McFarland Park, Florence
Riverfront Park, Sheffield
In 2010, the Alabama State Legislature honored the “Singing River” legend, and the significance of Muscle Shoals in music history, by designating the Patton Island bridge near Wilson Dam the “Singing River Bridge.”
It has been said that something in the water has given residents of the Shoals a special musical vitality. Local legend holds that the Chickasaw people referred to the Tennessee as the “Singing River.” The late Florence historian William McDonald dates this legend back to the 1820s, but the earliest known publication to mention it is a 1917 pamphlet written by former first lady of Alabama and Florence native Mrs. Emmet O’Neal. According to Mrs. O’Neal, the Cherokee believed that a “Great Spirit” had trapped the “Goddess of the Tennessee” beneath the waters of Muscle Shoals. While the lovestruck “Prince of the Power of the Air” hovered longingly above, the goddess, in Mrs. O’Neal’s telling, “murmured tender secrets” to him “beneath myriad southern moons.”
Archaeological evidence suggests that music indeed played an important role in the lives of Indigenous peoples who inhabited the Shoals. Tom Hendrix (below), the late local historian of Creek heritage, noted discoveries of flutes or whistles made from waterfowl wing bones and cane centuries before the arrival of European settlers. Though there is no direct historical connection between the music making of Indigenous peoples and that of today’s Shoals residents, the “Singing River” legend has forged a mythical link between past and present, “effectively creating a nearly two-thousand-year-old musical tradition."
Many of the white settlers who moved to the Shoals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were of Scots-Irish descent. These settlers brought their Celtic traditions with them and made the fiddle a centerpiece of entertainment at dances and in contests of musicianship. Meanwhile, African slaves who worked the cotton fields of area plantations had their own musical traditions, including chants, field hollers and songs of spiritual hope.
By the time Mrs. O’Neal published her pamphlet in 1917, these traditions were blending with the hymns and gospel music heard in area churches to create new musical styles that still paid tribute to their origins. Handy, who had been raised in the Greater St. Paul AME Church, became an important progenitor of these emerging styles. Fellow Florence native Sam Phillips, who later built on Handy’s innovations and pioneered new musical styles of his own, echoed Handy in his youthful appreciation of the Shoals as a musical melting pot.