About Dr. David Mussleman and the History of the Music Preservation Society, Inc. and the W.C. Handy Music Festival

By Dr. Willie Ruff, Festival co-Creator and Edsel Holden, original Board Member

In 2018, we lost one of the two men who are credited with the idea that became the W.C. Handy Music Festival. In tribute, Dr. Willie Ruff, Handy Festival co-creator, and Edsel Holden, original Music Preservation Society, Inc. board member, were asked to share their thoughts and memories about Dr. David Mussleman. (Tori Bailey, Festival Chair)

The W. C. Handy Music Festival, one of the most highly anticipated and influential cultural events in the Southeast, came magically to life following a conversation I had at the Muscle Shoals airport with David Mussleman, a prominent Florence veterinarian. David was a total stranger to me at the time, and when he noticed the well-worn French Horn case I carried, he asked if I’d been recording in one of the local studios. I said no, I was a native of the area, and was headed back to Yale where I was on the music faculty. The conversation soon turned to Mr. Handy and his importance as a central figure in our national musical story. The good Doctor not only shared my passion for Handy’s legacy, he mentioned the highly successful celebration of the composer’s centennial in the Shoals a few years back. Suddenly I heard myself blurting out an offer: I would round up a professional troupe of artists I knew of international stature, and bringing them to The Shoals for a three day festival. David said he might be able to help make that happen, and we hurriedly exchanged business cards and sprinted to our separate flight gates while yelling out promises to keep in touch. Not much later, David called me with the encouraging news that he’d organized a bunch of music enthusiasts, formed a committee, elected officers, raised some money, and that the Shoals was ready to boogie. I immediately called Dizzy Gillespie, and a sensational tap dance team called the Harlem Copasetics, and rounded out the assemblage with the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, and vocalist Nate Pruitt. The rest is history. (Dr. Willie Ruff, co-founder of the W.C. Handy Music Festival)

The W.C. Handy Music Festival was the brainchild of Dr. David Mussleman and Dr. Willie Ruff and came to be after a chance encounter at the airport. A discussion about music led to the idea of starting a festival in the Shoals area to celebrate both the music of W.C. Handy and the area’s musical history. Together, Dr. Ruff and Dr. Mussleman, with Peggy Clay, Harvey and Sierria Thompson, Nancy Gonce, Felice Green, Rev. John Gilcrist, Aaron Lynch, Alan Flowers, Dr. Wayne Todd, Betty Dardees, Michael Weathers, Rena Renell Roy, Rev. Percy Jones, Robert T. Hughes, and Edsel Holden formed a committee. Eventually the Music Preservation Society, Inc., was formed with Dr. Mussleman as first board president. The group then organized, planned, and executed the first W.C. Handy Music Festival. Though not a musician himself, Dr. Mussleman was extremely passionate and enthusiastic about music. He was immediately recognizable at festival events and was often seen dressed in in his signature seersucker suits with neat bowties. According to Edsel Holden, Dr. Mussleman “was the sharpest dresser I’ve ever known, a joy to be around, a fantastic listener, and a hard worker. Without David Mussleman, the W.C. Handy Music Festival would never have happened. (Edsel Holden, original board member of the Music Preservation Society, Inc.)

Today, the W.C. Handy Music Festival celebrates Handy’s gifts in his hometown of Florence and in the surrounding Shoals area. The Board of Directors of the Music Preservation Society, Inc. thanks the family of William Christopher Handy for years of support of the W.C. Handy Music Festival, and welcomes Dr. Carlos Handy (grandson of W.C. Handy) and his lovely wife, Dr. Maribel Handy, as they join our community. (Tori Bailey, W.C. Handy Festival Chair)