At last, here it is: the third and final installment of what was intended to be just a single (albeit hugely over-ambitious) post from almost two months ago. I’ve been in the D.C. metro/Northern Virginia area for about a week and a half now, time I’ve spent settling into my new apartment, binging on Game of Thrones…and researching the music of our nation’s capitol. And now I think it’s high time I finally got this bloated-ass Dystopian Road Mix off my chest for good. So, without any further ado, I’ll let my good friend Mr. Paul Stanley kick it off:
We begin with the first, and very likely the last, time we will ever discuss military marches on Dystopian Dance Party. John Philip Sousa, fittingly enough for America’s most patriotic composer, was born on G. St. S.E., Capitol Hill, on November 6, 1854. He wrote no fewer than 136 marches in his time, but we’re going to represent him with the one everybody knows: his 1896 composition “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the National March of the United States of America.
Another American composer much more comfortably in our wheelhouse is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, born April 29, 1899 in Northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood. Ellington is of course most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but he and many of his early band members–including trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, saxophonist Otto Hardwick, and drummer Sonny Greer–got their start in Washington, D.C.; indeed, the future Duke Ellington Orchestra was originally named the Washingtonians. “Black and Tan Fantasy,” recorded by Ellington and his Washingtonians in 1927, is an early example of the swinging but musically sophisticated style Duke made famous during his star-making residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
In addition to composers, the District of Columbia has also played host to many important ethnomusicologists and archivists, without whom America’s folk music tradition may have gone unchronicled. The Archive of American Folk Song–now part of the American Folklife Center–was founded at the Library of Congress in 1928. Beginning in 1933, the Archive’s Honorary Consultant and Curator, John A. Lomax, traveled the Southern United States making field recordings along with his then-eighteen-year-old son Alan, and later, his wife Ruby. These recordings brought exposure to many important American folk musicians–most notably Louisiana bluesman Huddie William Ledbetter, or Lead Belly–and laid the foundation for the American folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s.
But the Lomaxes weren’t the only important figures in D.C.’s folk music history. Musicologist Charles Seeger–husband of composer Ruth and father of famed future folk revivalists Mike, Peggy, and of course Pete–moved his family to D.C. in 1936 to serve on the music division of the Resettlement Administration. While there, Ruth worked with the Lomaxes on arrangements of traditional folk songs; and, in the early ’50s, Mike made some “field” recordings of his own with the family’s housekeeper, a self-taught guitarist from North Carolina named Elizabeth Cotten. Cotten’s recordings by Seeger were released on Folkways Records in 1958; her most famous song, the haunting “Freight Train,” was written when she was just eleven years old and has become a folk music standard, inspiring covers by everyone from Joan Baez to Taj Mahal.
Around the same time as Cotten’s first recordings, another artist with a very different take on American roots music was emerging about an hour and a half away, in Winchester, Virginia. Patsy Cline was a major figure in the classic Nashville sound of the late ’50s and early ’60s before her tragic death in a 1963 plane crash, with her rich, soulful vocal timbre lending touches of pop and even jazz to country crossover hits like 1957’s indelible “Walkin’ After Midnight.” And she got her first break on Connie B. Gay‘s Town and Country Time radio show, broadcast out of WARL in Arlington, Virginia. Along with Cline’s more polished country sound, the D.C. area also fostered numerous artists in the rawer bluegrass tradition. Among the most famous of these groups was the Country Gentlemen, who recorded and toured from their formation on Independence Day, 1957 all the way until the 2004 death of founding member Charlie Waller.
Meanwhile, the same African American neighborhood around U Street that had been home to Ellington and the Washingtonians continued to thrive as a center for jazz and Rhythm & Blues. Ruth Brown of Portsmouth, Virginia got her start in the late ’40s at the famed Crystal Caverns club (now Bohemian Caverns) on 11th and U; she would soon rise to fame with R&B/pop crossover hits like 1950’s “Teardrops from My Eyes.” Shirley Horn, a very different jazz vocalist specializing in haunting ballads like Dmitri Tiomkin’s and Ned Washington’s “Wild is the Wind,” made her recording debut ten years later, but she had been sneaking into U Street clubs since before she was of legal age to enter them.
Perhaps the most famous musician to come out of D.C.’s jazz scene during this era was Charlie Byrd: a guitarist, originally from Suffolk, Virginia, whose 1962 album with Philadelphia saxophonist Stan Getz, Jazz Samba, was largely credited with introducing the bossa nova style of Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim to American jazz. The album, recorded at the famous Unitarian Universalist All Souls Church at the intersection of D.C.’s Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan neighborhoods, also included several original compositions by the duo: including this playlist’s selection, “Samba Dees Days.”
Doo-wop vocal groups also prospered in 1950s D.C. The Clovers formed in 1946 at D.C.’s Armstrong High School and recorded through the ’50s, eventually scoring their biggest hit with 1959’s “Love Potion No. 9.” Another, much less famous vocal group, the Marquees, nevertheless made their way into pop music history thanks to their one and only, non-charting 1957 single “Wyatt Earp”–which just happens to be the first recording by D.C. native and future Detroit soul legend Marvin Gaye. Appropriately enough to their name, the Marquees had another famous figure attached to their all-too-brief career: Chicago bluesman Ellas Otha Bates, better known as Ellas McDaniel and even better known as Bo Diddley. McDaniel moved to D.C. in the late ’50s, where he set up one of the first-ever home recording studios and wrote and produced the Marquees’ “Wyatt Earp” (Marquees bassist Chester Simmons was his valet for a time). And he must have been watching a lot of Westerns during that period, because the first album he recorded in his D.C. studio was 1960’s Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger.
In the suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, an idiosyncratic guitarist named John Fahey was carrying on D.C.’s folk tradition–though he always carefully distanced himself from the staid revivalism of artists like the Seegers. Fahey recorded his first album, partly credited to his alter ego “Blind Joe Death,” in 1959 at the St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in nearby Adelphi, Maryland, and released it on his own independent label, Takoma Records. The original release of the album was a custom pressing of only one hundred copies, but a series of wider re-releases throughout the ’60s gradually secured its reputation as a massively significant work in American music. And while Fahey would soon relocate to California, the name of his label continued to pay homage to his D.C. metro hometown.
Another largely instrumental guitarist from the same era–albeit one pretty much as different in style as possible–also had roots in the D.C. area. Frederick Lincoln “Link” Wray, Jr. was born in Dunn, North Carolina, but his biggest and most influential hit–1959’s massive, power chord-heavy “Rumble”–was written on the spot before a live show at a “record hop” in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Back in D.C. proper, the Rhythm & Blues of the ’50s was, as everywhere, transforming into the soul music of the ’60s. Don Covay got his start singing gospel with his family in the Cherry Keys, and then in the Rainbows: another short-lived vocal group featuring singer and pianist Billy Stewart and (again) Marvin Gaye. But he found solo success with bluesy, Southern soul-flavored hits like 1964’s “Mercy, Mercy,” which quickly spawned a cover version by the Rolling Stones–and featured a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Another well-known D.C. soul act, Peaches & Herb, would become best known for their disco-era hits like 1978’s “Shake Your Groove Thing,” but leader Herb Fame had been recording with some “Peaches” or other since 1966: including this 1967 cut featuring the original Peaches, Francine Hurd Barker. “Love is Strange” has another layer of D.C. connection, as well: it’s a cover of the 1957 hit by Mickey & Sylvia, which was co-written by none other than Bo Diddley.
Though the city’s historic Black community in the Northwest was decimated by the violent civil unrest that erupted after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., by the early ’70s, D.C.–now known as the “Chocolate City” for its majority African American population–had become an epicenter for funk, with tracks like 1973’s “(I Got) So Much Trouble on My Mind” by Sir Joe Quarterman and Free Soul later providing a goldmine of samples for DJs during the “golden age” of hip-hop. Another much-sampled funk group of the era, the Blackbyrds, took both their name and their pronounced jazz influence from Detroit trumpeter turned Washingtonian educator Donald Byrd, the band members’ music teacher at Howard University. The Blackbyrds’ 1975 “Rock Creek Park” is named for the national park that bisects northwestern D.C.
A decidedly gentler blend of jazz and soul came from another Howard graduate, Roberta Flack, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Flack, who grew up primarily in Arlington, taught at Browne Junior High and Rabaut Junior High and gave private piano lessons at her home on Euclid St. N.W. while performing at nightspots like the Tivoli Club, the 1520 Club, and eventually Mr. Henry’s Restaurant, where she was discovered in 1968 by pianist Les McCann. Her 1969 debut, First Take, didn’t trouble the charts at first–until Clint Eastwood used her cover of Ewan MacColl‘s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in his 1971 directorial debut Play Misty for Me (fun fact: MacColl wrote “The First Time” in 1957 for his then-lover and future wife, the aforementioned ex-Washingtonian Peggy Seeger). Atlantic Records reissued the song in 1972 with a new radio edit, it hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, and Flack has been a staple of middle-aged white people’s record collections ever since.
Okay, that last part was a little harsh–especially since D.C. was responsible for some mid-’70s schlock much schlockier than the lovely-voiced Ms. Flack. Like, oh I don’t know, freaking “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band, supposedly named after the appetizer menu at Clyde’s famous restaurant in Georgetown. On the more credible side of things, roots rock guitar hero Danny Gatton also came out of mid-’70s D.C., where he worked his unique blend of jazz, blues, and rockabilly on tracks like this cover of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” from his 1975 debut American Music. And Foster MacKenzie III, a Yale graduate from Asheville, North Carolina by way of suburban Maryland, went on to drive a D.C. ice cream truck, scale the White House fence after suffering an LSD-fueled psychotic episode, and spend some time being treated for schizophrenia at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital…oh, and also achieve cult fame in the late ’70s as Root Boy Slim with his memorably-monikered Sex Change Band, playing blues-rock with the wanton aggression of punk.
At the same time, D.C.’s vibrant funk scene was mutating into a homegrown version of the music known as “go-go,” characterized by extended grooves with prominent Latin percussion and, in live performances, frequent call-and-response with the audience. The lines between funk and early go-go are blurry, but the origins of the style are generally traced to two bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s: the Young Senators, who scored go-go’s first hit with 1969’s “The Jungle”; and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, who devised “the” go-go beat–based on the groove from Grover Washington, Jr.’s 1975 “Mr. Magic“–as a means to blend seamlessly from one song to another while keeping the audience dancing.
By the early ’80s, go-go was incorporating the emerging influences of hip-hop and what we at Dystopian Dance Party like to call jheri curl music: probably the most famous go-go band of this era (though they’re still actively performing today) was Trouble Funk, whose 1982 album Drop the Bomb for Sugar Hill Records featured their biggest hit, “Pump Me Up.” That one’s not on Spotify, though, so here’s “Spintime” from 1983’s In Times of Trouble–not a shabby replacement.
Probably go-go’s biggest mainstream moment came in 1988, when E.U.–formerly known as “Experience Unlimited”–landed their dance hit “Da Butt” on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s School Daze. The song was nominated for a 1989 Grammy, but lost to Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Love Overboard.” In the following decade, go-go’s hip-hop influence became even more overt: as represented by DJ Kool, whose “Let Me Clear My Throat” brought sample-based rap to the forefront of the traditionally live band-oriented genre.
A more abrasive, yet also more widely-known underground music in the ’80s and ’90s was D.C.’s hardcore punk scene. Hardcore originally emerged on the West Coast, specifically in Los Angeles with bands like Black Flag. But Black Flag’s best-known frontman, Henry Rollins, was a native of D.C., where he briefly sang with the band State of Alert, or S.O.A. The first homegrown D.C. hardcore band, however, was also the weirdest and (as far as I’m concerned) the best: Bad Brains, a group of Rastafarians who originally formed as a jazz fusion ensemble and went on to mix up their blindingly fast hardcore with surprisingly credible straightahead reggae. Their classic anthem “Banned in D.C.” falls decidedly on the “blindingly fast hardcore” side of the equation, and relates the band’s real-life struggles to get clubs to book them–struggles that indeed eventually coalesced into an unofficial ban, forcing Bad Brains to relocate to New York City.
Another influential, albeit short-lived D.C. hardcore group was Minor Threat, whose 1981 song “Straight Edge” both gave a name to the tee-totaling punk subculture that exists to this day and managed to rock like a motherfucker in just over 45 seconds. Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye would go on to form the best-known of D.C.’s post-hardcore bands, Fugazi. Another group that rose from the aftermath of D.C. hardcore in the mid-’80s was Rites of Spring, whose deeply emotional lyrics led them to be considered (much to their chagrin) as the first “emo” band–and whose singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty also ended up in Fugazi. Post-hardcore styles continued to flourish in the late ’80s and early ’90s, producing acts as diverse as politically-motivated noise merchants Nation of Ulysses, industrial rockers Chemlab, and punk-blues delinquents Pussy Galore.
On the other extreme of “alternative” music, Tori Amos formed the basis of her classically trained, emotionally raw brand of baroque pop while playing as a teenager amidst D.C.’s piano bar scene–most famously at Mr. Henry’s, the same bar where Roberta Flack used to play. Though she living in Los Angeles by the release of her 1990 solo debut Little Earthquakes, that album’s “Girl” is one of several songs reflecting on her difficult upbringing as the daughter of a pastor in Silver Spring, Maryland. And, because I am nothing if not a sucker for bizarre segues, the D.C. area also gave us the wonderfully named Elgin Baylor Lumpkin–better and more sexily known as Ginuwine–whose bump-and-grind 1996 hit “Pony” is the gift that keeps on giving for male strippers and their fans everywhere. Another turn-of-the-millennium R&B artist, Mýa Marie Harrison, grew up in suburban Landover, Maryland, danced a solo at Kennedy Center as a teenager, and was signed to Interscope Records when she was just sixteen; she was singing duets with Baltimore’s Sisqó less than two years later.
The early 21st century has seen still more diverse sounds from Washington, D.C. Downtempo electronic group Thievery Corporation have been producing their brand of politically progressive, internationalist chill-out music since the mid-’90s. Neo-soul singer Raheem DeVaughn grew up in Beltsville, Maryland and got his start after winning a talent contest at the U Street club Bar Nun (now Pure Lounge). And Amerie Mi Marie Rogers, a graduate of Georgetown University, helped bring go-go back into the national spotlight with her infectious 2005 hit “1 Thing,” produced by Rich Harrison.
Though hip-hop has always taken something of a backseat in D.C. due to the local prominence of go-go, the city now has a mainstream rap star of its own in Nigerian American Olubowale Akintimehin, or Wale. “Slight Work,” a Diplo-produced track from his 2011 album Ambition featuring Detroit rapper Big Sean, would have made a nice symbolic end to this three-part road trip mix, considering the fact that I went, per Sean and Wale, “from the D-Town to the DMV.” But alas, it cannot be, because my extensive research (read: Wikipedia) tells me that the District of Columbia witnessed the birth of yet another all-new genre not five years ago. It’s called moombahton, and it’s a mix of Dutch house music (specifically the DJ Chuckie track “Moombah“) and reggaeton, created in 2009 by D.C. DJ David Villegas, or Dave Nada. I’ll be honest: I’m getting too goddamn old to keep up with this shit, so I’mma just leave this track by Nada and Matt Nordstrom’s project Nadastrom here and slowly walk away.
And with that, I’m finally done writing the piece I first sat down to write all the way back in June. I’m sure I’ll be back with another Dystopian Road Mix soon enough–now that I’m living near the East Coast, there’s no shortage of major musical centers within a short drive’s distance–but not for a while. It’s time to savor the experience of not having one of these mammoth posts–or an actual, day-long drive–dangling over my head. I have to say, it already feels pretty good.