It’s pretty hard to write this without embarrassing myself, but here goes:
I’ve lived in Florida since 1976. I’m not a native, of course, but it’s been long enough that I should know a fair bit about the state.
I thought I did.
But I had never heard of Will McLean.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lived down on the southeast coast, where things are more urban than the rest of the state and one is way less likely to rub shoulders with native Floridians than up in the central and northern areas.
Because Will McLean and his legacy are way more popular in the ‘real’ Florida parts of the state than the ‘full of transplants’ portions, where he is likely an unknown.
Turns out that McLean (1919-1990) was an influential Florida folk singer-songwriter. He was prolific, credited with authoring more than 3,700 songs and stories, and he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1996.
Called the “Father of Florida Folk” and the “Black Hat Troubadour,” McLean chronicled
the folk stories of Florida and lived the folk life as well.
“We know about Cebe Tate and his week in the swamp. We know about Acre-Foot Johnson and his mail. We know about the hog-hunting burro of Wewahitchka, geese on the wing and the terrifying wild hog of Gulf Hammock.
“We know the fear as hurricane winds whipped Lake Okeechobee in 1928 to kill thousands in graves of mud. We know this thanks to Will McLean,” one newspaper reported.
“McLean was a troubadour in the traditional sense: a musician/storyteller traveling town to town with evenings of song and stories in exchange for food and shelter. Sometimes, friends said, he would wear out his welcome. So when he couldn’t find a couch, he’d camp; Gore’s Landing along the Ocklawaha River south of Fort McCoy was a favorite place to park his VW mini-bus and stay a week or two.
“‘As long as he had a hook for fishing, a bag of potatoes, he was happy,’ one friend said.”
Born in Chipley, he spent his life finding slivers of Florida lore and preserving them in song and story, voicing them in his resonant, barrel-deep baritone.
“My grandfather must have told me 10,000 stories about Florida, all of them true,” McLean said in 1985.
McLean photos, records, songbooks, harmonicas and videos of his performances at the annual Florida Folk Festival are archived at the College of Central Florida in Ocala.
“He’s one of the informal historians who’s preserved much of Florida heritage,” said Dr. Ron Cooper, a professor of humanities there.
So how did yours truly finally find out about him, you might be wondering. Like most of the things I discover, I was driving along a rural road. It was this past March, on my way home after some paddling with a few New York acquaintances over on the west coast of Florida.
I saw this unassuming sign along the road. What’s a Willfest? From the quality of the sign I guessed it might be an upscale garage sale.
So I followed the arrows. I ended up at the Sertoma Youth Ranch in rural Brooksville, the site of the annual Will McLean Music Festival, a three-day affair for young folk singers and songwriters and other folks who want to enjoy a fun weekend camping out and listening to great folk music. It features music workshops, jam sessions, craft and food vendors, continuous live performances on four different stages, and a Best New Florida Song contest. Sponsored by the Will McLean Foundation, it draws about 3,000 devotees.
I didn’t know all that as I drove down a narrow dirt road that Saturday afternoon and pulled up to a gentleman standing outside a small building that looked like a cross between a guard shack, ticket booth and concession stand.
I was ready with the stupidest question he’d probably heard all weekend:
“What’s a Willfest?” I asked.
It’s about Will McLean the musician, he said through a big grin.
The festival’s facebook page says the 2018 event will be March 9-11. It’s already on my calendar.
And no, Will McLean is not related to Don McLean of ‘American Pie’ fame.