Del Suggs puts “heart and soul” into the Florida Folk Festival

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the Florida Folk Festival will return for its 70th anniversary after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Musician Del Suggs, who has been one of the festival’s featured performers since 1983, can’t wait to be back on stage at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs May 27-29.

Of the 14 stages at the festival, Suggs favorite spot is the River Gazebo stage which is built on the Suwannee River and designed for acoustic performances.

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“When you’re on the banks of the Suwannee River, that’s the heart and soul of Florida,” says Suggs. “You get to know the people who come to the festival from all over the state, and each year you develop a close friendship and affinity with those people. It always feels like coming home to a family reunion.

Del Suggs performs at the 2008 Florida Folk Festival.

Fifth generation Floridian

Suggs is a fifth-generation Floridian. His mother’s family settled in North Florida in the 1790s. As a singer-songwriter and guitarist, Suggs gained national recognition as a pioneer of “Saltwater Music” and the “Too Rock” among his contemporaries like Jimmy Buffett, Zac Brown and Kenny Chesney.

His first public performance was at the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in Fort Walton Beach in college. Since then, Suggs has continued to tour and write music dedicated to the hurricanes he’s been through, the sailing trips he’s enjoyed, and the colorful cast of characters he’s encountered along the way.

Del Suggs performs in one of the popular circles at the Florida Folk Festival, 1996.

His songs “Magic Chair” and “A Hurricane’s Coming” are often his favorites on his setlist. The latter brought tears to many people’s eyes when he performed it in the Panhandle shortly after the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael.

“That was around the time I was in 10th grade on my paper road delivering newspapers as a hurricane approached Panama City,” Suggs says. “After this show, I realized the power that nature has over all of us, and the things that we can walk through and experience.”

Del Suggs, who has performed at the Florida Folk Festival since 1983, will return this year for the 70th festival.

“Let’s all become friends”

Suggs says he is one of many musicians and artists who will never again take live performing for granted after the COVID-19 lockdown. Although he didn’t find quarantine an inspiring time for songwriting, he did play several shows through Zoom and other online platforms.

When it comes to writing new music, he recalls fun memories and builds images and language around those experiences. The melodies come naturally once he puts the words on the page. During his career, Suggs has performed at colleges, universities, and international festivals, including Japan’s World Music Festa, Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival, and Sarasota Opera House in Florida.

Del Suggs performed at the 1994 Florida Folk Festival.

“So many artists approach an audience with fear or trepidation,” remarks Suggs. “I try to think of them as people who want to be friends with me. I go out there and open my heart and let them know who I am and let us all become friends with each other.

Suggs is looking forward to making lots of new acquaintances at this year’s festival. On Friday May 27, he will give a workshop on “Instant Songwriting” and then perform on the Will McLean stage.

Suggs describes McLean as one of the most prolific Florida folk singer-songwriters of the early 20th century. He is known for his tracks on the great hurricane of 1933 as well as Tate’s Hell, which refers to the forest north of Carrabelle where a hunter named Tate disappeared for three days.

Del Suggs, left, performs at the 1998 Florida Folk Festival.

A lesson in Florida history

Suggs says the Folk Festival is one of the best places to learn about Florida history and the tales that make it one of the most unforgettable places in the country.

It encourages the recent influx of new Florida residents to enjoy the festival’s wide-ranging music, dance, and food. On Saturday, May 28, Suggs will share the River Gazebo stage with friend and musician Grant Livingston and swap songs about the state’s rich history.

“When you go to the Folk Festival, you can hear the music from all the different folk communities that have come to Florida,” Suggs says. “There’s Greek music, Haitian music, Appalachian music, Bluegrass, and contemporary Florida folksongs. I tend to think of Florida culture as a salad bowl, where different cultures maintain their own traditions while they’re here and share them with us.

Del Suggs at the Florida Folk Festival in 1986.

As the nation’s oldest state-run folk festival, Suggs is grateful to be able to celebrate 70 years of sharing these traditions with strong programming.

Headliners include Tarpon Springs native Bertie Higgins, who will perform at the festival for the first time, The Lee Boys, who have been inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame, and John McEuen of the legendary Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. With the Suwannee River behind him, Suggs is ready to greet and enchant audiences with his own Florida story.

“One songwriter said all songs are love songs, whatever they’re about,” Suggs explains.

“I’ve always been teased that I write love songs about boats and the beach rather than other people. I write love songs about where we live and what we do , and that’s part of saltwater music. I love telling stories about the struggles, the tragedies, the adventures, and the recovery that we all have here.

If you are going to

What: Florida Folk Festival

When: May 27-29

Or: Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, 11016 Lillian Saunders Drive, White Springs, Florida

Cost: Advance tickets $50 weekend (3 days) $25 per day; Admission tickets $60 weekend (3 days) $35 per day; children 6-16 years old are charged $5 for the weekend and children under 6 years old are free

Contact: For more information, call 386-397-7009 or visit floridafolkfestival.com

Amanda Sieradzki is a feature writer for the Council for Culture and the Arts. COCA is the Capital Region’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).

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