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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)

History - William Christopher Handy (1873-1958) "Father of the Blues"

William Christopher (known as “W.C.”) Handy, known to the world as the "Father of the Blues", was born in Florence, Alabama on November 16, 1873. Handy was exposed to music in the Great St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church where his father and his grandfather served as pastors. The sounds he heard in his hometown influenced and inspired him to create an enduring body of music and garnered him international acclaim. His legacy lives on in the musicians that he influenced, and in the memories of those who spent time with him. His grandson, Dr. Carlos Handy, made this observation: "It took a great, reflective, man to transcend the social strife of his generation, the brutal intolerance of Jim Crow, and stay true to capturing the musical essence of his people. No one else could have done this and imbibe his songs with great, revolutionary, musical form with lyrics that captured the indigenous sentiments of former slaves. It required an educated Black man that could both analyze and assimilate the Black man's musical heritage, imperceptibly, without influencing its form, or perturbing its execution. He embodied what it is to be an American; to overcome the social challenges affecting one's physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being; all in the quest for personal fulfillment and success, eventually becoming our fulfillment and success, and serving to define our national identity."

The following excerpt, taken from his autobiography, tells of his deep and abiding love that started when he was just a boy. In the autobiography titled "W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues", Handy says that it was his grandmother, who…

“was the first to suggest that my big ears indicated a talent for music. This thrilled me… When I was no more than ten, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears… I knew the whistle of each of the riverboats on the Tennessee… Whenever I heard the song of a bird and the answering call of its mate, I could visualize the notes in scale… All built up within my consciousness as a natural symphony. This was the primitive prelude to the mature melodies now recognized as the blues. Nature was my kindergarten… The trumpet playing of Mr. Claude Seals fired my imagination... Almost immediately I set my heart on owning a trumpet. I decided to content myself for the time being with the hope of a guitar. Work meant nothing now. It was a means to an end. But saving was slow and painful… Setting my mind on a musical instrument was like falling in love. All the world seemed bright and changed… With a guitar I would be able to express the things I felt in sounds, I grew impatient as my small savings grew. I selected the instrument I wanted and went often to gaze at it loving through the shop window. The days dragged… The name of my ailment was longing, and it was not cured till I finally went to the department store and counted out the money in small coins before the dismayed clerk. A moment later, the shining instrument under my arm, I went out and hurried up Court Street. My heart was a leaf… When I came to the house, I held up the instrument before the eyes of the astonished household. I couldn’t speak. I was too full, too overjoyed…”

As always, the Music Preservation Society extends its sincere appreciation to the family of William Christopher Handy for its continued support of and participation in the W.C. Handy Music Festival. We are honored to have the privilege to celebrate Mr. Handy's life and the gift of music that he left. We thank you for your participation because you help to make the Festival a success.

History of the Festival

The W. C. Handy Music Festival was initiated with the help of musician and Sheffield native Willie Ruff, who along with Dr. David Mussleman and others, envisioned and helped MPS to present the first W. C. Handy Music Festival. That first Festival was a long weekend of music featuring Dizzy Gillespie as the headliner artist. Since then, the annual celebration has evolved into a ten-day Festival with nearly 200 events. The Festival showcases music at locations throughout northwest Alabama including parks, restaurants, stores, libraries, museums, art galleries, sidewalks, parking lots, and lawns. It also features athletic events, plays, music classes, car shows, and much more.

The Handy Music Festival has been honored by state and local government, and has been selected as a Top Ten Event in Alabama, and named Event of the Year by Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel; a Location/Destination on the National Geographic Appalachian Regional Commission's Featured Sites Map; a three-time Cultural Olympiad Designee by Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games; Alabama Mountain Lakes Peak Award Winner; and a Top Twenty event in the Southeast since 1986 by Southeast Tourism Society.