The Story Behind The Music

By John D. Gottsch

In 1952, after my father completed his training in orthopedic surgery in New Orleans, he was posted to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. He was well acquainted with this area of the state, as during his youth he would travel by car from Iowa with his father, a general surgeon who had served in World War I, to a cabin on a lake just south of Ocala. There, for a month every summer, they would vacation and fish the surrounding lakes and rivers. After my father’s discharge from the Air Force, he settled into private practice in Tampa, and continued the tradition, now taking his own young family to enjoy the waterways of central Florida.

My lasting memories as a young boy with my father in the mid-1950s were those of extended journeys by boat from Lake Griffin to the headwaters of the Ocklawaha River. Over several days we would travel the Ocklawaha downstream all the way to the St. Johns River. As we followed the currents and came to bend after bend in the river, I experienced ever changing worlds of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the state.

As we floated along, my father would tell stories of the history of Indians and slaves who lived on the surrounding shores in the not-so-distant past. The Indians, he explained, gave us many of the names of towns, lakes and rivers that surrounded us, Ocala, Apopka, Palatka, Astatula. He talked of the great Seminole warriors, Osceola and Micanopy who led resistance to the taking of their lands, who protected fugitive slaves and fought slaveholders’ attempts to reclaim what was considered their “property”. Descending the Ocklawaha, he would talk of the past issue of slavery and the great Civil War. As we glided past a crossing of the river, he pointed to the shore where one of the battles of that War had been fought. He talked of Ulysses S. Grant who led the Union to victory in that War and who himself had traveled the Ocklawaha. I remember my father gazing at the river, anticipating another turn, and softly remarking, “God never made a finer man than Abraham Lincoln”. At some of the general stores along the shores of the lakes and river where we stopped and refueled, there were exclusionary and discriminatory signs of the Jim Crow South. My father, when I asked for an explanation, told me that “not all was settled by the Civil War”.

In later years during high school and college, as I traveled the length of Ocklawaha, I witnessed the destruction of the northern part of the river by the Army Corps of Engineers as they built a dam across the river and a canal to the St. Johns River. I was saddened and appalled by the vast expanse of destroyed forests and a straight lifeless waterway before me.

Having been a composer for much of my life, I decided to write a symphonic poem about the tales my father told as we traveled the length of the Ocklawaha. I wanted to capture a sense of the mystery and beauty of the river, and the musical essence of the complicated stories my father told, including not only heroes, but the Seminole Wars, slavery, the Civil War, and how the Jim Crow South persisted. The triumphal conclusion of the work reflects a reverence for nature and humanity and the eternal and necessary battles to preserve and defend both.


John D. Gottsch
Finn Workman as a young John D. Gottsch
Young black boy fishing on the Ocklawaha played by J'Lan Gillespie
John and his Dad -played by Dane Gottsch- on the Ocklawaha.
Older John played by Dean Ward
Seminole Indians Daniel Tommie and his daughter Shawnie.
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