Songbirds exhibit shines a spotlight on Chattanooga’s vibrant musical past, highlighting The Impressions and ‘The Big 9’

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    Songbirds is back! After the COVID pandemic forced it to shut down in August 2020, the vintage guitar museum has reopened with a vengeance. 

    With updated branding to reflect an expanded focus beyond electric guitars, Songbirds is currently showcasing historical exhibits featuring The Impressions and “The Big 9,” two of the major components at the center of Chattanooga’s vibrant musical past.

    “A lot of Chattanooga’s musical heritage has been overlooked over the years,” explained Charlie Moss, Songbirds marketing and outreach specialist. “We felt that Ninth Street was really where we should start.”

    From the early 1900s to the 1960s, Chattanooga was a destination for some of the best live rhythm and blues, jazz and soul in the South. 

    Blues singer Bessie Smith, still referred to as The Empress of the Blues, sang on the corners of Chattanooga’s Ninth Street–widely known as “The Big 9”–as a little girl and became the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s.

    The Impressions rose from their humble start in Chattanooga to becoming the soundtrack of America’s Civil Rights Movement. Sam Gooden and Fred Cash played on Ninth Street before forming The Impressions, arguably one of the greatest vocal groups of all time. 

    Ninth Street in downtown Chattanooga–renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard in 1981–was the epicenter of the Black community and a mecca for live music and entertainment, with a mix of shops, stores, restaurants and hotels.

    The influence of artists such as Bessie Smith and The Impressions, who hailed from and played on Ninth Street, brought a musical heritage to Chattanooga that rivals Beale Street in Memphis and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

    Other hands-on exhibits currently on display at Songbirds, include “The History of the Electric Guitar,” where visitors can take a journey through music history to see how the guitar helped shape pop culture as we know it. 

    “The Science of Sound” allows participants to become a “guitar god” in an interactive exhibit for all ages that features music-focused STEAM (an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) activities.

    Of course, Songbirds still has its collection of rare and vintage guitars with instruments owned by Roy Orbison, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, Loretta Lynn, and more.

    The museum is also available for special event rentals and has a full schedule of concerts. 

    If you have any stories, photos, or just want to share your memories of Ninth Street, Songbirds would love to hear from you. Email Charlie Moss at charlie@songbirdsfoundation.org and tell him about it. 

    Songbirds is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and is located at 35 Station Street inside the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo.

    Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for children ages five to 12 years old, and kids four and under are free. 

    All proceeds benefit Songbirds’ Guitar for Kids program, which provides students across the South free music lessons, instruments and music therapy. Over 55 schools, 18 partner programs and 3,500 students are currently taking part in the initiative, with more than 800 guitars being distributed across the state.