Robbins: The history of the Riverbend festival

Robbins: The history of the Riverbend festival

June 3rd, 2018 by Mickey Robbins in Opinion Columns

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.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

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

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315