“Where the Tennessee River, like a silver snake, winds her way through the red clay hills of Alabama, sits high on these hills my hometown, Florence.”–W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues
We have written many times of our community’s rich musical legacy. The Shoals has a very notable place in modern music history; but, that history reaches much further back than many realize. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was born and raised here in Florence in the late 19th century. Discovering a love of music at a young age, he took up the cornet and participated in acapella vocal lessons while attending grammar school. Later, after receiving his degree from the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, he became a teacher and briefly worked in a piping company before ultimately pursuing music as his true passion. His contributions in shaping the blues were influenced by the African-American musical folk traditions he experienced during his travels across the South, with “Memphis Blues” marking the beginning of his musical career.
For over 30 years, The Shoals community has hosted the W.C. Handy Music Festival. “Handy Fest,” as the locals call it, provides a few moments of unrivaled fun – in the middle of what can be a long, hot summer. Many of us anticipate the event all year and even the most confirmed homebodies spend multiple evenings out and about, listening to live music, visiting with friends, and exploring the community during festival week.
The festival was founded in 1982 by a local non-profit organization, the Music Preservation Society, with the intention of preserving and promoting northwest Alabama’s musical heritage (which is deep and rich). Each summer, the community offers music camps, exhibits, educational activities, athletic events, and performances at locations throughout The Shoals.
The very first festival was a long weekend of music hosted by local churches and venues, with a final concert headlined by Dizzy Gillespie. Since then, the weekend event has grown to a 10-day affair, with over 200 performances scheduled across north Alabama.
The W.C. Handy Festival is unlike traditional main stage events, where all acts perform from a single, central venue. Every July, festival organizers consciously take a community approach, scheduling events at locations and businesses throughout The Shoals as a way to promote exploration of our diverse community, while fostering economic development. Each year, we discover new bands and new restaurants to love. For up-to-date information and a schedule of annual events, visit the W.C. Handy Music Festival’s website.