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