Bessie Smith Strut

Bessie Smith Strut

Date Observed: Third Monday in June
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Bessie Smith Strut is an evening event held as part of the annual Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Strut was named in homage to one of the most important women in the history of American music.

Historical Background

Bessie Smith was born into impoverished circumstances on April 15, 1894, and began her musical journey by singing on the street corners of Chattanooga, a gritty, industrial railroad hub of the southeastern United States. Her professional career began on the stage as a dancer, not a singer, in the famed Atlanta "81" Theatre around 1913. Ten years later, she had secured a contract with Columbia Records.

Smith's soulful blues and jazz performances earned her the title of "Empress of the Blues." She had a larger-than-life persona, on and off stage, belting out moving lyrics. Notably, at one time, she was the highest paid African-American singer in the United States, earning over $2,000 per week. "Downhearted Blues," her first record, was a runaway hit in 1923, selling more than 750,000 records in its first month of release. In the winters, she performed in theaters; the remainder of the year, she did tent shows, traveling in her personal railroad car.

Like other performers of her era, Smith's career was affected by the Great Depression, which crippled the recording industry. However, she never stopped performing or attempting new ventures. In 1929 Smith appeared in Pansy, a Broadway show, in which critics acclaimed her as the production's only redeeming asset. That same year, she also made her only cinematic appearance in St. Louis Blues, singing the title song as well. Her final recordings, in 1933, show a transition from her accomplished blues stylings into swing-era tempos and tunes. Few doubt that she would have continued to evolve with the changing times. On September 26, 1937, Bessie Smith suffered fatal injuries in an automobile accident. For years, rumors flourished about the cause of her death, with some purporting that Smith was refused admittance to area whites-only hospitals, with the resultant delay causing or contributing to her demise. These tales seem to have been adequately put to rest over the years. Regardless, the loss of Smith was tragic enough without further embellishment.

Bessie Smith performed with the greats while she was alive: Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson, to name a handful. Her legacy lives on in the artistry of those she has inspired, from Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson to the likes of Janis Joplin, and many more whom she has yet to inspire.

Creation of the Observance

The Bessie Smith Strut has been part of the Riverbend Festival since its beginning. The festival, initially named "Five Nights in Chattanooga," started in 1981 with the dual goals of drawing diverse community elements together via the common language of music and bringing economic development to Chattanooga's downtown and riverfront.

Chattanooga has also remembered Smith with the 264-seat Bessie Smith Performing Arts Hall and a museum to preserve and share the contributions to history of local African Americans.


The Bessie Smith Strut might best be described as a gigantic block party. Held on Martin Luther King Boulevard, the more than 100,000 attendees can find barbecue and blues on every corner. The Strut is the sole Riverbend Festival event for which no admission fee is charged. Multiple musical acts are booked and perform throughout the night. The Riverbend Festival is now a nine-night observance, drawing a capacity 650,000 crowd, marshaled by over 1,000 volunteers. It is considered one of the top 20 Southeastern U.S. festivals, offering something for everyone: a variety of music, arts and crafts exhibits, fireworks, aerial skydiving artists, a 5K extreme challenge run, and a children's village.

Contacts and Web Sites

Chattanooga African-American Museum 4200 E. Martin Luther King Dr. Chattanooga, TN 37403 423-266-8658; fax: 423-267-1076

Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce 811 Broad St. Chattanooga, TN 37402 423-756-2121; fax: 423-267-7242

Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau 2 Broad St. Chattanooga, TN 37402 423-756-8687 or 800-322-3344

Riverbend Festival Friends of the Festival 180 Hamm Rd. Chattanooga, TN 37404 423-756-2211; fax: 423-756-2719

Further Reading

Albee, Edward. The American Dream, The Death of Bessie Smith and Fam & Yam. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1962. Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. Albertson, Chris, and Gunther Schuller. Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues. New York: Schirmer Books, 1975. Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday . New York: Random House, 1998. Kofskey, Frank. Black Music, White Business: Illuminating History and Political Economy of Jazz. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1997. Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York: The New Press, 2002. Moore, Carman. Somebody's Angel Child: The Story of Bessie Smith. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969.