The white glow of a naked lightbulb casts shadows on a group of people sipping beer from cans they bought at the bait shop that doubles as a concession stand. They look out over the jetty at the gulf as they sing along with the mournful tones of the blues drifting in from the dark.
Just outside the lightbulb’s glow, a group of musicians pluck mandolins, strum guitars and ukuleles, pull bows across violins and string basses. A barefoot musician with a long white ponytail calls out “You Are My Sunshine” and begins to play. The others lean forward, listening for a place where they can jump into the song. One by one they start to play and sing quietly, as if not really playing for the audience at all, but just for themselves. The melodies and harmonies buzz with resonance, just like the mosquitoes the audience swats at as they try to catch the eye of one of the musicians to see if they need to make a beer run.
This is Friday Night at the North Jetty Fish Camp.
Taking a Stand
Marilyn Sawyer has run the concession stand at the Fish Camp for 30 years. Her son and grandson have played on Friday nights, while she keeps the musicians and the audience nourished. Her grandson started playing violin with the group on Friday nights and now attends Berklee School of Music.
“Picking” the Right Piece
The group plays blues, country and folk music, as well as music they have learned at bluegrass festivals around the state. If a mandolin player shows up one night, they’ll play music with a mandolin part. If the musicians that show up another night are in the mood for Hank Williams, Sr., they’ll play music by Hank Williams, Sr.
“Florida is pretty cowboy,” said musician Rodney Curry. “We like the cowboy stuff down here.”
“It’s just locals doing their thing, having a good time,” said Marilyn.
Nancy Eaton started playing at the Fish Camp in 2008. She was drawn to the jetty for the view and one day brought her ukulele with her. She began to play and other musicians joined in. She says the view of the gulf and the jetties is the star of the show.
A freelance writer during the day, Eaton plays ukulele and guitar on Friday nights. The get-togethers are very informal, with musicians calling out the song they want to play and the key in which they want to play it. There is no sheet music, just improvised harmonies supporting a twangy melody.
“It’s old Florida,” said Nancy. “It’s funky.”
Nancy first discovered her love for music as a child, when she and her father would listen together.
“I’ve never known life without it (music),” she said.
She tried to play her grandfather’s organ when she was too young to reach the pedals. At age 11, she bought a guitar with money she earned selling Christmas cards and taught herself to play. She enjoys playing music from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s because it’s a challenge, though she also loves playing blues, country and folk.
“It’s a heartfelt music,” she said.
Bill Somach has been playing violin since he was 10. Music was already a big part of his family life. His mother played the piano, his father played the violin and his brother played the cello. When Bill was a child, he listened and played strictly classical music.
“My world was classical music,” he said.
Classical music continues to dominate Bill’s world, as during the day he plays violin with the Venice Symphony. Five years ago Bill began playing in a Beatles tribute band and started to explore the world of non-classical music. Rodney Curry, a fish camp musician for more than 20 years, suggested Bill come down to the jetty one Friday.
Bill says playing at the Fish Camp has taught him to hear music differently. At the symphony, Bill focuses on his part in the piece. At the fish camp, he is in tune with the structure of the piece as a whole. The symphony is Bill’s workplace; at the fish camp he can cut loose. At work he plays the violin; at the Fish Camp he plays the fiddle.
“Our enjoyment in playing music rubs off on the audience,” Bill said.
Rodney Curry spent his childhood summers in a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. In the cabin on those hot summer days, Rodney learned to play guitar.
“I officially started pickin’ when I was 12,” he said.
Since then, Rodney has learned to play the harmonica, keyboard, bass and mandolin. When he was a student at Venice High School, he played saxophone in the VHS band.
Rodney’s family, like Bill’s and Nancy’s, was very musical. Rodney’s uncles had a bluegrass band called the Curry Creek Boys and his grandmother loved to play boogie-woogie on the piano.
“My grandma was a hot picker,” he said.
Rodney’s wife Cathy also plays at the Fish Camp on Friday Nights. She and Rodney started playing music at the Fish Camp in the early 1980s and she plans to continue for as long as she can.
At the Fish Camp, Rodney loves that even in a group of talented musicians, no one person steals the spotlight. When he gets comments that the music is hard to hear, he tells the audience to move in closer. Rodney and the other musicians clump together and face each other, as if the audience is an afterthought and the music the main attraction.
“There’s no stars down there (at the fish camp),” he said. “If someone were going to plug in a mic and an amp we’d run like scared rabbits.”