Henderson: the small town setting for popular USA Blues Festival.
January 1, 1970
by E.A. Smith
Do you like music? History, mysteries, and nature? In the USA, Henderson County, Kentucky, has it all within its river-lined borders.
W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival
In mid-June, Henderson County – located along the banks of the Ohio River in the USA – undergoes a transformation. The population of this western Kentucky community swells by thousands as people from around the globe come to honor the man known as the father of the Blues – W.C. Handy. This icon of the musical genre lived for many years in Henderson, which is why annually, a celebration in the form of a Blues festival is held there. The music is free, but the barbecue isn’t.
Located in Audubon Mill Park, the large trees, and the breeze from the river offer protection to the masses on the most sweltering of days. Giant video screens bring performers closer to those who’ve established their seating area in the back of the park, and the festival committee hasn’t forgotten the smallest music lovers. Bouncy houses and other children’s activities are available.
Traditionally, the Blues festival’s main events span a three-day period. Zydeco night held on Thursday, offers, you guessed it – Zydeco music by such artists as those scheduled to perform at this year’s festival – Waylon Thibodeaux and Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, according to a festival schedule. The featured flavors for the palate – red beans and rice. Although barbecue and other festival foods are still offered.
Friday and Saturday the music plays for about 12 hours both days with the performers taking the stage at noon and wrapping up at midnight.
The most dedicated fans arrive at the Blues and Barbecue festival early and stay late. Even if an unfortunate storm pops up, people often whip out an umbrella and ride it out until the musicians can return to the stage.
Mardi-Gras Street Strut
While the music festival is reason enough to visit Henderson, many come in for something else related to the event – the annual Street Strut. This involves Mardis Gras type music, wild homemade costumes and a literal parade of people strutting, strolling or dancing around the town square. There is even a Grande Ooh-Pee-Doo – the leader of the parade.
The W.C. Handy Festival is a well-established event entering its 27th year. This year’s musical lineup, according to the festival committee, includes such performers as Coco Montoya, Wet Willie, Tab Benoit and Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials.
USA history and mystery in Henderson
While the toe-tapping music and the mouth-watering barbecue of the festival draw the crowds, there are other opportunities to dig into chapters of USA history. It doesn’t take much digging to figure out that Henderson County is wealthy with ties to the nation’s legacy. A stopover on the famous expedition of Captain Meriweather Lewis and Captain William Clark, Henderson County was also briefly home to John James Audubon, the famous painter, naturalist, and ornithologist. It was also hometown to Navy Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander of the Pacific fleet during the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor.
While Lewis and Clark, Audubon and Kimmel have marked their place in history, Henderson County lays claim to some lesser known, but just as interesting characters. The historical society in Henderson is an active organization which often organizes walking tours to help people understand the fascinating pasts of some of its long-dead citizens and even some of the creepier stories associated with older buildings. Take the Henderson Hotel. Once the dwelling of the ‘Old Hospital’ guests of the building on Washington Street has reported hearing people who sound like they are in pain. There have also been stories of sawing noises coming from the basement where once upon a time, a morgue was located. While many nonresidents of the county haven’t heard of the Henderson Hotel and its ghostly noisemakers, they have heard of Prohibition. Members of the historical society can take people back in time just by strolling downtown to Wolf’s Tavern, 31 N. Green St. As the story goes, the building was erected in 1874, became a bakery in 1878 and later transitioned into a tavern. The building reportedly survived the period of Prohibition when the business owners turned it into a candy store. It returned to its tavern roots after Prohibition ended in the USA.
Fernwood Cemetery offers past glimpse of Henderson
Henderson County offers another historical destination – Fernwood Cemetery. It’s the oldest cemetery in the city. An annual tourist event involves cemetery tours in which actors portray various “residents” of the cemetery. The actors tell their story as researched by the historical society, and quite literally brings local history alive for those who attend. People coming to Henderson for the Blues festival can stop by the cemetery to check out the final resting place of some of the cemetery’s more famous inhabitants. These include descendants of Pocahontas and Catherine Walls, owner of the dog who played Toto in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
The natural side of Henderson
Henderson County, Kentucky, offers a variety of opportunities for those wanting to spend more time outdoors. While those attending the Blues festival get a scenic setting for the event, there are other places to enjoy as well. There are a lake, ponds and of course, the Ohio and Green rivers which provide places for people who enjoy boating, canoeing, kayaking and other similar activities. The John James Audubon State Park is a nearly 600-acre jewel for those wanting to stay on the more solid ground but like the natural setting for hiking, bird watching, fishing, and camping. People even have options for the type of camping they want to do whether it’s in tents or in RVs or campers. There are also cabins available for rent at Audubon State Park.
The hiking trails are as various as the creatures found in the park. Some wind their way around Wilderness Lake. Another simply circles near the park’s museum and gives novice hikers just a taste of the beauty hidden even further within the boundary of the trees. At least one is handicap accessible. Some warn of difficulty, while others are short and built for ease. New to the park is the Audubon Wetlands trail, some of which is handicapped accessible and even open to pets on a leash. For those who just want a few hours in the park, there are plenty of picnic tables, open grassy areas and playgrounds for children. The museum boasts a large collection of artifacts and original pieces from the life and work of John James Audubon.
The rivers and the state park aren’t the only areas people can get close to nature. The Sloughs Wildlife Management Area near the community of Smith Mills in Henderson County is an inviting place for those who like birds and butterflies. In fact, naturalists from the state park often hold Monarch tagging events there. People can come to the sloughs, capture Monarch butterflies and tag them as they migrate south to Mexico. It’s an effort to catalog the journey of these butterflies.