Florida is a state rich in the fostering and preservation of American folk culture, and I was fortunate to attend one of the numerous annual events hosted by the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida. Among the events during the year are a Quilt Show in October, a Dulcimer Retreat in November, a Festival of Lights in December, National Stephen Foster Day in January, and the 62nd Annual Florida Folk Festival on Memorial Day weekend. The center, located on the banks of the Suwanee River, commemorates
the famous American composer Stephen Foster who wrote popular classics such as Old Folks at Home, Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home, and Oh Susanna. The park grounds contain a Southern antebellum mansion museum that houses artifacts like old pianos, costumes, original sheet music, and wonderful moving dioramas of scenes from Stephen Foster songs. In the middle of the complex is the 200ft tall Carillon Tower which plays Stephen Foster tunes on the world’s largest tubular bells at two hour intervals during daytime hours. There is also a gift shop containing items from Florida artists, a craft square where visitors can take a variety of workshops and classes, an indoor auditorium, a café, and Nelly Bly’s Kitchen that provides meals for those taking part in special events. There is also a scenic campground complete with giant water oaks draped in romantic hanging moss. I spent two nights there in a cozy tent—a very economical and enjoyable lodging option for the outdoor types.
This past September 13-17 I took part in the Stephen Foster Old Time Music Weekend, attending a series of daytime workshops, evening concerts, and late evening jams. The workshops were focused on improving the skills of musicians in the areas of old time fiddling, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and singing. An individual could pick and choose what workshops to attend, all of which were an hour and fifteen minutes in length. Some examples of workshops included: Old-time Fiddle 101, Strange and Beautiful Fiddle Music from Western NC, Intro to Sacred Harp Singing, Mandolin—Six Magic Shapes, Celtic Tunes on Clawhammer Banjo, Preparing for a Banjo Contest, Basic Old-Time Back-up Guitar, and String Band Workshop. Among the expert instructors were Chuck Levy, Chuck Anton, Carl Jones, Bobb Head, Erynn Marshall, Fay Baird, Cindy Roy, and Kenny Jackson. In the evenings the instructors and a few other performers put on concerts, and then there were late evening Old-time jams, slow or fast depending upon the musician’s level of expertise.
I brought my banjo as I was interested in some more instruction in the claw-hammer style, a technique I have been trying to learn the past year. Instruction from Chuck Levy was very helpful, as I was able to correct a few things I was doing wrong (the drop thumb technique was new to me) while learning tunes like “Old Folks at Home,” “Boweevil,” and “Johnny Booger.” Kenny Jackson did a workshop on two and three finger Old-time banjo styles, and I took a banjo workshop with Bobb Head who taught “Pretty Polly” in two-fingerstyle picking. I also had a private half hour session with Fay Baird for a tutoring session in shaped note singing (Sacred Harp). It was necessary to have a digital recording device or camcorder, as tunes were taught by ear with instructors sometimes handing out a TAB at the end.
The evening concerts were very entertaining. I was blown away by the swinging strains of Chuck Anton’s fiddling, which can be enjoyed in the video below:
While some opted for accommodations at nearby hotels, I brought my pop-up tent and camped right on the grounds of the festival at the Stephen Foster Park campground. For only $22 a night I had a nice shady site near a great bathing facility. The park is shrouded in gorgeous moss-covered water oaks, and there is very cheap bike rentals for touring the grounds. And you are missing out if you don’t take a romp to the Suwannee River which is right on the grounds. Meals were provided for the weekend at Nelly Bly’s kitchen. This is an event that I would highly recommend if you are interested in furthering your experience in playing old-time music, or a great introduction to the subject.