As most of you long-time readers know, I hail from Jacksonville, FL, the northeast corner of that most unique of states. On the Atlantic Ocean, right next door to south Georgia. It’s a hard place to describe to people who’ve never done more than pass through on I-95. It’s got beautiful sugar sand beaches, and is criss-crossed throughout with water: marshes, streams, the Intracoastal Waterway and the big St Johns River. It’s a strange land of damp and sun and cranes – both animal and mechanical, reeds, and majestic oaks iced with Spanish moss. Palm trees and swamp magnolias. Snakes and alligators and possums. And the people and culture are a strange mix of good ol boys and gals coexisting – mostly peacefully – with almost every ethnicity and subculture you can think of. It’s the largest city, area-wise in the entire country, so there’s lots of room for anyone to find a place to stake their own particular flag. And they do!
But if you can’t travel to Jacksonville, talk to various old timers and attend the many gallery openings, musical events and other cultural gatherings, well, you can just listen to Swamp Radio. The collective posted their inaugural episode in November and I didn’t get to listen to it until the New Year. But I was grinning like a possum eating bumblebees. There are a lot of people I know and old theater buddies involved in the making and performing of this show, so it was a personal pleasure. But beyond that, I was blown away with what a great lil’ show this turned out to be.
It’s all helmed by playwright/director Ian Mairs who first had the idea to show the mysterious, wacky world of North Florida through the prism of its artists and now serves as producer and creative director. I knew Ian from back in the 90’s watching his funny, poignant plays like Bay at the Moon. As the emcee, he manages the trick of being both mesmerizing and hilarious as he guides you down the less traveled streams of Jacksonville culture in its many forms – the swamp photographer, the story of the old Florida Ostrich Farm, pieces from local writers and poets, talk of food geneology (with cheese grits!) as well as songs from local musicians. They even do a scene from the aforementioned Bay at the Moon and it was a treat hearing Simone Aden-Reid’s voice again: road-weary and sardonic, yet still laced with a sweet softness. It’s an aural variety show delivered with soul, grit and a bit of that North Florida twang. The Prairie Home Companion’s weirder, sassier kissin’ cousin.
Each episode is performed and recorded live at a local venue (the next one is January 19th at the gorgeous Florida Theatre, a restored movie house from the 20’s) and then they serve up the recordings, hot and fresh, as podcasts on their website, Facebook and SoundCloud. I especially recommend their Facebook page where they post additional snippets like the Really Awful Holiday Poems contest and recipes for cheese grits and corn dogs (oh hell yeah).
Each episode will have a theme. The theme for the first episode was “ghosting”, a term coined by late local columnist, Ann Hyman, which she defines in her memoir, Chaos Clear As Glass:
Ghosting has nothing to do with chasing spirits of the dead. Ghosting is the process of looking for ourselves and all the places we used to be. It’s about the way we were and how we got to be the way we are.
Throughout, the show was peppered with various performers declaring “I’m going ghosting” and then walking you through a memory (mostly amusing) from their past that’s flashing into their Now. And as I listened, I started ‘ghosting’ too, as words I hadn’t heard in many a moon stung pleasingly at my heart like little arrows of home: Talleyrand, Riverside, Famous Amos, cheese grits (yes it deserves being mentioned three times), Alligator Farm, the snow of 1989, Fort Caroline National Memorial, palmetto scrubs, ‘dunes under the bald moonlight’.
Though I love my desert home, a part of me will always hover in the sultry, humid air of a certain sprawling marshland. Thanks to everyone at Swamp Radio for that gift. Can’t wait for the next show!
If you’re in the Jacksonville area soon, you could do much worse than get a ticket to the January 19th show at Florida Theatre! You can get more details and tickets here. The theme will be MOVING WORDS, a celebration of the verbal expressions, figures of speech and local vernacular that is unique to northeast Florida. Dog my cats, I can only imagine what this will include and am sure there will be plenty of “yall’s” included. I’m all ears.