The winner of the 2017 Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest (out of 62 entries) is Mary James, better known as “Mean Mary,” in the music world. Though she resides now in Tennessee, her roots are in Florida and Alabama (Her family lived in the North Florida area when Mary was born, but the nearest hospital was in Geneva, Alabama!).
James, who also plays banjo, fiddle, guitar and eight other instruments, is no newcomer to the folk music scene. She began playing the guitar at age four, could read music and wrote her first song at age five, and recorded her first album when she was six. Her extensive performance schedule soon made school attendance difficult, so at the end of the second grade she went into home study and began appearing daily on the Country Boy Eddie Show, a regional TV program out of Birmingham, AL. At that same time she also appeared regularly in Nashville, Tennessee at the Elvis Presley Museum, on the Nashville Network, and on Printer’s Alley.
When Mary and her frequent music partner, brother Frank James, grew weary of the commercial, country-music scene, they started a tour of historic folk and Civil War era music. It wasn’t long before they were one of the most sought after historical folk groups in the country. Their careers eventually took them to the bright lights of Hollywood, California where they were involved in various areas of the film industry
James is now based in Nashville, Tennessee from which location she tours extensively across the US and internationally. She has her own Nashville TV show, Never Ending Street—a documentary/reality type show depicting a touring musician’s trials and joys. She is an endorsing artist for Deering Banjos—Deering has named her their Goodtime Ambassador. She writes and produces music for herself and other artists, and has recorded 14 albums, her latest being, “Sweet.”
Her winning song in the 2017 Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest “Choctawhatchee Waltz” was directly influenced by her family’s gypsy lifestyle. While growing up, her family lived close by the Choctawhatchee River in North Florida. The river’s name was taken from the Choctaw Nation and the Choctaw word hacha (river), literally the “River of the Choctaws.”
“It was so wild and undeveloped—like undiscovered territory. As a kid I could imagine I’d stepped far back in time or into a magical place. Those memories bring back a rush of longing for those wild and simple times. It was something I had to capture with my music,” said James.
“Mean Mary” also scored a second-place finish in the 2017 contest with a song she co-wrote with her mother, Jean James, (a 40-year Florida resident currently living in Tennessee) entitled, “We Never Hear The Song.” The song tells how people are surrounded by the music of “Mother Nature,” but maybe never realize what they are hearing.
Their song was inspired by Jean’s time hunting snakes and other reptiles, some of which were milked to make antivenom, some went to zoos, and some were shipped overseas for farm rodent control. Part of the reptile money supplied her daughter Mary with musical instruments. At times Mary would accompany her mom on those excursions.
“I saw beavers and otters and giant turtle slides,” Mary explained. “In the river waters I could watch the sturgeon, a fish whose ancestry dates to prehistoric times. It was a real chance to see and hear nature—unbroken and untouched.”
Mary and Jean James have also co-authored five books, two of which have won first place awards: “Sparrow Alone on the Housetop” (P & E Reader’s Choice award) and a Florida novel, “Wherefore Art Thou, Jane?” (Readers Favorite International Book Award winner for best mystery novel.)
The third-place finisher in the Will McLean Best New Florida Song is Jeff Parker from Jacksonville.
Parker, who recently moved to Yakima, Washington, has played finger-style and flat-pick guitar and mandolin professionally for more than 30 years. Starting in the mid 70’s, he played with the bluegrass band, “Surewood” around the Seattle area. He later moved to Alaska and worked as a solo performer and professional mariner in the fishing industry out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. With years of working on the road, Jeff has honed his craft influenced by a large variety of musical styles. In 2003, he published a CD entitled “It’s About Time” consisting of original music (and one Michael Peter Smith cover) and is currently writing a second CD of original works.
In addition to Parker’s original songs, a partial list of cover songs is available on his ReverbNation blog. He often plays in Florida with Anne McKennon, a flutist, in the duo Road Less Traveled. Parker says he is a proud member and supporter of the North Florida Folk Network and the Friends of Florida Folk.
Parker’s 3rd place song in the Will McLean Best New Florida Song Contest, “Sugarcane Mill,” describes visual images of the olden days of sugar-cane grinding in Florida.
“My inspiration for the “Sugarcane Mill” song was a request by (folk artist) Suz Grandy to write a song about it for the 40th annual celebration of the Barberville Pioneer Settlement (in North Central Florida) along with many other songwriters and performers,” said Parker.
Parker gathered background on sugarcane mills for the song from the settlement historian and other sources.
“There were some names that stuck out such as Otis Lee who donated much of the equipment for the Settlement and an interesting fellow Wendle LaHoot telling stories from his childhood about harvesting the cane and cooking the juice down and “polecat” candy, which was the crust build-up around the rim of the cook pot from skimming. On harvest day, dinner would be a cane syrup biscuit and half a sweet potato.”
“Sugarcane Mill” will be included in a compilation CD of songs celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the non-profit, historical Barberville Pioneer Settlementin Volusia County.
“Mean Mary” and Jeff Parker will be featured during a special awards presentation at the 2017 Will McLean Festival at noon on Saturday, March 11th. The festival runs from Friday, March 10th through Sunday afternoon, March 12th at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, 7 miles West of Dade City, FL. The festival, named after the Father of Florida Folk, the late Will McLean, features music on five stages including a youth performance stage, a variety of workshops, as well as food vendors and arts and crafts.
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 Rogersin Cross Creek, FL for the 50th Anniversary of “The Yearling” celebration at the farm of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. See a few snippets from a rare video recorded at that event below:
On January 24th, 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 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 Festivalnamed 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 now being housed in the Special Collections area of the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida. Gallery of Photos below are courtesy of the Will McLean Foundation
Six months ago today on December 2, 2013 Florida lost one its most original singer-songwriters, Garrison Doles. He was only 62 years old. As a feature reporter for the past 40 years I’ve met and interviewed many songwriters, but Garrison Doles stood out to me. He was someone with the unique ability to truly create visual pictures with his words . His style of guitar playing tugged at one’s emotions.
Working as a song contest judge for the Will McLean Best New Florida Song Competition for the past several years, I’ve heard just about every kind of Florida song imaginable. There were songs about history, songs about the environment and funny songs as well. In 2009 I was moved to tears by the words and music of Garrison Doles’ song, “This Florida Again.”
At the time I had no idea who he was. I knew nothing of his former struggles with alcohol or the years he spent playing in smoky bars trying to appeal to audiences who really weren’t there to listen to the lyrics of his songs. I only knew the moment I heard “This Florida Again” it had the “goosebump factor.” What authors Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Patrick Smith did with words to describe the “old Florida” in their novels, Garrison created with music, both in lyrics and the emotion he brought out on the strings of his guitar. I couldn’t wait to meet him.
In 2009 he sat down in the WUFT studios to talk about winning the song contest, what inspired him and to play some of his songs.
In 2010 he returned to the Will McLean Folk Festival and performed his winning song:
During his interview in the studios of WUFT, Doles also shared memories about his early days performing around the state and when he first met the legendary Gamble Rogers.
In 2009 Garrison had just finished one of his newest CDs entitled, “Whenever I’m With You,” and he talked about some of the Florida musicians who played with him in the recording studio.
Doles is survived by his wife, Jan Richardson; his son, Emile; his parents, Harold and Dee; his brothers, Jeff (Suzanne), Greg (Doreen), and Jon (Heather); and many nieces and nephews. He is deeply missed.