The W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival has become one of the largest free music festivals in the nation, drawing attendees from just about every state and many countries. The festival is a celebration of the life and legacy of Henderson resident and “Father of the Blues,” William Christopher Handy. According to legend, the Alabama born composer and his band were traveling home from the postponed Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 when they ran out of money in St. Louis. Work was scarce there, so Handy left the rest of the band and headed to Evansville, Indiana.
In need of funds, Handy worked on a street paving crew and joined a local band that performed throughout the region. While the group played at a Henderson barbecue, he met Elizabeth Price, who soon became his wife.
Handy spent nearly a decade in Henderson before moving on, eventually to be recognized as an accomplished composer of the blues and spiritual music. In his autobiography Father of the Blues, Handy said: “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…then the blues were born, because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.”
His dedication to preserving the blues as an art form and his body of work in spiritual music inspired the Henderson Music Preservation Society, Inc. to organize a festival that would celebrate the life and musical accomplishments of W. C. Handy.
The festival books some of the hottest national and local blues talent each year. The opening day of the festival is highlighted by the “Taste of Henderson Barbecue” where you can enjoy barbecue of all varieties sold by local teams and listen to great live music in Henderson’s Central Park. Live music at the scenic Audubon Mill Park on the Henderson Riverfront continues every night from Wednesday evening to Saturday night. There are a host of other events throughout the week as well, including a Mardi Gras-style Street Strut, Handy Lunch Breaks at local eateries, lectures, dance classes and much more.
The Henderson Music Preservation Society, Inc. is tax-exempt, non-profit organization. Generous corporate and individual sponsors, as well as our many volunteers, help keep this festival free and open to everyone. Attendance builds throughout the week long festival, swelling towards Saturday’s all day music extravaganza. Total attendance is estimated to exceed 50,000 each year.
The W. C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival has grown into a heritage event for the Henderson community and is widely known across the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Tri-State area, and beyond. Kentucky Educational Television, PBS’s largest member, serving Kentucky and seven surrounding states, features past festivals in their Jubilee Series, which has recently been syndicated nationwide.
Henderson is where William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues, discovered his calling.
William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. He grew up in a log cabin that his grandfather had built on what is now called College Street. As a young child, he displayed a keen interest in music and his intuitive ear could catalog the musical notes of songbirds, the whistles from nearby river boats, and even the rhythms of the Tennessee River. However, musical talent, especially the playing of musical instruments, was frowned upon by his family and church.
During his stay in Henderson, W.C. Handy, while performing at a barbecue, met Elizabeth Price, and they married shortly afterwards on July 19, 1896. He had this to say later about his stay in Henderson:
“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 … then the blues were born because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.”
Louisville Courier-Journal, March 9, 1973