Terra Sigillata

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This is for all of my peeps in SW Florida and all who love folk music. I received a lovely e-mail last week from Robin Leach, wife of mandolin player Dan Leach (and mother of bassist Andy Leach), who came upon my posts about a very special musician. Dan played with a gentleman named Steve Blackwell, a Midwestern transplant who came to the Sunshine State as a high school English teacher and became a fixture in the Florida folk music scene. My path crossed with Mr Blackwell in the months before his untimely departure from melanoma at age 58.

Yesterday, my friends celebrated Steve’s life and music in Charlotte Harbor at the second annual SteveFest. I love these people: “Coolers Are Allowed.” People joke with me when I say “Florida folk music scene” but it is indeed strong and a big, welcoming community. I’ve been traveling a lot lately and couldn’t get down this year but I’m really hoping to do so in 2010.

I detailed my connection with Mr Blackwell in this repost of my thoughts from the day of his memorial service. Mr Blackwell’s daughter and other former bandmates continue performing as Still Friends and were there yesterday. I hope that y’all had a great day!

[REPOST: The following post appeared originally on 9 September 2006]

Another reason I reposted yesterday on my Stetson Kennedy visit in January was to also note some bad news that came my way this week. Steve Blackwell, Florida folk guitarist and magnificent songwriter, lost his battle with malignant melanoma last Sunday. He was only 58. His memorial service will be this afternoon in Punta Gorda, Florida.

As I wrote in May of the first time I heard Mr Blackwell at the Stetson Kennedy Foundation inaugural event hosted by former NPR Morning Edition Host, Bob Edwards, with performances by Arlo Guthrie:

My admiration for Arlo Guthrie notwithstanding, the musical highlight of the night was the Steve Blackwell/Dan Leach duet of “Beluthahatchee on my Mind,” a song Steve wrote but has yet to record. Steve and Dan are stalwarts in the Florida folk music community and students of Florida folk legend, Frank Thomas, who also performed. Steve and Dan offered to meet with me on a subsequent trip to Florida to learn the song, but my schedule didn’t permit. Such is the kindness and openness of folk musicians.

Steve and Dan essentially drove five hours each way to be at Stet’s celebration to play one song. But Steve told me then that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

After serving on a grant review panel a few weeks later, the family Pharmboy went to southwest Florida for four days for me to reconnect with them. I had been corresponding with Steve and he and awesome mandolinist and singer, Dan Leach, offered to meet me at the weekly folk gathering Steve established in Punta Gorda to teach me “Beluthahatchee On My Mind.”

But, after spending the first day of family vacation in another grant review teleconference, it was felt that I should best spend the evening with my wife and daughter, who I had ignored in the weeks of frenzy leading up to my study section meeting.

As I get to Florida quite often, I figured that I’d always have another chance to catch up with Steve and play with him and Dan. In fact, we were already planning to come to Jacksonville/Fruit Cove in October for Stetson’s 90th birthday and I was certain that Steve would still be well enough to attend and for us to finally jam (note added: I ended up not making it due to a US Airways snafu but I at least had a chance to speak with Billy Bragg as a result).

Steve’s last post on his Steve Blackwell & Friends band site back in December documented his melanoma setback, interferon therapy, and even Dan’s own battle with colon cancer, of which I had been unaware at the time. Steve was always an incredibly upbeat guy, despite losing his house in one hurricane and having extensive damage in another.

This challenge, though, was too much to overcome.

Having lost PharmDad when he was also 58, I know some of the sadness and loss being felt today by the Blackwell family, especially his wife, Margie, and daughter and bandmate, Carrie Hussey. I also think of the grandkids, who may be too young to understand completely, and, of course, the larger musical family, students, and friends who knew and loved Steve.

Steve’s place in the Florida and national folk music community cannot be replaced, but his devotion to Florida natural history will survive in his recordings. His spirit of friendship, openness, and unassuming encouragement will also live on in those who had the honor and pleasure to play with him.

I’m so sorry to not have known him better but my life is much richer for having had this one snapshot of a memory of this musician and gentleman.