Robbins: The history of the Riverbend festival

Donna Robarge cheers as Here Come the Mummies perform on the final night of the Riverbend Festival at Ross's Landing on Saturday, June 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Flaming Lips headlined the festival's closing day.
Donna Robarge cheers as Here Come the Mummies perform on the final night of the Riverbend Festival at Ross's Landing on Saturday, June 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Flaming Lips headlined the festival's closing day.

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The roots of the Riverbend Festival go back more than a century. From 1898 until the early 1900s, Chattanooga hosted an annual week-long spring festival with concerts, parades, bicycle races, flower shows and coronations of kings and queens. Much of the carnival portion was held at Midway on 11th Street. Each year's festival was a little different, but they all began with the arrival of a prominent Chattanoogan concealed by a mask and disguised as Baldur, the Norwegian god of Spring, who arrived at the waterfront and rode on a float to Fountain Square, where he was welcomed by the mayor and other city officials.

Chattanooga's next big event was a national folk festival held in the spring of 1935 as a part of a national resurgence in gathering and performing "authentic" folk ballads.

From the 1950s until 1972, several weekend arts festivals in either the spring or fall, which featured visual arts including crafts, juried paintings and pottery, appeared on the scene. A few clowns and dancers performed, and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra played.

A number of ideas for a city festival were discussed during the mid and late 1970s at the Chattanooga Arts Council, the Hunter Museum and the Adult Education Council. In the spring of 1981, several of us secured a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation, which funded a series of workshops as well as a visit to the Spoleto festival in Charleston, S.C. In addition to attending a Ray Charles concert, a chamber music event at the Dock Street Theatre, and a number of other events both indoors and outside, we spent time with Joe Riley, the long-time mayor of Charleston and a steadfast supporter of the city's Spoleto Festival.

Riley pointed out that Charleston's festival from the beginning was much more than an elitist event where people dress up and attend an event in one building. Rather Spoleto was a platform for the arts to become a fabric of the city's life. Through its example Riley said the festival had been inspirational to many mayors as to how the arts can make cities better, stronger and more economically vibrant. The city of Charleston helped out financially when needed and supported the event in many other ways. "As for my own efforts, I see it as my role to be there for the festival whenever they need me."

Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival is now 37 years old. The event started at a time when most buildings on the waterfront were boarded up, and few had reason to visit the area. As one of the town's famed private-public partnerships, the festival has ignited civic pride, stimulated business and civic leaders to think downtown and showcased the arts. It has brought a wide range of performers including Alan Jackson, The Commodores, ZZ Top, Vince Gill, Kid Rock, Keith Urban, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kool & The Gang and more. In recent years, Riverbend attracts "through-the-gate" total attendance of 350,000 and welcomes people from around the world to enjoy the city.

Ranking in the top 10 percent of all American festivals, it increases Chattanooga-Hamilton County tax collections by $800,000 and provides about $30 million in economic impact. Visitors stay in the city's hotels, enjoy restaurants and participate in activities throughout the area. Dr. Mark Burton, research associate professor of economics at UT's Haslam College of Business, has stated that Riverbend provides "full-time, ongoing employment for nearly 250 area residents and an amount approaching $1 million in net public sector revenues."

This year's Riverbend features Hank Williams Jr. on the Coke stage as well as Gangstagrass, a bluegrass hip hop powerhouse on the Bud Light stage on June 8, the festival's opening night. Other entertainers included Mitch Rossell, Delbert McClinton and the Shadowboxers. The famous Bessie Smith Strut will headline Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram.

Riverbend has become the Tennessee Valley's annual family reunion and as a nonprofit, thrives on support from the public sector, sponsors, vendors and hundreds of volunteers. Despite that success, Riverbend Festival in recent years, unfortunately, has been forced to face reduced financial support of services such as public works and law enforcement from the city.

Frank "Mickey" Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. Sid Hetzler, author of "Two Town Festivals," assisted with this story. For more, visit

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