Don Grooms 1930 - 1998
Goodbye To An Old Friend
By Peter B. Gallagher
POSSUM RIDGE, N.C. - They buried Professor Don Grooms last week. An unfinished yellow-pine box hewn without a single nail went into the red-orange earth on the crest of a hill above his Appalachian boyhood home. Thick grey clouds drizzled a freezing rain over friends and family as tearful respects were paid to the Florida folk balladeer and journalism teacher whose health finally gave out, Jan. 10, in a Gainesville hospital.
"Goodbye old friend. The white people might not like this, but we're gonna give you a few things for your journey," said Seminole Chief Jim Billie, a longtime personal friend of Grooms, who claimed Cherokee Indian heritage. The Chief was referring to local funeral directors and Riverside Church officials who were uncomfortable with the idea of putting any "voodoo" into Grooms' casket prior to its burial Jan. 15 in the heavily Baptist cemetery.
But, following brief church and graveside services, when the preacher and most mourners had left, Chief Billie pulled out the wooden dowels and reopened the casket. Brown-suited gravediggers stood watching from afar as the Chief, assisted by Florida songwriter Bobby Hicks, performed rituals common to American Indian burials. "We're gonna behave," Hicks had told the preacher. "When we get back to Florida, that's where we're gonna let it all out."
Talking directly to the pale, still corpse, the Chief rubbed tiny black smudges on Grooms' forehead, chin and cheeks - signs of death and darkness that Grooms is gone, he explained, "just like when we all wear black at a funeral, so should he." With a swipe of a tiny knife, Chief Billie scraped a fresh plane on a bow, then broke an arrow and placed it inside. "Everything is backwards," the Chief noted, "as he travels through the limbo zone. That's why the arrow is broken. When we laugh, he thinks we're crying. When we cry, he hears us laughing."
Grooms' tiny pocketknife was opened and placed straight up into the frozen grip of his left hand and his favorite food items - a can of ravioli, saltine crackers, butterscotch candy - were opened and placed at his side. "I would have given you sardines, old friend, but I didn't want to stink up your casket," said the Chief. Nearby, a hint of a smile glistened the lips of Grooms widow, Suzanne. Next to her, Florida Folklife councilman Wayne Martin toed the ground - the champion fiddle player had driven nine hours in bad weather to make the funeral; he would drive more hours back, in worse weather, after Grooms was in the ground.
Hicks gave his departed friend a set of guitar strings and broke his favorite pen, before giving it to Grooms: "Just in case you feel like writing a song, Don," said Hicks. "This is the pen I wrote 'Florida (Need I Say More)' with. I've kept it all these years."
A tiny bottle of vodka was passed from Chief Billie to Hicks to photographer Pete Gallagher to Martin and the widow - all touched a fingertip of liquid to their lips. The Chief touched a drop to Grooms' lips, then capped the bottle and placed it inside the casket. Two Seminole Tribune photographs of Grooms, playing music with Chubby Wise and Vassar Clements, leaned next to his right arm. A black hardshell guitar pick, from old friend and stand-up bass player Tim Demaas, was tight in Grooms' fingers.
An bustle of turkey feathers, brought by an Indian friend of Grooms from the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation, was placed on his chest, atop his familiar buttonless brown leather vest - one of the troubadour's trademarks over the years.
"Don Grooms was the sort of person who would help you out and you wouldn't even know it," said Chief Billie, after he and Gallagher replaced the flat wooden casket lid and pounded the dowels back tight. "He was an artist who spent most of his life helping others. There are many, many memories and stories about Don Grooms. We're really going to miss him."
Plastic bags were filled with Don Grooms gravesite earth - to sprinkle around at Gore's Landing and White Springs. At Chief Billie's direction, everyone turned counter-clockwise - everything is backwards - before climbing into their vehicles to leave. The gravediggers approached, cautiously, as the contingent from Florida drove down the slippery mud trail to the bottom of the hill. "It's ironic that the Southern Baptists like to call what we do in our culture 'paganism,'" said Chief Billie. "We accept their rituals. When they came into contact with the Indians, our culture nearly disappeared."
"I wonder if they will open the casket back up to see what we've done," Chief Billie was asked.
"Oh no," replied the Chief. "I can guarantee you they won't open it."
There were actually two Don Grooms' - the quiet writer rarely seen by his close-knit North Carolina family and the raucous folk music legend whose friends stretch across the state of Florida. "We thought we knew Don well, but we hardly knew him at all when his obituary came out in the Mountaineer (the local newspaper where Don began his career in journalism)," said the wife of a Grooms' nephew.
She later sang a song, right before the 121st Psalm, during the church service, for the man she didn't really know. Curious, she approached Chief Billie with a question that seemed to be on everyone's minds: "Mr. Billie, we all knew Don had an association with the Cherokees up here, but we didn't know he was associated with the Seminoles," she stammered. "Uh, how was he associated with your people?"
"Don was associated with a lot of people, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, everyone. Don had an association with 'em all," he explained, stretching his arms out wide. "The Cherokees are at one end and the Seminoles are at the other end and there are a whole lot of people who knew him in between."
"I knew Don Grooms for 30 years and I never realized he had a large family up here. I don't think I've ever seen any of these people. I think he might have kept 'em all from us," said Hicks, who flew with Chief Billie, in a driving rainstorm, to attend the event. "I don't think he told them too much about his life in Florida. I know this much: if this service had been held in Florida, there wouldn't have been a church big enough to hold his friends."
"This is where Don always said he wanted to return," said widow Suzanne, who had saved her husband with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when he first collapsed in their home, a few days before his death. "It's good for him to be here. He grew up right over there." She pointed into the smoky blue distance, near a pasture where big black cows grazed. Way beyond, in the town of Canton, the thick smoke of the local paper and textile mill hung mysteriously in the still wet air. Unlike the Florida Grooms saw change dramatically in the four decades he lived there, this part of North Carolina probably looks much the same as it did at the turn of the century. Oh, they bricked a facade around the wooden clapboard walls of the original church where Grandma Grooms sang, and they built an Ingles Food Store bigger than any Florida Winn Dixie on the outskiirts of town. But, just beneath his grave an old barn much older than Don Grooms, stands in the starkness like an Edward Hopper painting. The son of a son of a son of a son of the Grooms bull stood silent guard nearby.
All around, the trees were devoid of leaves, a rockslide had closed the Blue Ridge Parkway to Maggie Valley and one of the worst nor'easters in memory was moving into Western North Carolina - the "Cherokee mountain home" Grooms often immortalized in prose and song.
Grooms would have been 68 years old had he lived two more days. He was born right here in Haywood County, the son of Noah Grooms and Lockie Butler Johnson. The flag covering his casket came from the U.S. government for his service in the Korean War. His academic degrees were from Southern Methodist University and UCLA. He eventually joined the staff of the University of Florida College of Journalism, where he remained an associate professor for 31 years, retiring a few years ago. That job, and a close association with the late folksingers Will McLean and Gamble Rogers, kept Grooms in the Sunshine State for most of his life.
Grooms specialized in teaching broadcasting and was known as one of the top television/radio/media education experts in the country. An Associated Press war correspondent and White House reporter himself, Grooms made higher marks as a teacher, four times winning the College Broadcasting Teacher of the Year award, participating in numerous media panels and seminars, assisting the Seminole Tribe in modernizing its communications department and acting as an articulate media spokesman on myriad American Indian issues and subjects. He was only one dissertation short of receiving a Doctorate in Latin American Studies. He always meant to get around to it, but he knew he never would.
Grooms' friendly country attitude and self-effacing demeanor gained the professor numerous lifelong friends among both Indians and non-Indians, rich and poor. "If you saw the man sitting around the campfire, playing his guitar, why you'd never know he was a bigtime college professor," said Hicks. "Don was a quiet man who spoke volumes. He didn't waste many words."
For more than a quarter century, Don Grooms was a fixture at the Florida Folk Festival, the state's annual Memorial Day weekend music showcase in White Springs. He was known for his clever compositions, such as "The Orange Blossom Special Don't Stop In Waldo Anymore,' and "Winnebago," as well as sensitive ballads dealing with Native American life such as "Walk Proud My Son," and "Tsali." Numerous other artists have recorded his songs. They are simple, guitar-driven compositions, touched with humor and irony and a particular vent against snobs, politicians, developers and fomenters of change.
His laconic wit got him into trouble, more than once, with state officials worried about what he might say or sing from the state's "politically correct" stages. Some cringed, but most cheered, whenever he would perform his version of "Old Folks At Home," the Florida State Song. Grooms sang the song exactly as Stephen Foster wrote it - complete with the minstrel show-style "black" dialect state lawmakers have "cleaned up" over the years.
His ongoing critiques of the state's poor treatment of folk artists inspired many changes in the Florida Folk Festival and led to the creation of the state's public-financed Folk Arts Program.. He championed the causes of many young performers who were unable to make the festival lineup and defended the veterans and the old ways he felt the state was allowing to slip away. Using a biting wit that stung as much as it tickled, Don Grooms was not afraid to say what was on his mind. His beliefs and standards were adopted in the formation of the Friends of Florida Folk (FOFF) organization, which monitors the improved state Folk Arts programs.
In 1996, nominated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, he was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage award - a folksinger's highest accolade. Much of his early musical career was spent appearing in Florida music clubs, including the Blue Sink in Hamilton County and the Gator Hook Saloon in the Everglades. "I played wherever they would let me," he liked to say. "And a lot of other places, too."
Grooms was a featured performer at festivals across the Southeast, including the Cocoa and Smallwood Store Seminole Festivals. At the 1992 Fire On The Swamp festival, he performed his Orange Blossom Special" song with fiddler Chubby Wise, who wrote the music for the original bluegrass train breakdown. Following the untimely deaths of McLean and Rogers, Grooms was generally considered the "patriarch of Florida Folk."
In addition to his wife, Grooms is survived by three sons, a brother, a sister and numerous nephews, nieces, cousins and friends. A private memorial service hosted by folksingers Frank and Ann Thomas was held Jan. 17 at Gore's Landing, near Silver Springs. A public tribute to Grooms, featuring musical performances by many of his peers, is scheduled for Feb. 7 at the Thomas Center in Gainesville. For information on that concert, call Jim Connors at 352-338-2970.