One of the most fascinating characters to make this area his home is naturalist Okefenokee Joe, who thousands of fans have come to know through his public TV specials and in-person appearances.
What makes Joe really different from most other naturalists is that he also is a great singer, guitarist and songwriter and successfully combines his handling of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes with his songs about protecting nature.
“Music and snakes may seem like an unlikely combination,” Joe said last week, “but it works for me.”
From his many years of working with snakes and giving demonstrations at schools, fairs, nature preserves and other places, Joe thinks it is disrespectful to call a sneaky or deceitful person a snake.
“Snakes I can trust,” he said. “They are more predictable than people. People are scared of snakes and yet only 12 or less people in the U.S. die of snake bites each year.
“People run from snakes, and yet they’re not afraid at all to get in their vehicles, which have a much higher chance of killing them.”
Joe’s newly released music video is not about snakes or any other critters. It’s a new version of a song he wrote decades ago when he was a songwriter and singer in Nashville, Tenn., going by his real name of Dick Flood.
“I wrote A Little Bit of Sunday Every Day in 1960s, and (Grand Ole Opry star) George Hamilton IV recorded it on his RCA album that also was titled after my song,” Joe said. “I revised some of the words to make the song fit more with what is happening today with the economy and other problems in this country.”
The chorus goes, “Just a little bit of Sunday every day. Back on track with the one who really knows the way. Sweet land of liberty, we are in danger and great need of a little bit of Sunday every day.”
How Dick Flood became Okefenokee Joe is the stuff from which good movies are made.
In the 1950s, Joe and Billy Graves were a country duo called The Country Lads singing on a network television show Jimmy Dean hosted in the Washington, D.C., area.
A records promoter in the area named Fred Foster often came to the station where Dean had his show and came to know of Dick Flood.
In 1958, Foster co-founded Monument Records and named the label after the Washington Monument. Foster signed both Flood and Graves to record separately for the label. Billy Grammar’s Gotta Travel On recording became the label’s first hit single. Foster moved the label to Nashville the next year.
The “B side” (back side) of the 45 rpm single of Gotta Travel On was Grammar singing a song that Flood wrote called Chasing A Dream.
Monument Records superstar Roy Orbison in 1960 had a smash single with his self-penned Only The Lonely. And guess who wrote Here Comes That Song Again that Orbison sings on the B side? Dick Flood.
Flood had three singles released on the label including his 1959 version of The Three Bells (also known to listeners as the Little Jimmy Brown song).
A trio called The Browns (featuring Opry star Jim Ed Brown) recorded the same song about the same time.
Flood’s version went to No. 1 on Cashbox music magazine’s records chart but The Browns’ version became better known overall.
In spite of not having a super hit single, Flood found himself being a guest artist on the Grand Ole Opry almost every Saturday night for more than a year.
“The Opry then was paying union scale of only $11.50 for each song an artist did on the Opry shows,” Flood noted. “So a lot of the major Opry stars were out on the road making much more money.”
Flood recorded for other Nashville labels and wrote some hit songs like Trouble’s Back in Town used by The Wilburn Brothers as the theme for their nationally syndicated TV show.
“I wrote a song called Hellbound Train that became my first single on Epic Records (a division of Columbia) and sang it for radio disc jockeys from all over the nation at a convention in Nashville.
“I got a standing ovation and thought I had a huge hit on my hands,” he said. “But a lot of stations in the ’60s wouldn’t a play a song with the word ‘hell,’ so it didn’t become a hit.”
By 1973, Flood was stressed out with the music business and his second marriage was falling apart. He wanted some peace and serenity to pull his life back together and ended up camping four months in the Florida Everglades.
He had come to know Jimmy Walker, manager of the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia, and Walker offered him a $60-a-week job as the swamp’s animal curator.
For eight years, Flood lived in a shack on Cowhouse Island in the swamp with no electricity or running water. That’s when he began developing his second life as Okefenokee Joe.
That led him to start giving talks about nature in schools and other places and to writing and recording songs about what he really loved more than anything.
Various circumstances led Joe to move to the Augusta area about eight years ago as a result of his friendship with North Augusta residents Bill and Linda Macky.
He doesn’t take lightly the love and respect from so many people who have come to know him over the years.
“It’s humbling and rewarding and I’m grateful and honored,” he said. “I was in a Walmart one Christmas season selling my albums, and more kids wanted to sit in my lap than in Santa Claus’ lap. The limelight I had in Nashville was great, but I like the woods better.”