By Susan D. Brandenburg
Back in October 1916, a baby boy was born to the Kennedy family of Jacksonville, Fla. – a boy who was destined to become an iconic, globally-recognized champion of civil rights, environmental and cultural preservation. Stetson Kennedy devoted his life to making the world a better place and when he died in 2011 at age 94, he left an impressive legacy that lives on today. In this year marking a century since Stetson Kennedy’s birth, the foundation that bears his name is celebrating his memory and his accomplishments at every opportunity.
One celebratory event, Second Sunday at Stetson’s, occurs monthly at Beluthahatchee, where Kennedy lived and worked for many years. His picturesque cedar cottage and its surroundings, just off State Road 13 in Fruit Cove, are now a Florida Heritage Park owned by St. Johns County, and Second Sunday at Stetson’s is a folk music fest that happens there on the second Sunday of each month from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
As a result of the collaboration between the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, the North Florida Folk Network and St. Johns County, Second Sunday at Stetson’s regularly features some of the best folk singers on the First Coast, all of whom hold Kennedy’s memories and values close to their hearts.
In addition to enjoying excellent musical performances, visitors are treated to a tour of Kennedy’s historic cottage, which has received two national literary landmark designations – one for author and activist Stetson Kennedy and one for his buddy, folksinger Woody Guthrie, who, while “hanging out” at Beluthahatchee in the 1950s, wrote his autobiography “Seeds of Man” and more than 80 songs.
“Nothing would please Stetson more than to see this place attracting folksingers of this caliber to come and perform the ‘words of the people’ for like-minded audiences,” said Kennedy’s widow, Sandra Parks, following a stellar concert, Songs for Stetson, performed on June 12 by three of North Florida’s finest folksinger/songwriters, Al Poindexter, Paul Garfinkel and Larry Mangum.
“Stetson loved to hold soirees here with musicians, philosophers, activists, artists and educators,” said Parks. “These three talented men standing here with me today fit all of those categories admirably.”
Among the many powerful songs performed in the round by the three musicians, Poindexter sang a song entitled “Beluthahatchee Bill,” (lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music by local folksinger Alvah Allen) explaining to the audience that Kennedy’s given name was William Stetson Kennedy, thus Guthrie’s alliterative use of “Bill” in his song. Guthrie’s song describes Kennedy’s legendary run-ins with the “Kluxers” (Ku Klux Klan) and promises, “You’ll never slack my speed none … not Beluthahatchee Bill!”
Poindexter, who is slated to receive the Stetson Kennedy Foundation’s Fellow Man and Mother Earth award at Kennedy’s 100th Birthday Bash on October 5 at the Wilson Center, Florida State College Jacksonville, has been called a “Florida Folksinger’s Folksinger.” In addition to writing songs that honor the environment and culture of Florida, such as “St. Johns House Boat,” “Alligator Hole,” “Sweet Back Roads,” and “Orange Pickers Lament,” Poindexter performs in elementary schools throughout the First Coast and teaches a class at the University of North Florida’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute based on the late Ron Johnson’s book, “North Florida Folk Music – History and Tradition.”
So inspired was he when he first visited Kennedy’s home place, that Poindexter wrote his own original song titled “Beluthahatchee.” He notes that as a folksinger and songwriter, he cares about folklore, folk music, the environment and human rights, as well as Florida history, its land, water and wildlife.
“No place I’ve ever been holds all these things as dear at one time as Beluthahatchee does,” said Poindexter. “You just can’t separate the man, Stetson Kennedy, from the place, Beluthahatchee. They are one and the same.”
As Stetson Kennedy’s centennial year celebrations continue, watch The CreekLine for articles about the Stetson Kennedy Foundation’s Songwriter in Residence program, the Reader’s Theater “Black Super-Heroes,” performances, pop-up history events, the 100th Birthday Bash on October 5 and more.
Visit www.stetsonkennedy.com for detailed information on upcoming events celebrating Kennedy’s centennial.
On June 12, Second Sunday at Stetson’s was a sold out performance. Second Sunday on July 10 at Beluthahatchee, 1523 State Road 13, Fruit Cove, will be a tribute to Woody Guthrie performed by folksinger/songwriters David Milam, Cindy Bear and Jeff Parker. Space is limited space and the recommended donation is $10. Call (904) 206-8304 for reservations.
Photo courtesy Susan D. Brandenburg
Second Sunday at Stetson’s, June 12, 2016: Paul Garfinkel, Larry Mangum, Sandra Parks and Al Poindexter (with Stetson Kennedy portrait by graffiti artist Chip Southworth)