Dorchester's Handsell House hosts musical portal to the past

By Debra R. Messick Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 7/21/22

The stately brick building remnant, jutting above the horizon, rises like a beacon from Indian Town Road amidst surrounding farmland outside Vienna.

On Saturday, July 9, approaching on foot, …

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Dorchester's Handsell House hosts musical portal to the past


The stately brick building remnant, jutting above the horizon, rises like a beacon from Indian Town Road amidst surrounding farmland outside Vienna.

On Saturday, July 9, approaching on foot, sounds of the softly flowing nearby Chicone Creek could be heard, carried on the rainswept breeze. So, too, were the gently stirring strains of a flute giving voice to a spiritual tune, invoking a reverence usually reserved for Sunday.

Inside on the second floor, where exposed brick and rustic interior revealed the structure's age, punctuated with period furnishings and artifacts, local artist Ashley Watkins performed powerful renditions of songs invoking the African American experience transcending the ages, from the days of slavery, share cropping and more, including selections showcasing sacred gospel, secular jazz and “old school” R&B.

Once a member of the CSD marching band under director Robert Batson, Watkins went on to pursue intensive musical study, starting with private instruction followed by undergraduate and graduate degrees. 

Her performance career has blossomed over the past eight years. Her father Robert, a longtime host of the show "Ebony Caravan" on radio station WESM-FM, who Watkins credits with introducing her to Stevie Wonder and many others during her formative childhood days, accompanies her by operating a decidedly non-old school digitized computer sound system.

Watkins treasured the opportunity to lend her musical gifts to "Harriet Comes to Handsell," a program presented through partnership with the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Organization headquartered on Race Street in Cambridge.

Included in her repertoire was the Glenn Burleigh composition, "Order My Steps," Horace Silver's "Song For My Father" and Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour."

In closing out her first set, Watkins chose "Amazing Grace" for its special significance to the venue. She explained that the tune had been written by former slave owner John Newton following a late-night epiphany when he became an abolitionist. The melody had been inspired by his memory of songs he'd heard Africans sing on slave ships he had traveled aboard.

Downstairs, Tubman programming director Linda Harris (who has performed with Watkins at the organization's Jazz at the Mural Second Saturday concerts), added her own vocal stylings and historic commentary to a concert of well-known but not always understood "code songs," sung by slaves, as well as some early 20th century classics with African American influences.

Harris was joined by David Coles on his hybrid banjo/guitar known as a banjitar and Greg Holloway on percussion, including native African drum known as the Djambe and washboard.

Holloway later explained that it became forbidden to privately play drums, which were also employed by slaves to carry coded rhythmic messages across the miles. But the population learned to improvise, pressing into service household objects, including fly swatters made from small broomsticks, whisk brooms, basically "anything available to them, that's what they used to create rhythm," he noted.

The group began with "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which Harris explained referred to the North Star, a vital reference when Harriet Tubman conducted traveled by night, leading slaves north in search of freedom.

"By the way, Harriet Tubman made 13 trips, never got caught, and never lost anyone. Just a courageous, inspirational human," Harris added.

Performing "Wade in the Water," she described the song's coded message as essentially a travel warning to slaves to enter the water where search dogs would not be able to pick up their scent.

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" described the grief of being torn from one's roots and taken into slavery, only to once again be forcibly separated from their new families by slaveowners, Harris said.

The seemingly upbeat song "I Got Shoes," she noted, voiced the unwavering intention to seek freedom.

"From the time Africans were brought here, across the ocean, in middle passage aboard ship for three months, their objective was fixed – always, their sights were set on becoming free," she said.

"Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, was written by composer George Gershwin after living for a lengthy period in North Carolina, and based on a melody learned from an elderly African American woman there, Holloway added.

In the iconic spiritual "Go Down, Moses," the biblical references are themselves codes, with Moses meaning Tubman, leading her children to the promised land of freedom in the North, Harris said. She then asked Handsell Trustee Margaret Ingersoll about the number of slaves who had lived and worked at the site.

Ingersoll explained that there were 210 names listed on the group's database of the enslaved from the 1600s to 1864, which launched last year and can be accessed on the Handsell website (

But she pointed out that though all those names were associated with the white landowners, many slaves were often loaned or rented out to others.

The National Register Historic Site, owned and maintained by the Nanticoke Historic Preservation Alliance, Inc., has created a living history educational homage celebrating the three cultures inhabiting the land as far back as the 1600s: Native American, African American and Colonial settlers.

The grounds, including the Long House Living History Exhibit, are open daily during daylight hours. Previously, Handsell House has opened to the public during spring's Chicone Village Day and fall's Nanticoke River Jamboree special events.

This year marks the start of additional Summer Saturday openings from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the next one on July 30, featuring a colonial wood-turning demonstration by Rick Schuman.

Handsell House is located at 4837 Indian Town Road, Vienna. For information, call 410-228-7458 or email

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