FLORENCE — Even after 37 years of coordinating the annual Street Strut during the W.C. Handy Music Festival, Gwen Woods remains full of enthusiasm for the event she's organized since the festival began.

The popular event is held downtown in Wilson Park and includes a parade through downtown and music in the park.

"The idea of the Street Strut really derives from New Orleans," Woods said, referring to the similarity to "second line parades" New Orleans is known for.

"In New Orleans when someone passed away, there were people marching behind the hearse," Woods said. "It was a sad time and when they got to the cemetery, when they committed the body to the grave, the spirit was free and there was rejoicing."

While it might not compare to a New Orleans jazz funeral, the Handy festival street strut is one of the more colorful events of the festival, which closes today.

Led by a marching band and grand marshals Judy Hood and Darnell "Super Chef" Ferguson, a large group marched and strutted through downtown and back to Wilson Park, where the band continued to play, and young and old alike marched around the park's fountain.

Many participants held colorful parasols decorated with Mardi Gras beads, ribbons, feathers, streamers and flowers.

"I think this has been a great festival," Hood said. "This is what happens when the Shoals area comes together in unity. Music is the universal language."

Ferguson, who opened Superhero Chefs in downtown Tuscumbia last month, jumped right into the Handy festival vibe and hosted music at his restaurant every night. Ferguson said the community spirit is unlike anything he's experienced in other places his family has lived.

"I think we came at the perfect time," Ferguson said with one of his children in his arms. "We got to see the this community at its best ... family first, God and music." 

The parade included students from the Florence High School and and Lee High School of Huntsville marching bands, while the popular Thompson Trio provided music in the park.

"Music is what makes the parade great," Woods said. "It's such a great, family friendly event. We have family reunions strutting in the parade. People take their kids in strollers."

In addition to candy, Mardi Gras beads and Moon Pies were tossed to attendees along the route.

Woods said the parade route was lengthened as more people wanted to join the parade because participants would return to Wilson Park before the end of the parade had left.

Former festival chair Nancy Gonce said the W.C. Handy Music Festival was designed to be a community oriented event. The Street Strut was a chance for the community to create and event with its own identity, she said.

"It's unique," she said. "It's just fun."

She recalled one participant who mounted a small tape player inside her umbrella so she would have her own music playing during the parade.

"I thought that was an innovative one," Gonce said.

While some people marched in the parade, others chose to remain in the park where chairs surrounded the perimeter of the fountain.

"This is kind of the end of the road," Florence Mayor Steve Holt said after the parade returned to Wilson Park.

The crowd applauded when Holt asked if everyone has had a good time during the festival.

"There has been sold out shows all week," Hood said.

Headliner Miki Howard, and The Manhattans featuring Gerald Alston, culminated Saturday's events. 

russ.corey@timesdaily.com

or 256-740-5738. Twitter

@TD_.RussCorey

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