s “Black Hat Troubadour.”  The festival is held each March at the Sertoma Youth Ranch near Dade City.  The festival features three stages along with various music workshops and the winners of an annual songwriting contest.  

Click here to go back to the Will McLean Festival Website.