Bessie Smith Strut attracts thousands in Chattanooga

Bessie Smith Strut attracts thousands in Chattanooga

June 14th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Riverbend2011

Pedestrians walk along M.L. King Blvd. Monday at the Bessie Smith Strut on the fourth day of the 2011 Riverbend Festival.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Blues. Barbecue. Brotherhood. All were cited as among the primary draws of the Bessie Smith Strut, which attracted thousands Monday.

For the Swafford family of Soddy-Daisy, the Strut offered a chance to help one of their own.

The Swafford family restaurant, Limbo's, has served up soul food at the Strut for the last four years. This year, the proceeds will provide a hand to Daphne Swafford, whose Harrison home burned down earlier this month, her sister Andrea Swafford said.

"We probably would have come anyway, but this year we want to donate the proceeds to her," Andrea said.

Up and down M.L. King Boulevard, dozens of vendors vied to attract the attention of passers-by through any means necessary. Some sent out disciples to advertise their low prices, while others, such as Greg Besley, appealed directly to taste buds.

From his stand at the corner of Douglas Street and M.L. King, Besley said he claimed to sell the Strut's best deep-fried corn and pulled pork he described as "top of the line in Chattanooga." As proof of this claim, he cited the 3,000 pounds of meat he sells at the Strut every year.

Besley, who runs the Alton Park restaurant Greg's Southern Soul, said he learned to cook as a teenager under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Helen Barlow, now 88.

"She knows her grandson is doing very well," he said, laughing.

Additional security measures were in place at the Strut this year, including entry gates and an earlier conclusion at sundown (about 9 p.m.).

Attendees could only enter via four gates, where Chattanooga police officers and Hamilton County sheriff's deputies were in place to check bags.


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Although the police presence at the festival was not increased over last year, funneling guests through these points allowed officers to focus on stopping problems before they started, said Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Jerri Weary.

"We're advising all of our officers to be aware of our surroundings, make sure we check anything we deem suspicious, remove those who are causing problems before it escalates and doing general policing," Sgt. Weary said.

Attendees said they hardly noticed the change.

"I didn't notice (the gates)," said Chattanoogan Brent Page, as he waited for the soul/funk band SkyHi to perform on the Trestle Stage. "I've honestly never worried about (violence). It seems like most people are here to have fun, so it's not been an issue."

Music, however, was on most people's minds.

Large crowds gathered to hear official Strut performers such as Jimmy Thackery and headliner John Lee Hooker Jr., but many venues presented unscheduled musical performances that were also well received.

The Ben Friberg Trio attracted a crowd to O'Heiney's Pub, which was open for its first Strut this year. Farther down the boulevard, local vocalist/guitarist Husky Burnette was performing at Champy's Famous Fried Chicken, where he has been a Strut fixture for three years.

Burnette took a breather during a four-hour set with drummer Dave Burma Shave to praise the Strut for offering a chance to honor the music he loves so much.

"This is giving props to (famed Chattanooga blues vocalist) Bessie Smith," he said. "I'm a lover of the blues, and you can get a bunch of blues acts in one spot and it's all free? Come on. It doesn't get any better than that."

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