Henderson County, Kentucky



Probably not that many people took notice when a young musician named William Christopher HANDY left Henderson around the turn of the century.

But virtually everyone noticed when he came back about 50 years later. The entire town turned out in October 1953 to welcome "the father of the blues," who had come back to play a series of performances to help fund construction of a swimming pool for local blacks.

"The 79-year-old artist was met by a delegation as he stepped from a train that brought him from New York," the Henderson Morning Gleaner reported in its October 27 issue.

"HANDY expressed pleasure in coming back to the city he always has called his home and spent hours recalling the friends he knew. It was here he met and married his wife (Elizabeth PRICE), who died years ago."

October 27 featured a concert at Barret Manual Training High School's gymnasium in the afternoon, followed by a parade and then a banquet at the Soaper Hotel. That evening there was another concert at the Kraver Theater.

Former Governor A. B. "Happy" CHANDLER, who would win a second term to the governor's mansion just a few years later, was the master of ceremonies at the concerts.

Hugh Edward SANDEFUR publicly thanked HANDY for "encouraging and inspiring me to go on with music." He said HANDY "accepted my music when no one else would look at it."

Roy TWOMBLEY praised HANDY for having "given the world something which spawns human hopes and aspirations."

Proceeds from HANDY'S appearances went to help fund HANDY Pool, which was built in 1955 and demolished in 1984. The pool, which was located behind the John F. KENNEDY Community Center, has been replaced by HANDY Park.

Meanwhile, HANDY is still honored by a ceramic tile mural inside the JFK center, which commemorates some of HANDY'S most widely know tunes.

HANDY was born in Florence, Alabama but lived in Henderson about 10 years.

During his 1953 appearance here, he told Joe CREASON of the Louisville Courier-Journal:

"I didn't write any songs in Henderson. But it was there I realized that experiences I had had, things I had seen and heard could be set down in a kind of music characteristic of my race. There I learned to appreciate the music of my people.

"For instance, when I was a little boy in Alabama, I sang in the church choir. (Both his father and grandfather were Methodist ministers.) We sang according to the music, just as the white man had written it. Then, one day, of the singers took one of the notes and dressed it up with a slight inflection at the beginning and at the end and, instead of one note, he actually made three.

"It wasn't until years later when I was playing trumpet in a band in Henderson about 1895 that I came to appreciate that rhythm as being Negroid and our true expression in music. I think it was then the blues were born because from that day on I started thinking about putting my own experiences down in that particular kind of music."

After leaving Henderson, HANDY and his wife traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where he composed a campaign song for the Memphis city boss, "Mr. Crump." That song was published in 1912 as "The Memphis blues" and took its place in history as the first blues song ever published.

HANDY was one of the most important figures of Beale Street, which was a cultural mecca for blacks in the early parts of this century. A statue of HANDY still stands on Beale Street in Memphis.

HANDY wrote more than 40 blues songs in all and probably twice that many spirituals. His career lasted until his death in 1958 at age 84. His inspiration is still honored in Henderson with the annual W. C. HANDY Blues & Barbecue Festival held in June.

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Frank Boyett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS