”By the time I got to Woodstock
They were half a million strong everywhere there were songs and celebration And I dreamed I saw the bombers Riding shotgun in the sky
Turning into butterflies Above our nation. We are stardust, we are golden
By the time I got to Woodstock
They were half a million strong Everywhere there were songs and celebration And I dreamed I saw the bombers Riding shotgun in the sky
Turning into butterflies Above our nation.”
It is hard to believe this is the golden anniversary of Woodstock. An American musical and cultural event like no other. People of every variety converged upon a small town in New York and history was made. Oh, there were sights and sounds and musicians and those who were clothed or not to various degrees, and the nation’s attention via television was riveted on a new generation of Americans whose ideas and ideals had come of age in the post-World War II era. They were the children of the greatest generation and were about social change, Civil Rights, protests of every kind one can imagine and, in general, being “against” most of what their parents and grandparents were for. The music was great and was about HOPE.
Now, let’s move that crowd, many of whom were products of the more liberal and free thinking halls of academe of the Eastern Seaboard and a couple of years later, imagine if you will, a crowd, very similar to those who attended Woodstock, this time though, set in the midst of north central Florida’s “Bible Belt; a place of arch conservatism, a little skeptical of outside influences and ideas and still very much, at that time, an agrarian society that didn’t cotton too much to liberalism of any form. Without any warning nor was there time for preparation, several hundred thousand of the young, batik and tie dye clad to various degrees and certainly unique individuals descended on White Springs, Florida, for the Florida Folks Festival. The year was 1972, and so much of the local population sat google eyed in rapt attention focusing on sights and sounds around that was, to many, more of a novelty than the performances on stage.
When longtime mistress of ceremonies the late Cousin Thelma Boltin, who was born in 1904, rang the dinner bell to open the Folk Festival that year of 1972, it was to an audience that, to a large extent, had no resemblance to the audience members of the past nor to those performing on the Old Marble Stage. Cousin Thelma, a white-haired grandmotherly looking type, Gainesville native and graduate of Emerson College of Boston, Massachusetts, was the “godmother” of Florida Folk music and she “ran the show” at the Florida Folk Festival for more than 30 years. If you were extended the honor of performing there, you “played” by her rules, and, as a performer you had to be pressed, clean, shoes or boots polished that covered the tops of your feet, ladies had to wear either daytime dresses or skirts and blouse; gentleman had to wear shirts and trousers, tails of the shirt tucked in, and a belt in your pants, hair combed, since you represented not only yourself but the State of Florida.
Well, that being expressed, the majority of what comprised the Folk Festival crowd of 1972 made those who attend James Cornett’s Wanee and earlier, Springfest, look like prom kings and queens of well-heeled prep schools. As some folks would say “Kind of”, and I am being kind here, “curious” looking too many of our local citizens. In remembering the event what many talk about now is the “skinny dipping in the river” and folks sleeping in any space available and the ingestion of a lot of “left handed Camels” and other substances.
What I can mainly recall is just never realizing so many folks could be in our little town, and sitting wide-eyed and in “wonder” and I may as well express “admiration” for many of them, because you see this was the generation we all wanted to emulate.
I had my first pair of love beads given to me by a young lady who came all the way down here from up in Massachusetts, and I sat around campfires of folks I didn’t know and listened to some great music, and as I often say “I wasn’t there for a long time. I was there for a good time.” I had one.
Now, back to Cousin Thelma. I loved her dearly; I did, but I know the crowd sort of scared her, and the reason I know this is that during a break of the program, some of the young people got on the marble stage and began to dance with kind of wild gyrations in their tie dye and batik and bare feet, and she screamed in the microphone for “security.”
The, then-Stephen Foster Memorial Commission with an average age of 65 was alarmed too, and they, decided they didn’t want a crowd that large in the future, they wanted more of a “family event.” They wanted something more manageable. “Soooo,” the next year, 1973, the Festival was held over Labor Day weekend and then moved it the following year to Memorial Day.
For those of us who can still recall 47 years ago and our own version of Woodstock on the Suwannee, all I can express is you had to be there to fully appreciate it. Yes indeed, shades of “Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming.” Huge banners with peace symbols, tons of batik and tie dye, a lot of folks with no shoes, and the historic Suwannee made famous by Stephen Foster had fish swimming beneath the surface that experienced things over that May weekend in 1972 that may have put even the most sedate old channel catfish in shock.
On the one hand, ladies dressed in antebellum hoop dresses, Cousin Thelma in her long white dress and big hat and entertainers dancing folk dances and singing Bluegrass and traditional folk music, but the folks who came that year were making their own music and enjoying their own version of a Foster lyric “Long live the merry, merry hearts that laugh by night and day. Like the Queen of mirth. No matter what some folks say.”
Before closing this week, thank you to Mrs. Berta Yulee Johnson, Jasper, for always remembering to bring my Memorial Day poppies, and as we celebrate this weekend, let’s remember the reason for this holiday. Remember the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice on freedom’s altar. We can never, ever repay them, but I will proudly wear my poppy and remember.
I also, in advance, want to extend my thanks to the staff of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, to the hundreds of volunteers who make the festival possible and to those who had the vision 67 years ago to organize an event that is still so much a part of who we are as a people.
From the Eight Mile Still on the Woodpecker Route north of White Springs, wishing you a day filled with joy, peace, and, above all, lots of love and laughter.