Caught the Spirit of the Suwannee

Yesterday, I spent the day at the Magnolia Music Festival, held at the “Spirit of the Suwannee” state music park. It couldn’t have been a more heavenly day – clear blue skies, temperature in the mid 70s, dropping to the mid 60s at night. Like much of northern Florida, the park hosts many live oak trees with Spanish moss – and probably not coincidentally the park itself is actually situated in the city of Live Oak, FL.
There were more than 30 bands on hand on four different stages, with bluegrass as the predominant style of music, but not the only style of music. My favorite band, Scythian, is an Irish/Celtic band with a modern edge. Then there was Tornado Rider, whose lead singer plays an electric cello as if it were an electric guitar. He also likes to climb things. What a storm of songs he took us through! Almost all had to do with animals (songs about hyenas, falcons, and even dinosaurs!) And Donna the Buffalo topped things off late at night with some classic bluegrass grooves .
Throughout this great day of music, however, I couldn’t help but notice some of the religious undertones to much of the music. And the crowd didn’t necessarily appear to be your typical church-going folk.
I am a fan of Seth Walker’s blues – this is now the third time I’ve seen him in northern Florida in the past two years (despite the fact he’s from Austin, TX). Like many bluesmen, his lyrics and sound sometimes seem to morph into gospel at times. This is particularly the case in the song “Lay Down (River of Faith)” on his new “Leap of Faith” album. I found a video clip of him performing the song from another show here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgLtn04g354&feature=related
The lyrics begin… “Lay down my soul….my soul….I got to lay down…and fly right through heaven’s gate…through heaven’s gate…I got to lay down.”
He played his Saturday afternoon set on the Meadow stage, only a few hundred feet away from the legendary Suwannee River. The lyrics in his song continued, “I’m washing off my hands in the sanctifying water…I’m washing off my hands in the river of faith.” As he evoked these words, I felt I needed to go take in a view of the Suwannee River after his set, as water is both purifying and magnificent, especially the great Suwannee River.
Seth’s gospel-like blues continued in his lyrics, “Darkness came over me…it came over me…I got to lay down. The devil put tempt in me, put tempt in me…I got to lay it down…What’s buried inside of me…inside of me…and I got to lay it all down. Worship a higher love…a higher love…and I got to lay all it down.”
Lay it down we must.
Later in the evening just as the sun was setting,, Scythian took the Meadow stage. I have seen them more than a dozen times and know them well. Two of the musicians in the band, Dan and Alex Fedoryka are sons of Ukranian Catholics. There are always good strong messages in most of their songs – from songs of courage like “I Will Go” to adventurous songs such as the “Gypsy Fiddle.” They have even made the accordion sexy again with the hip “technocorrdion” song. However, they chose to close with a new song, called “Santa Maria.” And I found a video link to them playing this song earlier this month at the Catholic school that Dan graduated from, Franciscan University: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPul0XIRxBw
The lyrics feature a fast, repetitive chorus, “Santa Maria, Santa Maria, Santa Maria… save our souls.” It was fantastic and beautiful at the same time. The message of the song was to ask “Santa Maria” (St. Mary) for guidance in seeking salvation. And as my friend Heather said, Scythian is not just a great band, but they play with such “joy.” Indeed. I’ve always described them as simply a “fun” band. It’s impossible not to have fun at a Scythian show – and nearly impossible not to dance.
Speaking of dancing, we saw a lot of dancing among many of the “hippies” and other folks who come to the “Spirit of the Suwannee” music park. It seems they are trying to get away from the regular lives and embrace a “hippie culture” once again. Some were dancing by themselves, some with others. And some were performing dancing moves I’ve never seen before (and wouldn’t mind not seeing again). But dancing is also an expression of a longing within one self, and is usually done with music invokes something deeper within, perhaps towards something greater above – as Seth Walker might say, toward a “higher love.” It almost looked like a religious experience for one man who we saw dancing out in the middle of the crowd.
The songs, dancing, and heavenly setting at the beautiful “Spirit of the Suwanee” state park had much of us catching the spirit indeed.
I will be posting pictures and possibly more commentary in the coming days. But, be sure to join us at the park for Springfest. Mark your calendars now for March 26-28. I think we’ll be going for more than one day then and take in the camping experience as well. Then we will see bonfires, sunrises, and breakfast come into play as well.

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