It's a broiling 92-degree Miami day. Fish are sweating, but Grant Livingston isn't. He's leaning back in a white plastic chair, sipping from a vat of iced tea. Shielded from the searing sun by his Panama hat and the green-and-white-striped umbrella overhead that resembles the pattern of his short-sleeve shirt, Livingston is the essence of cool.
"If you ask me what I do, I'm a songwriter first," he explains. "A vocalist and guitarist second, because what I really like to do is write." Since the early '80s, Livingston has been doing almost full-time what he likes -- writing, singing, and strumming his guitar for just about anyone who will listen. He's not a street musician but a folksinger, a career he drifted into. Livingston, age 41, earned a degree in physics at the University of Florida. He went on to study psychoacoustics at the University of Texas at Austin for a few years but dropped out before he got his master's. Over the years he worked off and on as a computer programmer, but eventually art took precedence over science and he made music his mainstay.
Livingston, who grew up in north Miami-Dade, began taking piano lessons at the age of 7. At age 13 he switched to trumpet. "I liked Louis Armstrong -- the way he played, the way he sang -- and Tom Lehrer, anyone who wrote clever lyrics. I liked Albert Einstein a lot, too; he was an idol. I was a weird kid, but it didn't bother me," he says. Next he worked on mastering the guitar. "Classical guitar was the first style I learned. I was a competent classical guitarist, not a concert guitarist." Knowing old music came in handy for his first public performances, at Renaissance fairs -- those outdoor events known for jousting competitions, living chess games, and period costumes.
Indoor gigs came next, albeit not very high-paying ones. "I opened a show for Frank and Ann Thomas of Lake Wales back in 1983 at a South Beach coffeehouse called Our Place," Livingston recalls. "I had a repertoire of five or six original songs, and I was doing a lot of standard folk songs and Irish folk songs. You always got part of the door there, and I remember the first time I played I got $9. The Thomases then invited me to the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs."
Livingston underwent a heady initiation into the folk-music world. At his first festival performance, he played right after a set by the legendary Florida troubadour Gamble Rogers. The young singer was unfazed. "A hard act to follow is a good act to follow," he says cheerfully. "It's much better to walk in after someone electrifies an audience. That was great for me. I got a good reaction from the crowd."
On that particular day, something other than the audience's positive response spurred Livingston into action. At the festival the tradition of writing songs about Florida was brought to life for him. "I was strongly influenced by those people," he recalls. "I didn't know a lot about it. I had run into some recordings in the library by a musician who wrote a lot about the Everglades. But I learned that the whole tradition of Florida songwriting goes back to Will McClean, who wrote thousands of songs. He probably started in the '30s, and he died in the '90s. He had a real strong belief in writing about Florida. I think he was the first; he started something that wasn't there before. And, of course, Gamble Rogers was part of that. He died a few years ago while trying to save someone from drowning."
Livingston had already penned a Florida song, "A Southern Christmas Carol," which playfully describes enjoying the holidays sans snow. But, after his festival experience, he made up his mind to continue in the tracks of writers like Rogers and McClean and set Florida's history to music. Soon he was writing country-blues and ragtime-tinged ditties about mangoes, melaleucas, and manatees, performing them himself with his acoustic guitar and a voice reminiscent of Bobby Goldsboro and John Denver. Other tunes followed, detailing traffic travails on I-95 ("We Need a Train"), Julia Tuttle's persuading Henry Flagler to bring his railroad to Miami ("Julia's Garden"), and the plight of unlucky armadillos getting squashed on highways ("Armadillo Song"). Gradually he began to incorporate a greater number of original compositions into his set.
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However difficult songwriting seemed, Livingston realized the entire process was fairly easy compared to finding receptive audiences in his hometown. "People in Miami tend not to listen so well," he points out. "It's just part of the character of Miami. I've lived here my whole life, and I think when you go somewhere else, people are just friendlier. There's a big difference between audiences here and in West Palm Beach. In Miami something has to get big enough and then people accept it. People sort of have this attitude of 'Prove something to me.' But then people can also be wonderful. I love it here. That's why I write about Miami."
While he admits Miami may be a great place to live, making a living there has posed a challenge. The composer quickly discovered that, for an acoustic musician to survive, traveling is a must. "It's part of the job," says Livingston, who between treks around the state does some computer consulting to help cover the bills. "There's something about the musician from out of town that's more appealing than the one who lives here. You see that at folk festivals, where they have separate stages for the national and the local acts, which I don't agree with. It sort of implies that the national acts are better than the local acts. I guess the act that traveled implies a certain degree of commitment. Thank goodness I've got a Geo Prism. It gets 45 miles to the gallon!"
In 1987 the peripatetic Livingston moved to Coconut Grove. A year later he put 11 of his true stories -- including the Christmas song, the Julia Tuttle tune, and his tribute to armadillos -- on a cassette titled Florida Rain, which he hopes to release on CD soon. In 1996 he released the album The One That Got Away, featuring more tales of South Florida life. Among the characters percolating in his mind, waiting to have their stories told in music, is the slave-pirate Black Caesar. Livingston knows that, in the same casual way he fell into his current career, he will write the song eventually -- when he comes across the right mix of words and music.
These days Livingston is known among the folk crowd as Florida's historian in song, a title the basically lighthearted musician takes rather seriously. "You have an extra burden when you're writing historical songs, because you have to tell the truth," he says. "I can't say Henry Flagler was an airplane pilot because someone is going to say no. In one sense it makes your life easier because you have something to start with, and in another way it makes it harder because you have to convey facts. But there is something essentially more interesting about telling a true story. What I do has a lot to do with the words. If you're not listening to the words, you're not getting it. It's not just the sound. Sound is important, but words are primary.