Folk Music of Florida: Ongoing Traditions

Folk Music of Florida: Ongoing Traditions, displays the traditional music of Florida residents and increases the understanding of our personal and state heritage. As we value and perpetuate our traditional skills and talents, we sequentially enrich the quality of our lives.

Stretching from its temperate north to subtropical south, Florida encompasses a variety of environments that have influenced the character of life for its residents. Yet the most important determinant of the Florida experience is the variety of peoples who have made it their home. Floridians have origins in the Americas, Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. The Folk Music of Florida: Ongoing Traditions reflects their heritage and their interaction with other cultures that have imbued Florida folk music with a unique flavor.

Florida’s folk arts are among the state’s most valuable resources. They reflect our state’s rich historical and cultural heritage and are a source of pride.  The importance of folk music is often unrecognized as these artistic expressions are the commonplaces of life. Familiar especially to their own people and are usually taken for granted. Yet folk music is a part of everyone’s life in our diverse society because they help to tell us that we are in relation to other people. This great diversity of musical tradition flourishes side by side and often influence and enrich one another. 

American Folk Music

As part of their southern heritage many Floridians perform or enjoy old time fiddling, a blend of Anglo-Celtic dance music and early popular music styles, including country blues and ragtime. Floridians also excel in a variety of musical traditions centered in European ethnic communities.  Also present in the state are makers and string wind instruments. For years fiddle has been a key instrument in the country music traditions, while acoustic guitars are used by classical, flamenco and other musicians.

Key West, Fl.
Circa 1930-1957

The fiddle is a mainstay in all styles of traditional and rural music, from classical-style country to bluegrass, folk, and roots rock. Though it is technically the same instrument as a classical violin, the way the instrumentalist plays it differentiates between “fiddle” and “violin.”

Dobro Guitar
Tallahassee, Florida

A dobro is an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator built into its body. This resonator serves as an amplifier. In contrast to acoustic guitars, the placement of the resonator takes place of the sound hole therefore, the shape of the guitar doesn’t tend to have an effect on how the dobro’s sound is amplified. The dobro was introduced to the Bluegrass line-up in the 1950’s by Josh Graves (Flatt & Scruggs), who used the Scruggs picking style on the dobro, which is still the way it is properly picked.


The harmonica is, aside from the human voice and your own two hands, the most portable instrument used in traditional American folk music. Most harmonicas are small enough that they fit perfectly in any pocket. With a body that’s typically constructed from wood or plastic and a metal cover plate, the harmonica operates by a set of reeds that vibrate when you blow or suck air through any of the ten holes.

Vintage J & C Fischer American Piano
Sarasota, Fl.

The piano has long been a valuable member of the American families. In our country, where wealth is more equally distributed, the piano is no uncommon appendage to the farm-house or the downtown loft. It becomes in all, from the highest to the lowest, a source of innocent and intellectual pleasure and moral improvement.

Caribbean Folk Music

Caribbean music is widely performed and enjoyed in Florida especially in the southern portion of the state. Among the popular West Indian styles that combine African and European musical elements, are Jamaican reggae, mento and ska, Trinidadian calypso and soca, and Haitian konpa.

Steel Pan
Circa 1990

The steel pan is an instrument originating from Trinidad and Tobago. Steel pan musicians are called pannists. The pan is struck by a pair of straight sticks tipped with rubber. This particular steel pan was built traditionally from used oil barrels. Many steel pan musicians form steel bands that play a large role in Trinidadian carnival festivities.

Gourd Shaker

Gourds are musical instruments used in Jamaican bands that are covered with a net of shells or seeds to create a noise when shaken.

Haitian Voodoo Drum

In Haiti, Voodoo ceremonies and drumming are inextricably  linked. While drumming does exist in other contexts in the country, by far the richest traditions come from this distinctly Haitian religion. Voodoo as practiced in urban centers in Haiti and some cities in North America is a ritualistic faith system that involves ceremonies that consists of singing, drumming and dancing.

Tassa Drum

Tassa is a form of kettle drum commonly used in Trinidadian bands. Traditionally, the tassa is made by tightly covering a clay shell with goat skin. When ready to play, the goat skin is heated by aid of a fire to tighten the head, making the pitch lighter. The tassa drums are played with sticks made from wild cane (called “chob,”Hindi for cane sticks) or fiberglass.

Cuban Folk Music

Though Floridians enjoy a variety of musical styles, Cuban musical forms dominate and indeed have a tremendous influence on music throughout the world. Many of the instruments played in the Cuban folk music tradition are still played in modern Cuban folk music. Instruments such as the CongasCajon and the bata drums were brought to Cuba by slaves from Africa.

Circa 1985

Congas are drums that originate in Africa but are now most identified with music of Latin America. Most conga players are skilled percussionists, and in Cuba they may be called congueros if they specialize in conga only. Congas are hit with the hands, rather than with drumsticks. The way the head is struck significantly changes the sound produced. You’ll find that congas are used in a great variety of Cuban music and you may hear their different beats in samba, salsa, rumba, mambo, and numerous other musical styles.

Circa 1989

Claves consists of two small wooden rods (about 8 inches long and 1 inch in diameter). They are typically made of rosewood, ebony or grenadillo, One clave (often called the male) is normally rested in a loosely cupped hand and struck with the second clave (often called the striker or female). When the claves are struck together, they produce a large, sharp, and resonant clicking sound. Claves are very important in Afro-Cuban music, such as the son’ and guaguanco’.

Bata Drums

The bata drums are a set of three hourglass-shaped drums that are played held across the lap. They are carved from solid wood and their open ends are covered in goat skins. One end is larger than the other, and both ends are percussive. The large end of the drum is called the “inu” or mouth, and the smaller end the “cha cha.” At least three people sit, each with a different size drum, and set out call and answer patterns played on the drums.


The guiro, sometimes called the guira, is a percussion instrument originally made from hollowed out gourd. The guiro has grooves on its front surface, which are scraped by a stick or rod when played. The guiro is used in traditional Cuban music such as danzon’, cha-cha-cha, guajira, charanga, and others.

Native American Folk Music

Florida has been home to Native American tribes for centuries. The most well-known tribes are the Seminole (found throughout Southern Florida) and the Miccosukkee (concentrated in the Everglades). The Native American Indian people are very much into ceremonies and singing traditional Native songs. Large parts of all of the Native American songs were the vocals, whether they were sung by the chief or they were sung together as a tribe.

Bamboo Flute
Circa 1980

The Native American flute is the first flute in the world constructed of two air chambers. The instrument was originally very personal; its music was played without accompaniment in courstship, healing, meditation, and spiritual rituals. Now it is played solo, or with other instruments or vocals.

Miccosoukee Indian Rattles

Native American rattles are very important to each tribal culture. A rattle may be used as a dance rattle or to accompany the rhythm of of Native American drums. Rattles may be made with unique materials and may include leather, rawhide, bead work and feathers, as well as fur, fringe, seeds, rocks, antlers, horns, bones and shells. The Native American rattle is a predominant part of Native community life, ceremonies and rituals and has become a Native American symbol for music, dance, and medicine as well as spirituality.


The Panpipe is a wind instrument consisting of several pipes of different lengths tied in a row or in a bundle held together by wax or cord. They are blown across the top, each providing a different note. The pan flute has long been popular as a folk instrument and is considered the first mouth organ, ancestor of both the pipe organ and the harmonica.