Bessie Smith Strut has long history on M.L. King Boulevard

Bessie Smith Strut has long history on M.L. King Boulevard

April 1st, 2012 by Cliff Hightower in News

A crowd watches Bernard Allison at the M.L.K. Stage during the 2009 Bessie Smith Strut.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you agree with the decision to move the Bessie Smith Strut?

There was a time when Bessie Smith didn't have the blues.

The Bessie Smith Strut started in 1982, just as the Riverbend festival got its legs under it. But the blues portion of the festival didn't start with the blues. Instead, the event was born as the Bessie Smith Jazz Strut.

"We needed to bring the community together," said Walker Breland, who served as the first president of Friends of the Festival. "And that was one way we could do that."

The Strut now is in danger of moving from its original location along M.L. King Boulevard and to the Riverbend site after Mayor Ron Littlefield proposed it to the Friends of the Festival. The Strut has been a fixture on M.L. King Boulevard for 31 years.

The Strut as it now is known is a block party with blues acts playing on different stages -- in front of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, on one end of the street near the railroad tracks or at Miller Plaza.

Thousands of people mill about, some with baby strollers, others carrying 24-ounce cans of beer and many chomping on huge turkey legs and barbecue.

But the first festivals didn't start that way, Breland said.

The first festival featured the jazz musicians Dukes of Dixieland and Betty Mac Tutum, he said. The bands started playing and the crowd started swinging, Breland said.

"By the time we got to the third band, we had a snake dance moving along M.L.K. and everyone was holding hands," he said.

The second year of the bash, it took a different spin. The U.S. Army band came into town and helped throw a New Orleans-style parade from the riverfront to M.L. King Boulevard.

By the third Strut, it started becoming more of what it is today with blues acts coming into town to play the event, Breland said.

As a person who helped get the first Struts going, Breland said he doesn't like seeing what is happening today with the idea of moving the event to Riverbend. He said it would lose the blending of cultures, as it was designed to do.

"You can't take that to the riverfront," he said. "The whole purpose is to bring white and black together. It's got to be on M.L.K."

Hugh Moore, who serves on the current board of directors for the Friends of the Festival, also served on the first board in 1982 when the Strut came alive. He remembers the parade. He said everything was different about Riverbend in the early '80s. There were smatterings of acts spread out across town in places like the Dome building and St. Paul's Episcopal Church with acts like Count Basie and Roberta Flack.

"The MLK area was different too," he said. "There were more businesses."

But no matter the form, the event has become something that people have a sentimental attachment to, said David Smotherman, owner of Winder Binder Gallery & Bookstore. He has a sentimental connection, too. He is 40 years old and went to his first Bessie Smith Strut when he was 13, he said.

"My parents took me to interact with other races," he said.

Smotherman started the Facebook page "Occupy your favorite MLK establishment for Bessie Smith Strut night." As of Friday, more than 8,000 people had been invited and almost 900 people said they would attend.

He said he didn't do it as a "political protest or political statement." He is encouraging others not to take it that way. He just wants to help the business owners along the street and also show that M.L. King Boulevard can be a safe place.

Littlefield, who has been under tremendous pressure for days about his decision to move the event, said Friday he appreciates the creativity of the group. He said he wants people to go to M.L. King Boulevard and have fun.

"If they have a party down there, I'll participate in it," he said.

For blues musicians across Chattanooga, moving the Strut is a bit of a travesty.

"I think it's a little absurd, I really do," said local blues guitarist Brian "Husky" Burnette. "It's the one day during the festival that is a big blues block party. For lovers of the blues, it's the one free day. It's right there by Bessie's house, so to speak. That's the deal."

Local blues guitarist Lon Eldridge agreed.

"No matter where it is said that the Bessie Smith Strut is held, people are going to be on MLK," he said. "I think that's where it's going to be. Chattanogans take a lot of pride in the Bessie Smith Strut and I don't think you can have it anywhere else and have it still be the Strut."

Staff writer Casey Phillips contributed to this report.