By Renée S. Gordon
“Oh play them Blues. That melancholy strain, that ever haunting refrain
Is like a sweet old sorrow song. Here comes the very part that wraps a spell around my heart.”
–W. C. Handy’s Memphis Blues
Conquistador Hernando De Soto’s fleet landed on the coast of Florida in 1539 with the goal of traveling into the interior of the New World in a quest for gold. Several of the participants maintained meticulous journals, these writings can be considered some of America’s earliest travelogues, and through their stories we learn that by July 1540 the Spaniards had reached what is now Alabama, the first Europeans to do so. The narratives paint a picture of the large and diverse native culture and population and relate an August 1540 incident. DeSoto spent nearly a month with the Chief of Coosa in his capital. When preparing to leave he found that one of his men, a “Christian Negro,” was too sick to continue. He was left in the care of the Indians, with their agreement, he recovered and remained among them making him the region’s first permanent resident of African descent.
In 1702, the French founded the first permanent settlement Fort Louis de la Mobile. The territory was ceded to the British in 1763 and they, in turn, surrendered control of the area as a result of the American Revolution.
Native Americans inhabited the region for thousands of years but settlers from surrounding southern states, many accompanied by their slaves, gradually encroached on their territory and with the defeat of the Creek Nation the land rush began in earnest. A death knell was sounded in 1830 when the government enacted the Indian Removal Act that relocated all of the southeastern tribes to the newly created Oklahoma Indian Territory. After futile attempts to appeal their removal tribal representatives signed the Treaty of Cusseta on March 24, 1832 outlining the details of their removal. In 1836 approximately 15,000 Alabama Creeks began the “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” the “Trail Where They Cried.” In 1995 the Alabama State Legislature designated the “Trail of Tears Corridor of North Alabama” to memorialize this chapter of our history.
Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819 and by the start of the Civil War there were 435,000 enslaved and 2,690 free blacks, 45 percent of the population. Many of the state’s farmers worked rural farms and owned no slaves. Sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slavery after the war for both blacks and whites and the state remained largely agricultural and rural.
Although Alabama has diversified and is now an industrial center that is home to several automobile plants and aerospace and health care businesses it still boasts an abundance of meandering roads, quaint towns, outdoor recreation, great accommodations, splendid cuisine and a surprising and unique history. A series of itineraries have been created that provide visitors with all the information necessary to explore Alabama by topic, interest or location. www.alabama.travel
The “Sweet Home Alabama Music Trail” explores the roots of Alabama’s music, its creators, the impact it has had on the world and along the way we’ll experience the warmth of southern hospitality and southern cuisine at its finest. Our tour begins in the Shoals area, the section of the state bordered by the Tennessee “Singing” River that encompasses the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, and winds its way to Birmingham.
The Native Americans occupied the region for several thousand years and it is fitting that we begin with their song. According to an ancient Cherokee legend a beautiful native princess named Noccalula loved a handsome young warrior but was already promised to another. She implored the chief, her father to allow her to marry for love but instead he banished the suitor. Attired in her bridal finery on her wedding day she surreptitiously left and made her way to a waterfall and flung herself into the water. It is believed that her voice can be heard singing as the water dances across the shoals. Her song protects and provides strength and pleasure to those who listen.
All of the Native Americans did not leave Alabama in 1836; some remained and were rounded up by federal troops. During that time two young Yuchi sisters were found hiding, were placed in the stockade, given the numbers 59 and 60 and taken to Oklahoma. Te-Lah-Nay, number 59, walked back home over a five year period. Upon her return she became a healer and it is probably because of her cures that she was not imprisoned. She wed Wylie Edwards in 1845 and eventually shared her story and her medicines with her great grandson. He has honored her memory with a stone memorial, the largest to a woman and the largest unmortared wall in the United States.
Te-Lah-Nay’s Wall has been created, by hand by Tom Hendrix, over a 33-year period and consists of 8 million pounds of stones with objects from every state and 27 countries. Each stone represents a step in her journey and he enlarges it daily. The wall is actually two distinct areas, a circular walk and an enclosed gathering place. Visitors can bring small objects to be added to the wall. They are placed on a slanted flat slab and the rain washes them into the structure. The Wall has been featured in “National Geographic” as one of the country’s sacred places.
When asked why she returned Te-Lah-Nay’s response was that when the people were forced to leave they had to leave behind the lady in the river and her songs. She could not survive without the songs of her people. www.discoveramerica.com/ca/alabama/florence-tom’s-wall
Occocopoosa was incorporated as town in 1820 and two years later the name was changed to Tuscumbia, derived from the name for a Cherokee warrior who kills, “Tash-Ka-ambi.” In 1830 the Tuscumbia Railway Company incorporated making the city the first frontier railroad town in the country.
Tuscumbia has the oldest row of commercial buildings in the state dating from 1835 and an 1888 restored train station but its star attraction is the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (AMHF). www.cityoftuscumbia.org
The AMHF’s 12,500-ft exhibit hall opened in 1990 with a mission of collecting, preserving and honoring the legacy of Alabama’s musical legends. The museum is replete with dioramas, listening stations, interpretive plaques, memorabilia, costumes, and interactive experiences. The 99th Mississippi Blues Trail Marker was placed on the exterior of the museum on January 6, 2010.
Tours begin in the lobby with the permanent bronze stars imbedded in the “Walk of Fame” and more than 25 years worth of posters from the annual W. C. Handy Music Festival. From the lobby you can read a wall autographed by visiting stars. The Induction Gallery is filled with portraits of inductees and the relevant year, Nat King Cole “85,” Hank Williams “85,” the Commodores “95,” Handy “87,” etc.
You enter the second gallery by walking through a giant jukebox. Highlights of this area are a diorama of Nat King Cole at his piano, Elvis’ contract, equipment used by Sun Studio and cases filled with memorabilia belonging to Howling Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland and Lionel Ritchie. Gallery Three is entered through a guitar and features several fantastic exhibits, Hank Williams 1961 custom gold Cadillac, complete with pistols instead of door handles and 1500 pounds of silver adornments, and Alabama’s tour bus. The final display space, Songwriter’s Gallery, allows visitor’s to play songs written by Alabamians.
Be prepared to spend several hours here to hear the music, learn the history, bask in the atmosphere and even cut a demo in the museum’s recording studio. www.alamhof.org
Florence, seven miles north of Tuscumbia, has a historic district with 12 historically significant buildings. It was also the home of Dred Scott from 1820 until 1830 when he was taken to St. Louis and sold to Dr. Emerson. Most importantly it is ground-zero for Blues’ lovers. This is the city where W. C. Handy was born in 1873 and lived until he left at 18 and here the annual W. C. Handy Festival has been held since 1982. www.wchandymusicfestival.org
The W.C. Handy Home & Museum complex features the Father of the Blues’ birthplace library and museum with exhibits including personal items, manuscripts, his iconic trumpet and the piano on which he composed the “St. Louis Blues.” Handy is credited with being the first to write down the Blues and one of the first to combine the music of the enslaved, Scots, Irish, work songs and gospel to create an indigenous music. His fame was such that he played at President Eisenhower’s Inaugural Ball. The 1845, two room, log birth home has been restored and contains original furnishings donated by the family. www.adventuresinsouthernculture.com
Handy’s father and grandfather were both pastors of St Paul A.M.E. Church. The church began in a cowshed in1840 but the current building was constructed in 1968. On view in the interior is an original stained glass window donated by Handy.
For a real down home breakfast you must eat at Stagg’s Grocery. Everything is good but the chocolate gravy and cat’s head biscuits are a “must-try.”
Trowbridge’s, a downtown ice cream parlor since 1918, is listed as one of the “50 Reasons to Love the USA.” Everything is scrumptious but don’t miss their signature egg-and-olive sandwich followed by orange-pineapple ice cream.
The Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa is centrally located for this tour. It offers all the standard amenities plus a European-style spa, three restaurants, river views and indoor and outdoor pools. www.marriottshoals.com
Next year has been designated “The Year of Alabama Music” and it is never too early to plan at trip. Information and travel tools are available on the web. www.alabama.travel
I wish you smooth and lyrical travels!