Florida folk music loses Steve Blackwell

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:

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.

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 live on 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.


Steve's obituary is hard to find on the SW Florida Herald-Tribune website and the link will be dead in a week, so here is the complete text, reprinted with permission, for the sake of posterity and to sing the praises of a lovely gentleman and his legacy.

Death silences local folk musician

Blackwell founded the Guitar Army and taught at Charlotte High School.


PUNTA GORDA -- Steve Blackwell wrote all kinds of songs about the people and places of Florida.

One of his first was about a famous Native American chief.

Others focused on a civil rights activist, a cowboy and a rattlesnake catcher.

Blackwell, well known as a musician on the Florida folk scene, a teacher at Charlotte High School and a founder of the Guitar Army that plays weekly and welcomes anyone, died Sunday after a long struggle with cancer. He was 58 years old.

He originally moved to Punta Gorda from Indiana 35 years ago to teach high school English.

But the grandson of a vaudeville performer never lost the love of music instilled in him from an early age. That love morphed with his passions for poetry and storytelling into a successful second life singing folk songs.

Over the past decade, Blackwell released three albums with his group, Steve Blackwell and Friends.

He and his band twice played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and found their way onto the main stage at folk festivals across Florida.

Blackwell's folk career began in the mid-1990s after years of playing with the popular local cover band "The Armadillo Brothers."

Friend and fellow Charlotte High teacher Gary Helinski said Blackwell was searching for a new creative outlet when he began participating in a poetry group and went on to help found the the Guitar Army, a popular weekly jam session at Punta Gorda's Gilchrist Park.

Helinski said Blackwell influenced many local musicians through the jam sessions.

"I think his greatest success was bringing out the music in other people," Helinski said. "He always brought people in and made them feel welcomed and encouraged them."

Blackwell helped Helinski write his first song, about a rattlesnake catcher from Arcadia named Rattlesnake Johnson.

"I never would have wrote that song if it wasn't for Steve," Helinski said.

Carrie Hussey said that teaching role was typical of her dad. "He was always a gentle teacher who inspired people," Hussey said.

Many of the lessons came at campfire music sessions where Blackwell would "dance around and make up songs," Hussey said.

"He was so much fun to be around," she said. "He was just funny and goofy and he would put people at ease."

Blackwell also had a spiritual side, friends and family said.

He formed a gospel singing group with Hussey and friend Dan Leach called the Peace Creek Revival.

"He had a very strong belief in God," said Leach's wife, Robin. "I think he knew where he was going."

Blackwell's survivors include his wife, Margie.

Funeral services will be 2 p.m. Saturday at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church. Arrangements are being handled by the Larry Taylor Funeral and Cremation Services in Punta Gorda.

Note added in proof: I've noticed a number of folks coming by via Google searches for 'Steve Blackwell' - welcome. I also wanted to bring to everyone's attention a lovely tribute page to Steve at the Suncoast Sun and Herald.


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I am Dan's wife, Robin, and I want to thank you for your kind words. We all appreciate the love and prayers being sent our way.

By Robin Leach (not verified) on 10 Sep 2006 #permalink

I grew up just up the dirt road from the Blackwell's home on the river. I remember countless summer evenings hanging out there, a fire burning, songs being sung, sneaking beers with Japhy. If you were lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) Hayman would want to wrestle, or John would offer a midnight Harley ride. Those were the days, and nights. I think if I never had even met Steve, I would have some idea of who he was and what he stood for by what his kids are like.

I'm sad he's not here with us anymore but I know he will be close by every time I make my way south to the river. Every time I cross the Peace on I-75, I will remember and smile.


By Jeff Glas (not verified) on 30 Sep 2006 #permalink