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The Ballad of Okefenokee Joe

Okefenokee Joe

(I wrote the following article for The Press-Sentinel back in the Spring of 2013. It shares the fascinating backstory of one of my childhood role models, “Okefenokee Joe.” With their permission, I’m republishing it, as his life choices have played a vital role in my recent seclusion in the swamp. Next week, I’ll share the results of my own wilderness adventure!)

The End of an Era

In April of 2013, Okefenokee Joe released the last of his beloved snakes.

This marked the end of an era that began 41 years ago, when a man named Dick Flood left his life behind and moved into the Okefenokee Swamp, trading his rising star as a songwriter for a modest cabin with no electricity or neighbors for miles around.

Though generations of schoolchildren are well acquainted with the longtime South Georgia resident’s wildlife shows, few are aware of his celebrity and achievements before the swamp.

His Formative Years

Dick Flood was born in Philadelphia and, from his early childhood, he showed interest in the outdoors, regularly picking up snakes and other animals that he found around his home. His love for nature was evident early on, leading him to spend his summers at Camp Carson in the nearby Blue Mountains. It was as a counselor at this same camp that Flood first picked up the guitar and taught himself to emulate the styles of his favorite Country and Western performers.

Upon reaching adulthood, Flood enlisted in the Army and was shipped off to Korea, where he volunteered for a secret mission with twelve other soldiers. Preparing for the worst, he packed up his gear and made his peace, only to discover at the door that there was no room for him on the flight. The mission went on without him, and he slipped through the cracks, unsure of what the Army wanted him to do.

Flood was eventually reassigned to Tokyo, and the rookie soldier hopped on a flight with generals and other high-ranking officers. He remained in Japan for four months, a stranger among the officers with still no specific purpose. Flood eventually worked up the nerve to approach a superior and suggest, “Why not send me someplace warm?”

He was promptly stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where he formed his first band, “The Luzon Valley Boys.” The band gained popularity by performing at military clubs around the islands. Once, they played for the Philippines’ seventh president, Ramón Magsaysay.

After leaving the Army, Flood returned to the states and tried to form another band, “The Four Denims,” though that was short-lived. It wasn’t until reconnecting with Billy Graves (a friend from the Army) that his music career really took off. The two soon found themselves on Jimmy Dean’s new national television show, performing each Saturday night as “The Country Lads” in Washington, D.C. This lasted for two years until the show ended, and they released two singles through Columbia Records: “Alone in Love” and “I Won’t Beg Your Pardon.”

Dick Flood & Billy Graves, "The Country Lads" from THE CBS MORNING JIMMY DEAN SHOW

Dick Flood (right) & Billy Graves, “The Country Lads” from THE CBS MORNING JIMMY DEAN SHOW

While transitioning from Dean’s show, Flood met a record promoter named Fred Foster, who was trying to start a new record label. Flood invested $1,000, which gave him 10% ownership of Monument Records, a label that would later become home to successful artists like Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson.

As a songwriter, Flood tried to write with the trends. When Monument artist Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” hit the charts, a new dance called “The Shag” broke out wherever he performed. Foster wanted to capitalize on the craze, so he had Flood co-write with him “The Shag (Is Totally Cool).” Though Foster wanted Flood to record it, Flood declined and suggested Graves, his old bandmate. The song became a hit, and Graves went on tour with Dick Clark.

After the tour, an exhausted Graves moved to Nashville to work for Capitol Records. Foster heard nothing more from him until the ‘60s, when Graves called him up to consider a young talent Capitol passed up named Dolly Parton. Foster gave her a chance, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Songwriting Success

Meanwhile, as more new Country artists were being discovered, Flood’s success as a songwriter grew. During the ‘60s, he penned songs like “Cold, Cold Winter” (performed by Anita Bryant) and “Trouble’s Back In Town” (performed by The Wilburn Brothers). Many of his songs ended up on the B-side of top-selling hits, like Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On.” This earned Flood the moniker “Flip Side Flood” among his friends.

Dick Flood, Country music legend

Dick Flood, Country music legend

“I tried to figure it out, but there’s no set pattern to the way I do it,” Flood said of his songwriting method, “It’s like putting the jigsaw puzzle together.”

Nevertheless, his method worked. At least, for a while it did. After his cover of The Browns’ “The Three Bells” rose to #40 on the charts, his next few recordings didn’t get much airplay at all. Frustrated, Flood sold his part of Monument Records and moved down to Nashville, where he was a frequent guest on “The Ernest Tubb Record Shop” T.V. show and, soon thereafter, he was asked to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Between 1960 and 1961, he performed on a near-weekly basis for the Grand Ole Opry.

The next year, his song “The Hell Bound Train” landed him a contract with Columbia’s Epic label. The song — a story of redemption in the vein of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — was banned in all but one state for its “inappropriate” title, but it was enough to get him recognition in the industry.

In 1962, Flood’s “King or a Clown” charted in the top 40s, and his upbeat toe-tapper “Another Stretch of Track” made it to the top 20s. That same year, “Trouble’s Back in Town” was named the #1 song in Country music, and Flood was named “Most Up and Coming Male Vocalist in Country Music” by Cashbox Magazine.

This banner year in Flood’s career was followed by nearly a decade of disappointments, as Epic Records continually pushed back the release of his next album, focused more on pop artists and dropped many of their clients in the Country genre, including Flood. He was then booked on multiple Grand Ole Opry tours, and on tours for Country legends like Buck Owens and Red Foley.

Cheating Death

After the tours had ended, Flood found that his rising star had fallen again, and he took his band, “The Pathfinders,” on a world tour of military bases. While in Vietnam in 1966, Flood contracted the deadly mosquito-borne Dengue Fever, which had previously decimated American soldiers in the Philippines during World War II. Flood’s fever rose to 106 degrees, and he was in and out of consciousness as military doctors stood over his bed, waiting for him to die so they could use the space for other patients. Despite all odds, Flood willed himself to live.

“The only thing I could remember was I was just not gonna die,” he said, adding that after he had awakened, he had to convince the doctors that he hadn’t been a prisoner of war, despite his long hair and non-military clothes. “For a long time after, I was weak. I had to take lots of B12 shots to get back my strength.”

Dick Flood performs his near-fatal Vietnam tour

Dick Flood performs his near-fatal Vietnam tour

Nevertheless, after several years of recovery, Flood was stronger, and he promptly started his own record company, Totem Records. He even landed a few songwriting gigs with Nasco and Nugget Records, but he had grown weary of the uncertainty.

“I was tired of playing Bingo with the music business,” Flood said.

A Dramatic Rebirth

During that same time, Flood was also going through a divorce. Within this context, he decided it was time to get away, taking a four-month camping trip in the Florida Everglades. Something about this life felt right. When Jimmy Walker, manager of Okefenokee Swamp Park, offered him a job as animal curator, something about that felt right, too.

“He could only pay me $60 a week,” Flood said. “And that was before taxes. So I asked him to let me live in this broken-down shack on an island in the swamp.”

Dick Flood, soon known as “Okefenokee Joe,” stayed in that broken-down shack on Cowhouse Island for eight years, despite having no electricity or running water. His nearest neighbors were 48 miles away in one direction, and 60 miles away in the other.

“Dick Flood was civilized… supposedly,” Flood recalls, “but Okefenokee Joe lives off of the earth.”

Okefenokee Joe (circa 1974) used venomous snakes, like this cottonmouth, for years of conservation-based presentations

Okefenokee Joe (circa 1974) destigmatized venomous snakes, like this cottonmouth, for decades of conservation-based presentations

Today, Flood reconciles his two identities at a secluded cabin in South Carolina, devoting his retirement years to writing and recording songs about nature, simple living, relationships and his faith. He has around 80 demos that he’s shopping around to Country artists and labels, including a musically complex, newer version of “The Hell Bound Train.” He’s released three albums recently: one as Okefenokee Joe, one as Dick Flood, and a collection of original gospel songs. He’s also released a new audiobook, Swampwise  Secrets, Songs and Stories from the Land of the Tremblin’ Earth.

Flood continues to persevere as a songwriter, despite the obstacles that time has placed before him. And, despite many years handling venomous snakes, Okefenokee Joe has still been bitten only once.

(Stay tuned! In my next blog post, I’ll share the story of my own pilgrimage to introduce my son to Okefenokee Joe.)

About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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