Henderson, Kentucky, sits on the banks of the Ohio River, right across from the state of Indiana. Back in the late 1700s, one Colonel Henderson and his cronies purchased 17 000 000 acres of land from the Cherokee Indians under the Treaty of Watauga. The Virginia State Legislature voided this deal and, in return for the original $50 000 that Henderson et al. had forked over, they received a plot of 200 000 acres. What Henderson hadn’t realised (or perhaps ignored) was that purchase of land from Native Americans was the purview of the government (the British, the governments of Virginia and North Carolina and, later, the United States, all forbade private purchase of land from Indians).
It is on part of this 200 000 acre site that the city of Henderson now sits. And it is here, every year, that the WC Handy Blues and BBQ festival takes place. One of the largest free music festivals in the USA, it celebrates the Father of the Blues, Alabama-born William Christopher Handy. Legend has it that Handy and his crew were on their way back from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892 when they ran out of money. Handy headed to Evansville, Indiana, and joined a local band. When they were playing a gig one night in Henderson, he met a woman by the name of Elizabeth Price, so he stayed a while. (It never ceases to amaze me how the course of a life can be changed by a chance encounter.)
In his autobiography, he says: 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.
The week-long festival is run by the Henderson Music Preservation Society, Inc., a non-profit organisation, and attracts up to 50 000 people. This year, the visitor who had travelled furthest to get there was none other than yours truly. I won a vintage T-shirt and the subsequent interview with the local newspaper has shaved a couple of minutes off my allotted 15 minutes of fame. I await the headlines with anticipation.
Two things struck me: one was the sheer diversity of the audience. Everything from twinsets and pearls to biker jackets and bandanas. Every age, size, colour, creed was visible. And as people filed in with their collapsible chairs, the sheer innovativeness of the American Leisure Industry was apparent. Some deckchairs had footrests, others had rockers; all had the perquisite cup-holder. Alcohol was contained to the bar tents, even though Henderson is not one of the 50 dry counties in Kentucky (where the sale of alcohol is forbidden or restricted). And admittedly, having a drinking area along the lines of a smoking area, took some getting used to.
While European festival-goers might prefer beer with their music, this one focused more on food. Fried food. Good ole southern BBQ. There was even a Raspberry Cheesecake Springroll on offer at the one Asian stand and a lone Greek stand didn’t fare too well, sandwiched as it was between one selling mutton BBQ and another selling ribs. Yes, you read that right. The second thing that struck me was that down south, in this area anyway, BBQ meat is mutton! Ye gods! BBQ’d lamb, yes. But mutton?
I couldn’t bring myself to try it so we opted for the potato rose (home-made potato chips smothered in cheese) and a rack of pork ribs cooked up by Tim and Barb, which literally disintegrated on touch.
Maybe it was the blues that kept things calm. Maybe it was the lack of booze. Maybe that’s just the way things are in the South – laid back and chilled. There was no aggravation, no rowdiness, nothing other than good cheer and sunshine. As we collected our things to leave, and made our way through the masses, I was peppered by Hi Mary! and Hey, Budapest! – and was, once again struck by American hospitality and that instant familiarity that so amused me when I first set foot stateside.