Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Real First W.C. Handy Festival

When was the first W.C. Handy Festival? Many point to 1982 which began an annual tradition of a week long event, but the first Handy Festival was held 12 years before. The year 1970 saw the dedication of a reconstructed Handy birthplace accompanied by a two-day festival on November 22 and 23.

The 1970 festival featured a concert with such illustrious talent as the Olympia Brass Band, Maxine Sullivan, Blanch Thomas, and the immortal Eubie Blake and his song-writing partner Noble Sissle. The next day saw a parade and street strut down Court Street led by the Olympia Brass Band from New Orleans.

Attending this first festival were Mrs. W. C. Handy, Charles E. Handy, W. C. Handy Jr., Mattie Handy Robinson, and Catherine Handy Lewis. At the end of the festival, Florence Chamber of Commerce President Jim Odum announced the event would become an annual tradition, but it was not yet to be.

The next Handy Festival was in 1973 and honored Handy’s 100th birthday. The event was held November 17 and 18 and began with a parade on Court Street. Special entertainment followed at the halftime of that afternoon’s University of North Alabama ball game. The Handy family was honored with a reception following the game.

The next night a concert was held in Norton Auditorium. A sold-out theatre saw Thomas, Sullivan, and Blake return to the Shoals stage. Eubie Blake was then 90 and reportedly the highlight of the night. At the end of the festival, Jim Odum again stated the festival was to become an annual event.

Under the direction of Odum, both festivals were considered huge successes. Why a delay of nine more years before the third festival was held? A slow economy as well as the aging of Mr. Handy’s family and contemporaries may have been to blame. Nevertheless, the festival is now a permanent Shoals fixture each summer.

Bette Favor Terry holds a B.A. in history from UAH.

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