When it comes to music most associated with the city of Chattanooga, it’s hard to imagine a song recalled more often than “The Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
The iconic song, written in 1941 and made famous by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, has become a musical touchstone for the city. But beyond the song, does music actually play a vital role in the city’s overall culture? Or any role at all?
Dr. Chandler Harriss, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, believes it does, but he thinks it could have a larger impact. That’s the idea he wants students to explore in his new course titled, Always Go to the Show.
“This is an ethnomusicology class. Which is a nice, academic way of saying: Music is culture,” said Harriss. “Music exists in the moment, but it’s tied to a history and Chattanooga’s history is diverse and impressive.”
The class sends students to various venues around town to get an idea of what’s going on musically in Chattanooga. They then report what they’ve discovered over the course of the semester in podcasts, short films or photo essays.
“What I want them to do is observe the place, the performers and the content of the show, observe the crowd and observe the people who are putting on the show,” said Harriss.
“The primary goal of the class is to observe Chattanooga’s identity in some way, shape or form then to put together a media story that tells that tells the story of identity that you want to tell. The story can be that of the venue itself or the performer or the crowd,” said Harriss, a music lover who attends several shows each month in Chattanooga and has no problem traveling to another city to see an artist he likes.
Lake Best, a senior communication major, said the Always Go to the Show class offers a chance “to use the skills I’ve built up at UTC, using them to truly create and explore the city around me. “
“I have always loved listening to music, plus engaging in music spaces, so I hope to be able to make more connections in the field, for a lack of a better phrase,” Best said. “I can meet new artists, maybe ones I already know, network and, in the end, build up a web of connections that could help with my post-college journey in many ways.”
The 2022 Chattanooga Music Census, compiled for the Chattanooga Tourism Co., surveyed dozens of people who work in the local music business. The results showed more attention needs to be paid to the needs of the city’s music industry.
“Chattanooga is a deeply musical city, but too often we don’t think of ourselves that way,” Mayor Tim Kelly said in the survey.
Outdoor activities have proven to be a major tourist draw for Chattanooga and part of the city’s successful ad campaign. Music can be added to that, Harriss said.
“Music can also be a major tourist draw or just something to do in the evening after hiking, climbing or biking,” he said. “Music serves local and tourist communities. It can be a major source of tax revenue because it often involves ancillary spending on things like hotel rooms, dining and shopping.”
Festivals such as Riverbend and Moon River show music plays a role in Chattanooga’s culture, but they “only scratch the surface of what and who is here,” Harriss said.
“There’s no question that we have communities for these acts here in town—I’m a walking example—but I do question whether these festivals adequately describe Chattanooga,” he said.
While punk, metal, electronica, alternative rock, jam bands and other musical communities are alive in Chattanooga, they don’t always mingle in ways that promote the whole, Harriss said.
“I think the mistake we’re making is we’re singular in the notion of a music community when it’s actually plural,” he said. “I don’t know if they come together to create an actual scene. I think that’s a debate worth having.”
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COMM 4000—Special Topics: Exploring Chattanooga’s Music Scene
During the spring 2024 semester, Harriss will be teaching a similar course in the Department of Communication titled Special Topics: Exploring Chattanooga’s Music Scene.
This class offers opportunities to engage in field research, such as going to concerts and shows, then using the gathered data (photos, audio, notes, etc.) to create media content. The community-based class will intentionally connect theory, method and professional skills.
The goals are twofold. First, students will experience and reflect upon the diversity of identities that define Chattanooga and its music communities. Second, they will capture moments, preserve histories and tell stories about the people encountered and the places explored.
As part of the work, the class will partner with the Chattanooga Tourism Company and use an editorial calendar to produce content that may be integrated into online efforts to promote the city and its live music.