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BY SUSAN JOHNSON
CURRENT PHOTOS BY KATE GARDINER
HISTORICAL PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED
Tommy Bledsoe calls himself a “cheerleader for the arts.” Carol Gladstone, President of the Friends of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, is more emphatic. “Tommy is one of our county’s greatest supporters of the arts and arts education. I’ve worked with him for over 20 years. We could not have achieved the accomplishments that we have without him.” Longtime friend and musician Bob Parsons agrees. “Tommy Bledsoe is one of the people we need to thank for preserving and promoting the arts and music culture— especially our traditional music culture—here in St. Johns County.”
Hailing from the Appalachian Hills of Virginia, Tommy visited Florida regularly for more than 25 years before making a permanent move. An early marriage and the birth of Shannon, his first child, gave him reason to plant some roots, and friends down south suggested St. Augustine. Tommy became a full-time resident in 1999 and, although that marriage ended, those roots he planted continued to grow.
Tommy is credited with helping to develop, strengthen, and advocate for our culture and sense of community – things that often begin at home with family or within a circle of friends who share common interests, which, in Tommy’s case, is music. “I played on St. George Street with whomever happened to be in town…people like Allen Hood, Rick and Jenny, Allan Block, Chris Miles, and Bob Parsons,” says Tommy. “We discovered that traditional music was our way of connecting. It was our common language.” But, to twist a phrase, no one can live on music alone. We all need to eat. Tommy met Joy D’Elia at a little breakfast joint called the Malaga Street Depot, owned by area restaurateur Ned Pollack. Tommy and Joy discovered a shared love for music, dance, and the arts. Both were also equally committed to celebrating those cultural traditions with others, even taking their talents to the streets— literally! They performed frequently on St. George Street and didn’t let marriage and children stop them. They often brought their little ones, Rosa and Delia, along to share in the fun. And, when the kids, then nine and six, decided they wanted to go to Paris, Tommy and Joy suggested they get a booth at the Amphitheatre Farmer’s Market to fund their dream. They did that for about two years! According to Tommy, “I would keep them company (watch them) and, naturally, play music.” Friends would join in, and that was the beginning of the Farmer’s Market Saturday afternoon jams, something that’s become an integral part of who we are as a community. And, yes, the kids went to Paris!
“As a member of Roadside Theater, I traveled all over this country and five overseas countries, sharing music and stories with [all kinds of people]: Zuni, Navajo, Akwasasni, Modoc, Sioux, Puerto Rican, Chicano, African, Jewish, Hutterite, Polish…all of whom shared their songs and stories and celebrated with us the rich cultural life of the place they lived. And, we made sure the children were in on the conversations.” T.B.
Tommy has been involved in almost every aspect of life here in St. Johns County. He has worked with organizations like the Cultural Council, served on the board and as a manager of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, taught school at the Hastings Youth Academy, drove a bus for St. Johns County School System, and he continues to donate his time and musical talents with too many non-profit groups to list here. For the past several years, you’ve probably also seen him onstage as the main ‘party parent’ in the St. Augustine Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker.
It was, however, his early collaboration with the Roadside Theater, a multimedia arts collective, that served as the springboard for his later work as Arts Program Specialist for St. Johns County, a position from which he retired in July of 2018. While his main priority was always to support the teachers in the classrooms, he was also excited about advocating for and expanding the arts programs in our schools. He tells the story of an old-timer who once asked him if the children liked the traditional music they were hearing. Tommy responded, “Well, I don’t know if they like it or not, but if they don’t hear it, then they won’t have a chance to find out. Let’s give them that chance.”
He believes that exposure to the elements that make up our cultural quilt—things like music, art, dance, and storytelling—give children and adults choices they may not otherwise have known they had. “Not everyone wants to be a doctor, electrician, or architect,” explains Tommy. The option to explore different avenues and discover a variety of creative platforms can open multiple doors and offer all of us a glimpse into different worlds. It can help us discover who we are and, as Tommy has shown us, sharing who we are can help forge strong bonds with others in our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities. It can bring people together, help create our public voice, and form our common language.