The Father of Florida Folk

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McLean in 1965 - Courtesy Florida State Archives

The sun was not shining,
The mist it was thick;
“Oh Lordy!” Tate holler’d,
“I’m lost up the crick.”
–Will McLean, “Tate’s Hell” in “Florida Sand”

Will McLean (1919-1990) wrote 3,700 songs and was often called the “Father of Florida Folk.” If you grew up in North Florida during the 1950s and 1960s and liked folk music, you knew the music of Will McLean. He sang about the swamps and piney woods, capturing forever in his music the land that he loved.

I thought of Will McLean and his 1964 collection of songs called “Florida Sand” when I set major scenes of my novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey in Tate’s Hell Swamp in the Florida panhandle. I couldn’t resist having my characters stop by an old store in nearby Sumatra, where McLean stopped from time to time, and hear a few lines from his ballad about a man named Tate who was stalked by a panther in that swamp over a century ago.

In The Other Florida, Gloria Jahoda of Tallahassee, wrote, “Will McLean, who grew up near Sumatra…is a folksinger in the truest sense of the word, for he has taken the legends of his childhood and woven them into music.”

This, I think, was the greatest strength of his songs. He sang of the land we knew and of the the people and stories we grew up with..Gopher John…Acre-Foot Johnson…Osceola.

McLean’s soul was a hawk, he said, and I believe him. In addition to his music, McLean is remembered and honored through the yearly Will McLean Music Festival. Held this month at Brooksville, Florida, the festival celebrated its twenty-second year.

Unfortunately, “Florida Sand” is out of print. However, you can now find its songs compiled within “The Songs and Stories of Will McLean.” McLean’s songs are available on CD from the Will McLean Foundation.

Folksinger Pete Seeger once said of Will, “His songs will be sung as long as there is a Florida.” I hope he’s right about that.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Jock Stewart amd the Missing Sea of Fire,” “The Sun Singer,” and “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey.”

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2 responses

  1. I have loved folk music since the 60’s but unfortunately haven’t heard much from Florida. I sure hope that some day there will be a resurgence of it! There’s a lot of our history and character in it.

    • It would be nice if folk came back really strong. Maybe the times have to be just right for it. It fit easily into the 1960s and early 1970s when Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger were going strong.