For the last few years one of Riverbend’s founders, Sid Hetzler, has been nibbling at the edges of that Chattanooga institution, publicly disputing the festival’s own chronology of its beginnings, which now seems to have been adjusted to conform to his account of its creation. With the publication of his book, “Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power,” Hetzler is taking a bigger bite. Whether he’s latched onto an ankle or the jugular probably depends on where you stand on Riverbend.
The first part of the book is Hetzler’s 1990 doctoral dissertation comparing Riverbend and Charleston’s Spoleto USA, which was one of the models for Riverbend. When Riverbend was a gleam in the eyes of Hetzler and a few like minded activists, it was intended to be like Spoleto: a festival celebrating all the arts—both fine arts and popular, from classical to experimental, and including visual and other performing arts.
The baby that eventually emerged from the delivery room—midwifed by funding restrictions from the Lyndhurst Foundation and its consultant Gianni Longo—was something else entirely. It was primarily a popular music festival, and over the years, vestiges of the other arts like chamber music gradually disappeared.
The core of Hetzler’s book analyzes and compares Riverbend and Spoleto through the lens of semiotics. His analysis isn’t kind to Riverbend, but it’s primarily focused on understanding how festivals work. Later sections bring the story up to date with further developments in Riverbend, including this year’s near death of the Bessie Smith Strut, whose openness he says was the last vestige of the intended festival. It also tells Hetzler’s own fascinating post-Riverbend story in which he became an impresario of participatory festivals at his Split Tree Farm.
Riverbend and Spoleto illustrate Hetzler’s key idea that “differences embrace sameness; sameness rejects difference.”
“Charleston represented in Spoleto an idea of differences. Riverbend started that way but then turned into a very narrow set of programs. And then that narrowness, that sameness, rejected anything that didn’t fit it. It wasn’t a big tent, it was a little tent.”
He argues that festivals provide a model for accepting differences and diversity in life, with festival-goers learning to tolerate as normal the narrow or wide range of diversity presented within a festival’s time and space.
“A festival is a context. The people who put on a festival, whether they’re aware of it or not, are creating a context for things, a framing, a theater. What kind of context is Riverbend? It’s in the middle of a beautiful city. How much does it connect with its environment? It rejects it. It fences itself off.”
Spoleto celebrates a much wider variety of arts and styles, and its events are located throughout downtown Charleston, with attendees walking between venues and spending money in local restaurants and shops along the way. That festival tells a story about living in a city—or simply being alive—and it’s a story of differences. By presenting a narrow range of music and establishing a homogenous festival grounds in the midst of a vibrant downtown Riverbend tells a story of sameness.
Why does this matter? Because, Hetzler says (paraphrasing Winston Churchill), “We shape our festivals; thereafter our festivals shape us.” Sameness is not only boring but dangerous, because it suggests that the world is only what we already know, with no room for discovery, for new ideas or for people that are not like us.
“I hope there will be some more consciousness about sameness. What is its danger? What does it look like? What masks does it wear? Is Riverbend diverse or is it narrow?”
Beyond the analytical thinking and the concern over historical accuracy, Hetzler seems to feel about Riverbend’s path not taken almost like an amputee feels a missing limb. If Chattanooga had done what Charleston did with Spoleto, how much further along the path of economic and cultural renewal might we have traveled by now?