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Handy volunteers work free to keep it free

Steve Burger

Each year at the W.C. Handy festival, dozens of people pitch in to make it a success. At the 25th annual Handy event, we decided to profile the volunteers who come back year after year to put on the festival.

For this look at the W.C. Handy volunteers,  I found one who’s been working the festival since the beginning, one who started with the new millennium in 2000, and Rebecca Hein, who’s spent most of her life bringing blues and barbecue to the Tri-State.

“I was seven when this festival started, and I’ve been here ever since. You know when you have a passion for something, it’s not work.”

Handy organizer Leslie Newman’s first festival also happened to BE the first W.C. Handy event in Henderson. Leslie says in 25 years, you’d think you’d seen it all, but there is a new wrinkle.

“I don’t think we’ve had a tropical storm (Bill) before. We’ve dealt with rain, every year we’ve dealt with rain, and I don’t think there’s a year when we haven’t had a show in some way, shape or form.”

Credit Steve Burger / w
Soggy, but faithful blues patrons hung out until outdoor performances were moved indoors Friday evening.

Some way, shape or form happened during the torrential downpour Friday evening when things had to move indoors . But even then, the volunteers were abundant and cheerful.

For instance, I saw Henderson County Tourism Commission executive director Kyle Hittner performing at least four different jobs during this year’s Handy, including staffing the door Friday evening ….and she was singing along with the music as she opened the door for soggy patrons.

In the past six years working closely with the W.C. Handy volunteers, I’ve learned while there are many reasons for this love affair with blues music, the town’s annual event and the community, there is a common theme in their responses to the question of why they do it.

Michael Glover is known to the Handy performers and crew as simply “Doobie”. Working backstage, he’s the official greeter to newcomers, spreading cheer to weary performers with a smile and gentle humor.

Credit Steve Burger / WNIN-FM
Festival goers got the chance to hear Devon Allman and others indoors after the skies opened up Friday evening and caused the cancellation of the outdoor portion for that day.

   “One thing…it’s free. Free music. You know, some of these people can’t afford to go to the arena, but they can come here, and sit, and listen to the music and enjoy it. You know one day I looked out over the crowd and they were backed up all the way to the waterfall….It made me feel good, you know?”

Leslie Newman: “Being free allows everybody to come. There are no borders.”

And Rebecca Hein? “I think that’s part of the pride of this festival…that people can find other ways to contribute, but they don’t have to pay to enjoy it.”

It’s always a challenge to put on a free festival, and keep it high quality. Leslie Newman says they’re constantly working on new ways to fund the event. But she’s not giving up, neither is Rebecca Hein and neither is Doobie Glover:

“Oh, I’ll probably keep doing this until they throw dirty in my face. I love it.”

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