Any credible list of the most important Americans to ever reside in Northeast Florida would have to include the late author/activist/raconteur Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011). He is best-known for his intrepid infiltration of the KKK back in 1946–an endeavor that remains controversial to this day. But Kennedy’s legacy runs far deeper than even many longtime fans might be aware of. He collected supplies for the Spanish Civil War, and he wrote ten books, all of which are essential documents of a time that is, thankfully, mostly long gone.

In his later years, Kennedy settled into his role as an elder statesman in the community, a patron of local arts and music, and a mentor figure for three generations of activists and authors, including this one. The Stetson Kennedy Foundation seeks to maintain that legacy and promote the values he stood for in life. One of these projects is the Jacksonville Songwriters Residency, which was born in 2013, a love-child of the original One Spark festival and the Cultural Council, which awarded it one of four Spark Grants, split from a pool of $60,000. (The others were Swamp Jax Radio, the Looking Lab and Sculpture Walk, which was crucial to the expansion of public art in the urban core.)

The residency is run by its creator, Brad Lauretti, a musician himself who co-founded This Frontier Needs Heroes with his sister Jessica back in 2008. A graduate of New York University, Lauretti has lived the life of a true road warrior in recent years, performing in 46 states, most of Canada and countries including Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. His fifth album, “Go With the Flow”, was recorded in Massachusetts and will be released later this year.

The initial residencies were held at the Omni Hotel, but Beluthahatchee Park has hosted it since 2016. “One day a friend had told me about Stetson Kennedy and the Woody Guthrie connection,” says Lauretti, himself an obsessive student of the country’s long, glorious folk tradition, “and I went out to the park to see for myself. If you didn’t know it was there you might drive past it, but I went and eventually met with Stetson’s daughter Karen Roumillat and St. Johns County Naturalist Ayolane Halusky. I told them about the Songwriter Residency and they told me it was Stetson’s wish that the house next to his would become an artist residency.”

For Roumillat, the residency was a natural fit for the space, one with massive emotional resonance for her. “Stetson was my stepfather,” she says. “He and my Mother, Joyce Ann, were married on the grounds of the Mandarin Community Club in December of 1972. At the time, we lived in the former 1800s  Billard House that used to stand behind the Club on Brady Road. Walter Jones was my great grandfather. Stetson and my mother built the house that stands at Beluthahatchee in 1973. Stetson’s father owned the rural property since Stetson was young and they visited on weekends often. The cedar cabin was our family home, although small it had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. And central air and heat! The Billard House had one bathroom and no AC.”

Songwriter in Residence, Brad Lauretti, feeling inspired. || Photo: Shelton Hull

The foundation is located in Fruit Cove, at the Beluthahatchee State Park, so named by longtime co-conspirator and early feminist icon Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). It’s housed within two homes nestled on four acres between the trees, with a little slope leading down to the lake, which looks more like a swamp. You can access it via SR 13, aka the William Bartram Scenic Parkway, 200 feet north of Cricket Hollow Lane.

The official description of the area, courtesy the St. Johns County “Government Gateway”, is just too cool NOT to print in full:

“The perimeter of the property is surrounded by a heavy canopy native vegetation overstory consisting of mixed coniferous and hardwood defined by live oak, laural oak, water oak, long leaf pine and cabbage palms. The native vegetation understory consists of saw palmetto, southern magnolia, water and laural oak. The lake native vegetation overstory consists of pignut hickory, sweet gum and bald cypress and the understory consists of sweet gum, southern magnolia and swamp dogwood. … Although much of the perimeter native vegetation has been preserved despite intensive development around its borders, the Beluthahatchee enclave provides wildlife habitat and continues to serve as a rookery and roosting place for ospreys, eagles, snowy egrets, tri-colored heron, white ibis, little blue heron, wood storks, black-crow night herons, wood ducks, anhingas, purple gallinules, bronze grackles, red-winged blackbirds and many other species.”

Stetson’s father (who ran a furniture company, and did not share his son’s progressive views on race relations) once owned all 70 acres surrounding the lake, which was once a creek, before the dam was put in. Much work was done there, including several of Kennedy’s books and a quixotic run for US Senate in 1950 (which was eventually won decisively by George Smathers, who was in attendance at JFK’s wedding). The setting is, to say the least, evocative.

The main house, where Kennedy spent most of the second half of his life, has been kept almost exactly the same as it was. Lots of old hardwood, colored glass bottles and odd artifacts collected during his travels around the world. The other house (where the songwriters stay) has a big open living room, with plate-glass windows from floor to ceiling, looking out on the lake. It’s like a cross between one of those cliffside California homes you’d see in old movies and the Starship Enterprise–equal parts primitive and modern, folksy yet ferocious.

“I have a very nice deck where I can look out at Beluthahatchee lake,” says Lauretti, “which was built by a dam that Woody and Stetson built way back in the early 50’s. At that time there wasn’t even a house here. Woody lived in an old bus. So we are at the edge of suburban sprawl, but we have a little slice of that old Florida buenavista similar to what they would have seen back in the day.” The walls are covered with artwork (including a large painting by Chip Southworth) and just some of the many awards Kennedy won over the years. There are more in the main house, but the bulk of his papers are dispersed among collections housed at the University of Florida, Georgia State University and the New York Public Library.

The park’s bucolic setting makes it ideal for the kind of inner dialogue that drives the creative process, and the results speak for themselves. “This park is the only place in the US that has been designated a literary landmark twice,” says Lauretti. “Once for Woody Guthrie and once for Stetson Kennedy. Woody wrote one of his books [‘Seeds of Man’] and over 88 songs, and Stetson’s literary importance is huge. So to be able to work and create in the same place that so much has been done already is remarkable.” Since arriving, just over a week ago, he’s already written a handful of songs, and done several livestream sessions of classic material. There’s even an old garage that’s been repurposed into a performance space, hosting the Second Sundays at Stetson’s concert series and other events.

Your author gabbing with SwIR, Brad Lauretti. || Photo: Walton

Despite everything that’s been going on this year, the residency has managed to sustain momentum going into the summer. “In January, we had Sarah Lee Guthrie, granddaughter of Woody Guthrie and daughter of Arlo Guthrie; she also played a concert for the Second Sundays at Stetsons concert series,” says Lauretti. “Since the pandemic shut everything down I am the first songwriter allowed back in, but we hope to host two more this year.” In addition to Guthrie, the residency has also hosted talents like Rachel Baiman, Tim Easton, Shaina Goodman, Marcellus Hall, Darren Hanlon, Grant Peeples and Christopher Paul Stelling.The pandemic has forced both Lauretti and the foundation to scale back what had been an ambitious plan to expand the program’s scope this summer. “As of right now it is just songwriting, and the Second Sundays at Stetsons concert series,” he says. “We have recorded some videos here thanks to the AMP [formerly St. Augustine Amphitheatre]. As of now it is a volunteer run program, so we have limited time and resources.” Lauretti wrote ten songs during his return to the residency, which lasted from June 18 through July 1, in addition to several live streamed concerts. There is at least one more residency planned, for November.

To be immersed in such a vibrant history is downright exhilarating, but there is so much to take in that it can be overwhelming, even for relative experts like us. For Lauretti, who takes an almost evangelical zeal in his advocacy of folk music, the Beluthahatchee Park is like a monastery for him, and it provides an ideal platform to promote the genre to wider audiences. “My definition of folk music is the broadest one possible,” he says. “Folk is for everybody. It is the musical tent that encompasses everyone and where everyone is welcome. Every culture on earth has a unique folk music tradition that has similarities across continents and true uniqueness. To me storytelling is a vital component, but you can tell a story with a flute or a fiddle or a drum. I obviously believe it is one of the most important forms of expression that brings people together and that is what we are working for at the SKSR.”

Taken in full, the Jacksonville Songwriters Residency is accomplishing a number of objectives. It’s bringing an influx of fresh creative talent into Northeast Florida, advancing the cause of folk music in a hyper-polarized era of history, and it’s shining a new light onto the vast legacy of one of the most influential figures of the past century. Sadly, Brad Lauretti and Stetson Kennedy never got to meet in person, but speaking as someone fortunate enough to call them both friends, I have no doubt that they would’ve gotten along just great.

Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town Shelton Hull, which appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com