Though it hardly seems likely from the look of the South Florida music scene these days, we were once a breeding ground for folkies that went on to change the direction of modern music.
David Crosby and Joni Mitchell were frequent performers in the clubs and coffee houses of Coconut Grove, Jimmy Buffett put Key West on the map and North Miami's hallowed Criteria Studios lured many an acoustic performer seeking to make the transition from their status as traditional troubadours to modern minstrels, finding a comfortable fit in the musical mainstream.
The Grove was at the hub of that thriving folk scene, but having been transformed from an idyllic bohemian village into something resembling an overgrown shopping mall, it's lost its musical lure, even though the historic Barnacle still hosts the occasional concert in its moonlit environs.
In recent years, the folk scene's moved North, embraced by the folk and blues clubs of Boca and Delray, and the occasional house concert. Nevertheless, South Florida's folk legacy still thrives, and happily, we needn't limit our bragging to Buffett! Here is a list of the top ten folk performers who helped shape the local scene.
10. Grant Livingston
Ya gotta give a guy credit for sheer perseverance when he's plied his craft for the past 30 years and still managed to retain his sense of humor. That's Grant Livingston in a nutshell, a local musician, observer, and philosopher who celebrates all things Florida in song.
A favorite at innumerable coffeehouses, benefits, house concerts, workshops and wherever else folk music is still celebrated, Livingston's become a veritable fixture on the South Florida scene, with an appeal that encompasses all ages, styles, and demographics. An adroit entertainer, he integrates his songs with wry commentary in true folkie tradition, sprinkling in ditties about road trios, pie eating, barnacles, armadillos, and even the planning of his own funeral amidst his various topics of discussion.
9. Bob Lind
Since scoring his sole major hit with the chart staple "Elusive Butterfly of Love" in 1966, Mr. Lind hasn't been heard from that much, aside from occasional appearances around town over the past few years. That's fine. After all, there's a certain proprietary pride in having a legend all to ourselves.
Lately though, Lind's undertaken a comeback of sorts, releasing his first new album in a generation via the aptly titled Finding You Again. Produced by pop pundit Jamie Hoover of North Carolina's Spongetones, it's the latest milestone in a career that veered from music to publishing -- encompassing five novels, an award-winning play, a screenplay called Refuge (which won the Florida Screenwriters' Competition in 1991), and a writing gig for Weekly World News and the Sun. We'd suggest his greatest source of pride may well be the accolade accorded him by the British band Pulp, who chose to christen a song in his honor, "Bob Lind (The Only Way Down)." How many people can claim that as a distinction?
8. Amy Carol Webb
Given the fact she's the only lady on the list -- an unfortunate thing we're forced to acknowledge pertaining to political incorrectness -- we feel obligated to name Ms. Webb the undisputed godmother of South Florida folk. But even if the competition was stiffer, she'd seize that distinction regardless.
Lauded by both Miami New Times and the Miami Herald, and further praised by Billboard magazine -- which compared her to Carole King, Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell and singled her out as an "Act to Watch" -- she's performed at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival and twice placed in the finals -- in the same year, no less -- at the competition sponsored by Paul Stookey's (of Peter Paul and Mary fame) Public Domain Foundation.
The locals like her because she's so giving and gracious, aside from being a true champion of the local arts. Also, she's the very embodiment of an Earth Mother extraordinaire.
7. Bob Ingram
A constant presence on the local scene since the '60s, Ingram played all the major local venues of decades past -- the Flick, Pegasus, and the Coffee House, to name but a few. He's also hobnobbed with a lot of big names -- Joni, Buffett, Crosby, Fred Neil, and Steve Goodman, among them. Nevertheless, he's never gained much traction beyond the local scene, and his reputation as a master storyteller is beyond reproach. A frequent featured performer at North Miami folk bastion, the Lone Star Cafe, he is characterised fondly in an online posting for a forthcoming appearance: "Rampant nostalgia, radical philosophy, and random hilarity." All appropriate adendums to a rowdy reputation.
6. Rod MacDonald
Another veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Rod MacDonald's happily ensconced in Delray and still manages to eke out a pretty good living with frequent touring and an ongoing series of master classes at FIU where he lectures on songwriting and technique.
Prior to relocating to these realms in 1995, MacDonald was a constant presence at many of New York's most prestigious folk clubs, including Gerdes Folk City and the Bottom Line, and his level activity both here and abroad hasn't faltered since.
Despite frequent overseas tours, he manages to make regular Florida appearances, not only under his own auspices, but also as part of his Dylan tribute band Big Brass Bed and in a traditional group setting with singer Tracy Sands. Their songs are devoted to social and political commentary; his "American Jerusalem" was hailed for its commentary about the contrast between the rich and the poor. It's little wonder his material has been covered by the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Shawn Colvin, Jonathan Edwards, and the ubiquitous Four Bitchin' Babes.
He can also claim ten solo albums and shared stages with Emmylou Harris, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Richie Havens, Ani DiFranco, Odetta, Suzanne Vega, and the Violent Femmes. Whew! If you've never caught him in concert, keep a lookout. It's only a matter of time before you find him playing in a pub near you.
5. Vince Martin
Like his one time musical partner Fred Neil, Vince Martin established his base early on in South Florida. While little known to the public at large, he gained a respected reputation among his musical peers. His duo album with Neil, Tear Down The Walls, gained him some measure of fame, although it consisted mainly of Neil's songs. Nevertheless, the presence of John Sebastian (just prior to the formation of the Lovin' Spoonful) and Felix Papalardi (later a mainstay of the band Mountain and a prime producer for Cream) demonstrate early star attraction.
His 1969 album If the Jasmine Don't Get You... the Bay Breeze Will was recorded in Nashville, with many of the musicians that appeared on Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Nevertheless, it was his eponymous effort released by Capitol Records in 1973 that offered him the greatest chance for meshing with the mainstream. Despite guest appearances by Sebastian, Van Dyke Parks, and a young Hank Williams Jr., that promise remained unfilled. We can only hope that a recent documentary entitled Vagabondo! may eventually bring him the kudos he's due.
4. Dion DiMucci
There are actually two Dions living in our midst -- one whose first name is Celine, and the other who goes by his surname only. Granted, the latter's initial notoriety was established far from our shores, what with his host of hits procured with the Belmonts -- "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," "Teenager In Love," et al. -- songs that struck gold in the Brill Building/pre-British Invasion era.
Solo hits followed the band's break-up, most notably "Ruby Baby" and his 1968 protest chart-topper "Abraham Martin and John," a song that affirmed his transition into the furtive folk scene of the mid- and late-'60s. As the years went by, Dion changed direction as frequently as he switched record labels, progressing through folk, religion, the blues, and various attempts to mine modern rock.
Occasional reunions with the Belmonts aside, he's mostly focused on rehashing blues standards these days, and his more recent albums reveal his undiminished devotion to reclaiming those roots. A resident of Boca Raton, he's one of only a few locals claiming membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
3. Jimmy Buffett
These days, it seems somewhat sacrilegious to refer to Jimmy Buffett as a folkie, given his fanatical following, his penchant for partying and years of incredible popular and financial success. After all, there are few tattered troubadours who can claim a mansion in Palm Beach, a private plane, a massive schooner, multi-faceted careers as a writer, producer, environmentalist, and entrepreneur, all a boost to his populist appeal.
Nevertheless, this adopted Key West homeboy (he originally hails from Alabama) helped popularize the appeal of the Keys with "Margaritaville," an idyllic ode to "booze in a blender" that became a nationwide favorite. Besides bringing him to the masses (his first single to hit the airwaves, "Come Monday," was a only a modest success), it also helped spawn a chain of restaurants that once rivalled Hard Rock. Where better place to grab that cheeseburger than in the paradise Buffett's always boasting about?
2. Gamble Rogers
One of the few local icons who wasn't a transplant, but actually a Florida native (he was born in Winter Park near Orlando), Rogers took up his craft in the '60s and became part of an elite group of singer/songwriters who helped spearhead the Florida Folk Festival.
In the '80s, his fame spread to public radio and public television, and his comic monologues and humorous songs about a fictional Florida county called "Oklawaha" soon became the signature subjects of his performances and persona. Not surprisingly then, Rogers became a lasting influence on a young Jimmy Buffett, who frequently referenced him in his own shows and even dedicated his album Fruitcakes to him. Rogers died tragically but heroically in 1991 while attempting to rescue a stranger trapped in the surf at Flagler Beach. Appropriately, the park is now named in Rogers' memory.
1. Fred Neil
Developing his craft in the clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village during the formative years of the late '50s and early '60s, Neil garnered a rabid following that, at various times, included the young Bob Dylan (who is said to have backed him up on harmonica during an early live performance), David Crosby, Steven Stills, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Tim Hardin, John Sebastian, and Paul Kantner (whose band Jefferson Airplane would later cover Neil's standard "The Other Side of This Life").
His partnership with another future South Florida folkie, Vince Martin, would prove especially prodigious, but it was only after Neil moved South and established a local residency that his reputation really flourished. Inspired by a trip to the then fledgling Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, he wrote "The Dolphins," which soon became an environmental anthem and a popular cover by the likes of Tim Buckley and many others. But it was his song "Everybody's Talkin'," the de-facto theme song for the film Midnight Cowboy performed by Harry Nilsson, that won him his greatest accolades (and a Grammy) and assured his popular success.
Sadly, his recordings are relatively few, but the albums Bleeker & MacDonald, Fred Neil and The Other Side of This Life are well worth acquiring.