William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

Washboard Bill was born in Dupont, Florida on July 4, 1905. He was known as a percussionist, rooted in the minstrel tradition, as well as a captivating storyteller. During much of Cooke’s childhood, his mother operated a juke joint in Dupont. The young Cooke would secretly stay up past his bedtime listening to the music emanating from his mother’s establishment. These experiences shaped Cooke’s interest in music, and greatly influenced his rhythmic style later on in life.

Close up of William

Close up of William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

At age six, Cooke began working for a local sawmill, making 25 cents per day, after his mother fell on hard financial times. In 1916, Mrs. Cooke closed her juke joint, and sent her children to live on their grandfather’s farm in Sanford, Florida. As times grew tougher and the Great Depression set in, Cooke grew weary of his life on the farm, and decided to leave home. For ten years, he led the life of a hobo, traveling by train all over the East Coast.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke poses with his washboard and cymbals

Although Cooke spent the majority of his younger years traveling outside of Florida, he still maintained a connection with the state, generally spending his winters in West Palm Beach. Between 1947 and 1963, he performed with a group called the West Palm Beach Washboard Band. They played in venues everywhere from the streets to the estates of the Rockefellers and Kennedys. In 1956, he recorded Washboard Country Band with Sonny Terry and folk legend Pete Seeger. Cooke moved to West Palm Beach permanently in 1973. He performed in Florida and throughout the country until his death in 2003. For his musical and historical contributions, Cooke received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1992.

Portrait of street musician William

Portrait of street musician William “Washboard Bill” Cooke on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In 1988, Cooke recited a personal narrative, A Hobo’s Birthday, for the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Project, conducted by the Florida Folklife Program. Cooke’s story offers a fascinating account of life as a hobo during the Great Depression. His travels and experiences give the listener a vivid portrayal of transient life on the railroad tracks, and of the character Washboard Bill.

Podcast: A Hobo’s Birthday by William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

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For more information, please see:

Interview with Washboard Bill Cooke (and) Washboard Bill Cooke story: A Hobo’s Birthday

Tom Gaskins: Ol’ Barefoot

Tom Gaskins (1909 – 1998) spent most of his life trudging through the swamps of Fisheating Creek near Palmdale, Florida. He was a man of ideas and regarded as a salt-of-the-earth character. Gaskins owned the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale where he collected and sold cypress knees as decorations, furniture, and other useful items. His knowledge of cypress knees and swamp life was legendary. His friends referred to him as “Ol’ Barefoot,” as he never wore shoes except when paying his respects at a funeral.

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

The Cypress Knee Museum opened in the 1930s when Gaskins fashioned an extra-large cypress knee into a roadside sign to lure tourists to his collection. The museum remained open until 2000 (2 years after Gaskins’ death) when the property was burglarized and most of the collection stolen.

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Gaskins was also an inventor. He held over a dozen patents, including the Tom Gaskin’s Turkey Call that is still manufactured and sold today.

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

The State Archives of Florida is not the only organization that has taken an interest in Mr. Gaskins. Over the years he was featured in stories by the LA Times, Sun Sentinel, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Chicago Tribune, and was even a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Gaskins received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1988. His fascinating work and personality piqued the interest of those lucky enough to cross his path; just like travelers going down US 27 in South Florida who stopped by to see “Ol’ Barefoot.”

In 1987, Tom Gaskins was interviewed by the Florida Folklife Program. Below are two excerpts:

Excerpt 1: Tom Gaskins explains the origins of hollow cypress knees

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Excerpt 2: Tom Gaskins talks about the turkey call he invented

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More Information: Catalog Record

Blues Pianist Alexander McBride

The latest podcast from the State Archives of Florida highlights the life and music of blues pianist Alexander McBride.

Alex McBride performing at John E. Ford Elementary School, Jacksonville, 1991

Alex McBride performing at John E. Ford Elementary School, Jacksonville, 1991

Born in Jacksonville in 1913, McBride grew up in a household where gospel music was always in the air. His mother owned a piano, which she used strictly for spiritual music. Interestingly, McBride learned to play the piano from his mother, though she didn’t teach him herself. As a young boy, he recalled watching his mother practice. When she left, he would rush to the piano, replicating his mother’s technique. Once she heard her son’s talent, she began training and encouraging him to play at their local church.

Unbeknownst to his family, McBride became fond of blues music, which was banned in their home and church. That didn’t stop McBride. He would sneak out of the house and visit local juke joints to experience blues music, and before long, as a young teenager, he was playing local clubs and house parties. As an adult, he traveled around the Southeast, as well as to Chicago, playing primarily African American venues. In time, he earned the stage name “Piano Slim.”

Like fellow Florida native, and piano player, Ray Charles, McBride’s playing embodied both sacred and secular music. Both artists incorporated aspects of gospel into their blues, jazz, and R&B music to give their songs more profound emotional power. In the recordings selected for this podcast, McBride performs a moving rendition of Georgia on My Mind, made famous by Ray Charles. You will also hear McBride’s range of musical talent in Jazz Boogie, as he incorporates jazz and boogie-woogie into his repertoire.

McBride died in 1999, but he lived to see recognition for his contributions to Florida folk music. In 1997, he was presented the Florida Folk Heritage Award. McBride had a proactive desire to share his knowledge and talent by teaching and inspiring others. He participated in the Duval County Folklife in Education Program for 10 years by playing the piano for children in Duval County Public Schools.

Alexander McBride Podcast

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For More Information:

Catalog record: Sunday performances at the 1993 Florida Folk Festival (Main Stage) (Tape 5)

Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources: 1997 Florida Folk Heritage Award

Folklife Collection Spotlighted in National Study

The State Archives’ Florida Folklife Collection is among the projects featured in a new sustainability study focusing on digitization. The study, conducted by Nancy Moran of Ithaka S+R, in partnership with the Association of Research Libraries, details the history of the Folklife Collection and the ongoing efforts by the State Archives to make materials from the collection accessible via the Florida Memory website.

Glen Simmons (foreground) and his apprentice Donald Edwards poling skiffs through the Everglades near Florida City, ca. 1990

Glen Simmons (foreground) and his apprentice Donald Edwards poling skiffs through the Everglades near Florida City, ca. 1990

The Florida Folklife Collection is one of the largest and most diverse collections held by the State Archives of Florida. Approximately 5,000 sound recordings and 46,000 photographs from the collection have been cataloged. Of these, over 2,000 sound recordings and nearly 14,000 photographs are available on the Florida Memory website. The Folklife Collection provides a remarkable window into the traditional cultures of Florida’s native and immigrant populations. Materials in the collection, gathered by folklorists working for the Florida Bureau of Folklife Programs, speak to, among other things, religion, food, music, art, immigration, story telling, and labor in Florida history.

Boat Captain Skipper Lockett Welcomes You to Rainbow Springs

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Download “Searching for Sustainability: Strategies from Eight Digitized Special Collections,” which places the Folklife Collection in the context of other national projects, and the case study, which focuses solely on the history and ongoing efforts to sustain digitization of the Florida Folklife Collection.

An Old Time Florida Fiddler

Our latest podcast features music and tall tales from Florida fiddler and story teller Richard Seaman (1904-2002).

Richard Seaman at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1993

Richard Seaman at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1993

Seaman was born on an orange grove in Kissimmee, Florida. While attending community gatherings as a young boy, he listened to local fiddlers as people square danced into the night. These experiences motivated him to pick up the fiddle and learn the craft. This environment was also conducive to the telling of “tall tales,” which Seaman later recounted and delivered to captivated audiences with an intuitive flair.

Over the years, Seaman developed a repertoire of fiddle tunes that included waltzes and western swing, but the “old time” hoedown tunes he learned as a young man exemplify his contribution to the regional heritage of Florida fiddle playing. Folklorist Gregory Hansen notes that Seaman’s fiddle tunes have influenced fiddlers from Florida and beyond, and even the genre of bluegrass music that this “old time” style of playing precedes.

In his early years of fiddle playing, Seaman moved to Jacksonville, where he performed in several bands, including the Melody Makers and the string band South Land Trail Riders. He and the Melody Makers also had a weekly radio program on WJAX. In 1955, Seaman put his fiddle down and didn’t pick it up again for more than 30 years until he met banjoist/guitarist Jack Piccalo. The two began to play together at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, and continued to do so regularly until Seaman’s death in 2002.

Richard Seaman (foreground) and Jack Piccalo at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1993

Richard Seaman (foreground) and Jack Piccalo at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1993

Fiddle tunes were not Seaman’s only contribution to the Florida Folk Festival. He also recited “tall tales” to eager audiences on the Story Telling Stage. What made Seaman’s stories engaging was his ability to weave reality and fantasy together, always framing the narrative with a plausible scenario, and resolving it with “a whopper.” As Hansen points out, there is truth in Seaman’s fictitious tales as he conveys, “the daily activities that form important components of his life experience,” and in a greater sense, shared his vision of folklife in Florida.

In 2001, Seaman was recognized for his longstanding contribution to the folk culture of Florida when he received the Florida Folk Heritage Award at 96 years old.

This podcast highlights two performances by Seaman from the Florida Folk Festival. The first features Seaman’s fiddle playing, partnered with Jack Piccalo’s guitar, from the 1993 festival. In the second performance, we will hear an excerpt from Seaman’s “tall tales” told from the Story Telling Stage at the 1992 festival.

Enjoy!

Richard Seaman Podcast

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For more information, see: Catalog Record for Fiddle Performance; Catalog Record for Story Telling Performance; Gregory Hansen, A Florida Fiddler: The Life and Times of Richard Seaman (University of Alabama Press, 2007); Gregory Hansen, “Richard Seaman’s Presence within Florida’s Soundscape,” in The Florida Folklife Reader, edited by Tina Bucuvalas (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

November is Native American Heritage Month

The State Library and Archives of Florida provides access to a multitude of published and unpublished resources for the study of Native American history and culture. In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, this series highlights materials in the collection that speak to the past and ongoing influence of Native peoples in Florida history.

One of the unique resources held by the State Archives is the Florida Folklife Collection. State folklorists and the Seminole Tribe of Florida collaborated on several initiatives that produced a wealth of documentation on modern Seminole culture.

Canoe builders Bobby Henry (left) and Danny Wilcox, Tampa, 1988

Canoe builders Bobby Henry (left) and Danny Wilcox, Tampa, 1988

For example, the Seminole Slide and Tape Project, conducted in the early 1980s, resulted in a number of interviews and photographs documenting traditional arts and crafts. Other projects, such as the Seminole Video Project, yielded additional ethnographic materials used to educate Floridians about Seminole history and culture.

Some of the interviews gathered during the slide and tape project, facilitated by Seminole interpreters, feature informants speaking Muskogee (Creek) or Hitchiti (Mikasuki), indigenous languages spoken by members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes in Florida.

Agnes Cypress holding a pole used to grind corn, Ochopee, 1989

Agnes Cypress holding a pole used to grind corn, Ochopee, 1989

In addition to formal interviews, the Florida Folklife Collection also contains sound recordings of Seminole musicians and storytellers who appeared at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Prominent Seminole leaders, such as James Billie and Betty Mae Jumper, regularly participated in the festival.

James Billie and Don Grooms performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1983

James Billie and Don Grooms performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1983

“Back to the Swamp,” by James Billie

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Stay tuned for more posts on Native Americans in Florida history, featuring original and published materials held by the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Jibaro Puertorriqueño

Florida is home to immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), this series of blog posts features music brought to Florida from throughout the Hispanic world.

Today we’re highlighting Puerto Rican jibaro music. The term jibaro originally referred to Puerto Ricans from the interior mountainous regions of the country. Overtime jibaro became more of a general term for the rural population of Puerto Rico.

Jorge Lopez and Lena Verde performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

Jorge Lopez and Lena Verde performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

In 1986, Jorge Lopez and the band Lena Verde (Angelo Hernandez, Alejandro Santiago, and Angelo Rosario) performed this traditional style of Puerto Rican music at the first annual South Florida Folk Festival.

La Plena

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More Information: Catalog Record

Florida Net Maker: The Strangest Catch

Every year, staff at the State Archives of Florida gets ready for the Florida History Fair by searching out primary source documents and compiling a list of resources for students and teachers. One of this year’s suggested Florida-related topics is “Commercial Fishing Net Ban: Economics, Ecology, and Responsibility.” That topic led us to this story.

In 1980, folklorist Peggy Bulger interviewed net maker Billy Burbank III as part of her research on the fishing industry in Florida. Burbank told Bulger the tale of a fishing boat that accidentally caught something very strange in its trawl nets.

Burbank family at Burbank Trawl Makers, Inc., Fernandina Beach, 1986

Burbank family at Burbank Trawl Makers, Inc., Fernandina Beach, 1986

Billy Burbank and the Strangest Catch

B: My name is Billy Burbank, III. I was born in Fernandina Beach, Florida, October 2, 1951.

P: Now tell me something about your grandfather, William Burbank.

B: Well, my grandfather was born on Cumberland Island which is in Georgia. He started shrimping oh back in his early years when he was 15-16 years old. He got into the shrimp business, oh just starting shrimping and started making his own nets.

And when oh his nets seemed to out produce everybody else’s nets. Then everybody decided to get him to make their nets and then that’s when we got started in the net business in about 1915 and been in it ever since.

P: […] Oh, what is the strangest catch you’ve ever heard anybody catching around here?

B: Strangest catch?

P: Yeah.

B: […] Probably be oh, submarines. An actual submarine in someone’s net started towing the boat backwards almost sinking the boat didn’t even realize they had the shrimp boat caught. It was the— not a Navy submarine. It was a German, I mean a Russian submarine.

P: Here?

B: Well, it was off this coast, yeah. They didn’t even realize that they had the submarine in the net at first. They were towed one way and all of a sudden started going backwards of the cable popped. And just a little while later they saw the submarine surface with the shrimp net on top of ‘em. I guess I’d have to say that is the weirdest catch.

Learn More About Net Making

Burbank nets have been used by people in the U.S. from North Carolina down to Florida and up the Gulf Coast through the Texas Panhandle area. Their nets have also been exported to Central and South America and Africa. At the time of the interview, Burbank Trawl Makers was the largest producer of fishing nets in the United States.

In the interview, Burbank also describes the different net types and uses – including flat nets, four seam balloon nets, two seam balloon nets, and a modification that Billy Burbank III developed called the Mongoose, which is actually two nets in one.

Read the full interview in Netmaking and Net Fishing in Florida.

Close-up view of net made by Billy Burbank III, Fernandina Beach, 1980

Close-up view of net made by Billy Burbank III, Fernandina Beach, 1980

Mariachi Jalisco

Florida is home to immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), this series of blog posts features music brought to Florida from throughout the Hispanic world.

Mariachi Jalisco is an aptly named band, as Mariachi music originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco. This recording of the band comes from the Metro-Dade Folk Arts Survey conducted in 1986 by folklorists Tina Bucuvalas, Nancy Nusz, and Laurie Sommers in order to identify folk arts and folk artists for the 34th Annual Florida Folk Festival.

Members of Mariachi Jalisco performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

Members of Mariachi Jalisco performing at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida during the Traditions Festival, Miami, 1986

Here, Mariachi Jalisco perform the song “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman),” a tune based on the legendary tale of a mother condemned to roam the earth for eternity looking in vain for her children that she drowned in life.

La Llorona

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Survivalist Librarian

Listen to Boomslang Swampsinger perform “Survivalist Librarian,” a song from his Swamp Opera, at the 2006 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

Lithograph of a Florida Swamp, by Harry Feen, ca. 1890

When I was scanning through catalog records in the Folklife Collection, a song called “Survivalist Librarian” caught my eye. After the song circulated the office it was an obvious hit… to us anyway.

Survivalist Librarian

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More Information: Catalog Record

As with any curious archivist or librarian, I wanted to add context. We knew the song was recorded on the Main Stage at the Florida Folk Festival on May 26, 2006, and that it was attributed to Murray Palmetto’s South Florida Swamp Show. But whose imagination came up with such a song? Thanks to Stan Geberer, a great patron of the Archives, who happened to be on stage that night playing harmonica for this very song, I was able to track down the composer: Boomslang Swampsinger.

Boomslang Swampsinger cordially agreed to an interview and was happy to provide some background on the song and the musicians involved. Beware, there is a fully developed mythology here, as difficult to keep straight as the Greek gods, but I will attempt to keep it as brief and coherent as possible.

Murray Palmetto’s South Florida Swamp Show is a one man show featuring Boomslang Swampsinger, star and producer of what he describes as his “Swamp Opera,” which consists of a mixture of swamp music and stories. Whenever Murray Palmetto (Boomslang Swampsinger) appears he plays with The Peters Road Swamp-Blues Band that specializes in “acoustic roadhouse country music about bars in the Everglades.”

The band for this particular performance consisted of Jake Vanderplate (mandolin), Bret Hartcrane (banjo, vocals), Mark Harris (bass, flute, vocals), Dawn DeWitt (bass, guitar, vocals), Ron Litschauer (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Stan Geberer (harmonica), Bari Litschauer (banjo, mandolin), and Barbara Meade. You’ll notice no mention of Boomslang Swampsinger above because he is also known as Bret Hartcrane (free CDs if you can guess the origins of this name) when playing with this band.

Yes, Boomslang has a number of aliases, adding to the pantheon of characters in this tangled Florida yarn, not to mention every band member has also been assigned an animal inspired name in addition to other colorful monikers.

In 2006, Murray Palmetto’s South Florida Swamp Show presented one of their “Swamp Operas” on opening night of the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. It was called the Everglades Campfire Radio Show. “Survivalist Librarian” was one of the songs performed during the show.

The seed for this song was planted back in the early 1990s, according to Boomslang, when he and his wife were having a late lunch in western Broward County and “more than three or four dozen” well behaved and well armed camouflaged militia men came out of the swamp, leaned their rifles against the picnic tables and ordered lunch. Upon witnessing this scene Boomslang mused what if “they had [with them] an official librarian to serve them books to read, while waiting for the lone waitress to feed all 48 of them.” The result of this thought… well, we’ll let Boomslang explain the rest.