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Historic Florida Recordings Reborn

A historic but little-known Florida folk music recording has been reborn for the digital age.  Tom Flanigan reports twin-CD set is contained in a book that tells the fascinating story behind each music track…

This is story with roots in time going back hundreds of years.  But Blaine Waide, who is today’s Folklorist for the State of Florida, says we’ll pick up the tale just a bit over thirty-years ago.

“In the late 1970s the Florida Folklife Program set out to do field work on traditional African-American music in this state.  They used as their model the WPA work of Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston and other people with the Florida Writers Project.  And they wanted to go back into those communities and document what traditions were still active among African-Americans, especially in rural and Central Florida.”  

Those communities included places like Jonesville, Tampa, Pahokee, Waverly, Campbellton, Crestview and Leon County.  Armed with a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, a few microphones and limitless curiosity, the small field research team included Peggy Bulger, Doris Dyen, and Dwight DeVane.

“Well we were really lucky to have had the opportunity and time to really put a set of blinders on and cover a lot of material and gain access into peoples’ lives and make these contacts and begin the whole process of documenting what was there.” 

That process, done between 1977 and 1980, resulted in a double set of vinyl long-play records entitled, “Drop on Down in Florida.”  Fewer than two-thousand copies were pressed and the record album soon retreated into obscurity.  Now, says Folklorist Blaine Waide, “Drop on Down in Florida” has been reborn in spectacular fashion.

“What we have now is from the double LP with about 27 tracks and maybe 82-minutes of music, I think we now have a 224-page book with 60 photos and 156 total minutes of music, so about 85-ish new minutes of music.  Very expanded and a lot more of the recordings out to draw more attention to the significance and also it’s a better sense of context with the photos and more extensive writing.”

Atlanta-based “Dust to Digital” re-mastered the tracks for the compact disk medium.  Company owner and founder Lance Ledbetter says he had great material to work with from a technical point of view.

“They were able to recover the original tapes.  A lot has changed between 1980 and 2012 as far as technology goes and the converters and the software and everything that was used, they were able to even raise the sound quality from when the LPs were published.”

But, beyond the sonic quality of the original recordings, Ledbetter is floored by the music itself; this reaction from a man whose lifework is hearing and saving all kinds of historic sounds.

“I thought the music was just really, really beautiful and I thought they did a tremendous job putting their energy and effort into preserving it and I thought for our label to be a conduit to put that back into peoples’ hands and a lot of our audience didn’t even know the double-LP set, so to bring it to a new audience for us was just a great honor.”

State Folklorist Blaine Waide says the new CD re-issue of “Drop on Down in Florida” can greatly expand the knowledge and appreciation of a powerful musical expression most people didn’t know existed.

“The reissue, the purpose is to draw more attention to the strong tradition of African-American music in this state, whether it’s blues or even shape note singing.  Shape note singing isn’t often found in African-American communities, but in lower Alabama, Georgia, that tri-state area, including the Florida panhandle, it was once a thriving tradition.”

And for Dwight Devane, who helped give birth to the original project so many years ago, it’s a bit like seeing your tiny, fragile newborn grow into a strong, intelligent adult.

“I think what this does is sort of place this tradition in historical context in ways that haven’t been presented before.  And I think that it sort of rounds out the whole history of that expressive culture and that Florida was a real meeting place that, as Zora Neale Hurston said, was a place where blacks from all southern states came down.”

The expanded, digital re-incarnation of “Drop on Down in Florida: Field Recordings of African-American Traditional Music, 1977 to 1980” is now available.  Check out the Dust-to-Digital website:  www.dust-digital.com/florida/