Will McLean

Folk Musician

1919 - 1990
Inducted in 1996

Biography

Considered by many to be the "Father of Florida Folk Music," Will McLean spent most of his life traveling the state and writing over 3,700 songs and stories.  He became known as the "Black Hat Troubadour" because of the black hat he wore everywhere.  In 1987, the renowned folk singer/songwriter Pete Seeger called him "the greatest living songwriter in America today."

Born near Chipley, in the Florida Panhandle, McLean showed a keen ear for music almost from the time he could talk. After his grandfather gave him fiddle made from a gourd and cornstalk, he wrote his first song at age 6, a tune he named "Away O'ee." 

Along with music, young McLean loved the outdoors, and often combined his two passions by writing songs both in and about the woods and wetlands he grew up in.  He spent his entire life traveling the length and breadth of his native state, from the Panhandle to the Keys.  He enjoyed many years of camping in wilderness areas, listening to people and capturing their stories and lives in song.

McLean eventually became a fixture at festivals and folk music concerts throughout Florida.  His music drew him into the circle of other noted Florida folk singers, including the late Gamble Rogers (1937-1991), with whom he often performed and collaborated.

Throughout his life, McLean had a knack for taking the pulse of his environment and the communities he visited and expressing it with both his music and his writings.  His first book, Florida Sand–a collection of songs, poetry and stories–was first published in 1964, with revised versions appearing in 1969 and 1977.  Perhaps his best known book is Cross the Shadows of My Face:  Florida Folk Songs and Stories, published in 1980.

By the time he turned 30, McLean had earned a national reputation as an accomplished singer, songwriter and balladeer.  In 1963 he was among several folk musicians invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger.

Among McLean's voluminous canon of Florida-based folk songs is "Tate's Hell," a ballad about the travails of one Cebe Tate who got lost on a hunting trip in a vast Panhandle swamp, subsequently named–in folklore at least–after his ordeal.  The song, which remains one of McLean's most popular tunes, helped call public attention to a wild and threatened tract that was purchased by the State of Florida in 1994 and established as Tate's Hell State Forest.  The 202,000-acre forest is the protected home for many rare and endangered plants and animals.

In 1989, McLean was honored with the Florida Folk Heritage Award, along with having the annual Florida Folklife Festival in White Spring dedicated to him. 

McLean succumbed to cancer in January 1990.  He was buried on the Oklawaha River, which inspired many of his songs. A permanent marker honors him at Gore's Landing on the river. 

Shortly before his death, a group of McLean's closest friends established the Will McLean Foundation, dedicated to promoting the work of Florida folk artists and passing along the state's history through song for generations to come.  An annual Will McLean Folk Festival, also founded in 1990, remains one of Florida's most popular public platforms for folk artists.  The festival is based in Brooksville, located north of Tampa in Hernando County.

Related Links