The Florida Historical Society will host the first annual Florida Frontiers Festival on Saturday, November 12, at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science in Cocoa, from 9am to 5pm. Main Stage performers include Florida bluesman Ben Prestage, the Bethune-Cookman University Gospel Choir, Mariachi Nuevo Guadalajara, folk musician Bob Lusk, and singer-songwriter Chris Kahl.
There will be selected vendors and demonstrators including Highwayman artist R.L. Lewis and folk artist Ernest Lee, food trucks, and a Children's Corridor. The Heritage Tent will feature storytellers and theatrical presentations including J.D. Sutton as naturalist William Bartram and the Brevard Theatrical Ensemble leading a Florida Folksong Sing-Along.
Inside the museum, will be the opening of the new exhibit "Stetson Kennedy's Multicultural Florida," celebrating what would have been the folklorist and author's 100th birthday. Kennedy is best known for his classic 1942 book “Palmetto Country,” which documents the diverse cultural heritage of our state from Cracker Cowmen, to Seminole Indians, to Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, to Latin cigar rollers in Ybor City, to African American turpentine industry workers, and beyond.
Festival headliner Ben Prestage is a native Floridian, born and raised in a rural area on the edge of the Everglades.
“It’s western Martin County, in between Okeechobee and Indiantown,” says Prestage. “It’s a fourteen mile long dirt road, seven miles east of asphalt and seven miles west of asphalt, all cattle ranches and orange groves. The biggest ranch out there is Allapattah Ranch, which I believe in the Seminole Miccosukee language means alligator.”
Primarily a blues musician, Prestage was influenced by that music at an early age.
“My dad was from Mississippi, and he listened to a lot of blues, so I was really into rural blues and slide guitar growing up,” says Prestage. “I heard Roy Bookbinder one time, he’s a Florida guy, and I heard him doing finger style at a concert when I was about 15 or 16. I went there by myself. None of my friends wanted to go to a blues concert. I heard him doing finger style and I really loved that, finger picking, stuff like that.”
Around the same time, Prestage was helping a neighbor build a chicken coup, and noticed that the man had a banjo. During lunch breaks, the man showed Prestage how to play bluegrass music.
“That got me into some old style banjo stuff, too,” says Prestage. “I always liked the old music better than any of the new stuff.”
Prestage is best known for performing as a one-man band. If you weren’t watching him play, you would think that you were hearing a group of musicians. By himself, Prestage provides a bass line, percussion, guitar, and vocals. He credits Memphis cigar box guitar maker John Lowe with helping him to create his signature sound.
“There’s a bunch of guys doing cigar box guitars now, but the way he made his was with one bass guitar string and three guitar strings, and it was all fretless,” says Prestage. “There’s two outputs, so the bass string goes to a bass guitar amp, and the guitar strings go to a guitar amp, so it’s in stereo when you play it.”
Prestage developed a way of playing drums and cymbals with his feet while playing his unique guitar, filling out the sound of a band.
“When I started it was really rough sounding, but over time I’m starting to get it together, starting to figure it out,” Prestage says with a laugh.
The Florida Frontiers Festival is an extension of this newspaper column, the radio program Florida Frontiers which airs on public radio stations throughout the state, and the public television series Florida Frontiers which is broadcast from Key West to the Panhandle. Like the other Florida Frontiers projects, the goal of the Florida Frontiers Festival is to educate the public about our state’s rich history and diverse cultural heritage in an entertaining and accessible format.
“There is a lot of Southern culture here, food and music that’s unique to this part of the country, as well as all the other cultures in Florida,” says Prestage.
Information about tickets, VIP packages, and event sponsorship opportunities can be found at www.FloridaFrontiersFestival.com and 321-690-1971 ext. 205.