Well, folks, it’s been almost a year since the last installment of this pop geography series we call Dystopian Road Mix. Since it’s been such a long time, allow me to re-explain the premise: basically, like everything else on this blog, it’s a self-indulgent exercise, wherein I take my personal travel itinerary and make it vaguely relevant by mapping it to the musical histories of the cities I pass through. This particular installment I’ve actually had on the backburner since last November, when I made plans to visit my girlfriend’s family in Baltimore for Thanksgiving. But, as we all know, I didn’t write shit last November, so here we are.
In a way, though, I’m glad I didn’t get around to finishing this piece until now. This April, the Baltimore police killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and the ensuing civil uprising, brought Charm City to the forefront of the national consciousness for the first time since, probably, the end of The Wire (Baltimoreans, I’m sure, yearn for the heyday of John Waters, back when their hometown was better known for Divine eating dog shit off the sidewalk than for urban violence or racial injustice). In the immediate aftermath of the Baltimore rebellion, there was a lot of talk–some of it in good faith, most of it not–about how the “rioters” were doing violence to a great city’s heritage and reputation. I think it’s worth examining just what we mean when we talk about that heritage and reputation; and I think, in my humble opinion, that a major part of it lies in Baltimore’s musical culture.
So, here’s my modest attempt to commemorate Baltimore’s musical history. As always, it’s a necessarily abridged telling, and I am far from an expert. But I do think it speaks to the fact that culture is something that belongs to the masses–even in times of unrest–and not to some vague notion of civic propriety that we must protect from the barbarians at the gates. The unrest may be over, at least for the time being, but the people’s ownership of their own cultural tradition still bears repeating.
Like most American popular music traditions (see also: Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit), Baltimore’s is, first and foremost, indisputably Black. The long-segregated city has been a major center for the African American community since the 19th century; before emancipation, Maryland was home to one-fifth of all free Black people in the country, and Baltimore was where a large percentage of them lived. One of the most famous products of this vibrant community, centered around Pennsylvania and Fremont, was composer and pianist James Herbert “Eubie” Blake. The only surviving child of former slaves, Blake composed his first melody, the “Charleston Rag,” when he was only twelve years old. He wrote much of his best-known material with the composer and singer Noble Sissle, a native of Indianapolis who he met in Baltimore in 1915. Sissle and Blake became a popular vaudeville act, and later wrote and produced musicals–including Shuffle Along, the 1921 Broadway debut of which launched the careers of Josephine Baker and Washington, D.C.‘s own Florence Mills. This playlist’s selection, “Baltimore Buzz,” sees Blake paying tribute to his hometown even as his groundbreaking Black musical was causing “curtain time traffic jams” along 63rd Street in New York.
Developing from Blake’s ragtime was also a thriving jazz scene. Cab Calloway famously got his start in Baltimore, where his family relocated from Rochester, New York at a young age. Less famous, however, was Cab’s elder sister, Blanche Calloway, who also distinguished herself as the first woman to front an all-male orchestra. Calloway led a full life, to say the least: she dropped out of Morgan College (now Morgan State University) to pursue her musical career, made her professional debut in a Baltimore production of Shuffle Along, and briefly performed with Andy Kirk‘s Twelve Clouds of Joy before forming her own orchestra, Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys, which included the likes of Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Bennie Moten…and Chick Webb. Another Baltimore native, Webb also went on to lead a band of his own, and eventually launched the career of a teenaged singer named Ella Fitzgerald.
Baltimore’s jazz scene carried on well into the middle of the century, when vocalist Ethel Ennis followed in the musical footsteps of another one-time Baltimorean, Billie Holiday. As it was elsewhere in the country, however, by the early ’50s vocal jazz was taking a back seat to Rhythm & Blues and doo-wop in the listening habits of Black youth. Often credited as the first such R&B vocal group are Baltimore’s own Orioles. Named after Maryland’s state bird, the Orioles set the conventions of doo-wop with hits like 1948’s “It’s Too Soon to Know.” The genre became deeply interconnected with both Baltimore’s musical culture and its street life. Later groups like the Marylanders shared members with Baltimore’s street gangs and participated in territorial rivalries; Marylanders singer Johnny Paige, for example, was a member of the East Baltimore gang the Dungaree Boys. Less menacingly, future disco producer and “Hustle” man Van McCoy also sang with the Marylanders for a time.
Perhaps an unlikely fan of Baltimore’s so-called “race music” was minimalist Philip Glass, who grew up in the city and worked for a time selling jazz and R&B music in his father’s East Baltimore record store. It would be a definite stretch to say that his later compositions, like the 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, demonstrate the influence of Baltimore doo-wop; it is, however, early evidence of Glass’ eclectic taste and his willingness to collapse the boundaries of “high” and “low” culture.
Of course, the Baltimore area also has its fair share of white popular music. Progressive rockers Crack the Sky hail from Weirton, West Virginia, about four hours away; but due to a distribution error that resulted in a surplus of their 1975 debut album being shipped to the city, the core of their fanbase remains in the Baltimore region. Meanwhile, glam metal group Kix come from the closer-by Hagerstown, Maryland, and maintain a following as Baltimore’s (self-proclaimed?) “favorite hard rock band.” And the Ravyns–who you may known from their 1982 AOR hit “Raised on the Radio,” which made the soundtrack for Fast Times at Ridgemont High–are from Baltimore City proper. Though it was neither as large nor as influential as the one in nearby Washington, D.C., Baltimore also had itself a hardcore punk scene in the early ’80s, producing bands like Reptile House: their delightfully-titled “Sleestak Weather” was released in 1985 as part of the EP I Stumble as the Crow Flies, on Ian MacKaye‘s Dischord Records.
Closer to our hearts here at Dystopian Dance Party, though, are Baltimore’s own jheri curl champions: the synth-driven R&B sextet Starpoint, formed originally in the Maryland capitol city of Annapolis. Starpoint’s only Top 40 hit was 1985’s “Object of My Desire,” but you’re probably more familiar with them than you think: co-founding member Kayode Adeyemo was credited as a writer on Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know Its True,” while keyboardist Marvin Ennis later joined D.C. go-go group E.U. of “Da Butt” fame.
As mentioned before, Baltimore kept up an active jazz scene even as the genre fell from the musical limelight. Indeed, one of the city’s most revered musicians, saxophonist Wilfred “Mickey” Fields, was never really well-known outside of the Baltimore area. This was by design; though he’d been actively playing since the 1940s, Fields refused to ever leave Baltimore and tour, preferring instead to stay in the city and cultivate local talent. He founded a “Monday Night Jam Session” at the Howard Park jazz club the Sportsmen’s Lounge (owned by former Baltimore Colts halfback Lenny Moore), giving up-and-coming musicians the chance to play with him and hone their chops. Fields’ version of the jazz standard “Lover Man,” included on this playlist, captures both his virtuoso playing–which continued unabated until his death in 1995, even after a severe case of gout disfigured his hands late in life–and the Hammond B-3 organ-driven jazz style that grew dominant in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s.
Probably the most recent major jazz artist to come from Baltimore is pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who started playing piano at Mount Calvary Baptist Church when he was just six years old and studied at Johns Hopkins University‘s Peabody Institute when he was nine. Chestnut first distinguished himself as a sideman with the likes of Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, and Betty Carter, then as a solo artist, with soulful compositions like “Blues for Nita” from his critically acclaimed 1993 album Revelation.
Coming from pretty much the exact opposite end of the African American musical tradition from Chestnut, meanwhile, is Rod Lee, a DJ and party MC credited with bringing to national attention the underground genre of Baltimore Club: an aggressive, chopped-up blend of hip-hop and house music that emerged in the late ’80s, cut from a cloth similar to contemporaneous genres like Chicago ghetto house, Detroit ghettotech, and New Orleans bounce. Lee and his “Bmore” forebears may not have studied at the Peabody Institute, but they definitely made their own mark on music history with tracks like 2005’s “Hit That Ass,” providing inspiration (read: pilfering fodder) for more famous producers such as Diplo.
Around the same time that Bmore club music hit its stride in the local scene, a new generation of Baltimorean R&B artists were hitting the national charts. Dru Hill, named after West Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, may be only dimly remembered today for giving us the theme song to Wild Wild West and Sisqó‘s solo career (thanks?), but they were a major act in the mid-to-late ’90s, with big hits like their 1996 debut single “Tell Me.”
Again, the history of Baltimore music is predominantly a history of Black music. But, like any other city with a large African America underclass, Baltimore has seen a recent surge of gentrification by a predominantly white, young middle class. As a result, ask someone about Baltimore music today and you’ll probably hear about a hipster-friendly indie artist like Dan Deacon, a SUNY Purchase graduate who co-founded the Wham City art collective along with fellow SUNY grads like visual artist Jimmy Joe Roche and comic filmmakers Alan Resnick and Ben O’Brien. Deacon is an electronic musician, but his compositions–like 2007’s “Wooody Wooodpecker,” an interminable sample of the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker‘s vari-sped laugh over a rising synthesizer pattern–are a lot closer to art school fare than to Baltimore club.
Other indie acts outside of Wham City include noise-pop quartet Ponytail and dream-pop Pitchfork darlings Beach House. And, of course, there’s also another experimental music/art collective long beloved of Baltimorean hipsters: Animal Collective, who met as kids growing up in Baltimore County and named their ninth studio album, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, after the popular music venue in Columbia, Maryland.
I realize that the arc of this post might seem like it’s going to lead to me excoriating the new, conspicuously white Baltimore music scene as a bunch of gentrifying culture vultures. But really, I’m not. In fact, some interesting hybrids have emerged from the city’s intersections of Black and white music. Indie rapper Naeem Juwan and producer Alex Epton, better known as Spank Rock, grew up in Baltimore and are in many ways responsible for bringing Bmore club music (or at least a close approximation) to the hipster crowd with their 2006 debut Yoyoyoyoyo. More recently, Ryeisha Berrain, a.k.a. Rye Rye, brought an even more commercialized incarnation of the sound to national audiences, opening for the likes of M.I.A. and Robyn. Indeed, Rye Rye’s whole schtick is rooted in cultural hybridity; as she raps on her 2012 song “Drop,” she’s “a hood girl doin’ white girl shit.”
So no, this isn’t meant to be a declension narrative about whitewashing. But I have to wonder whether all that negative coverage of Baltimore during the Freddie Gray uprisings wasn’t rooted, at some level, in a lack of understanding about the city’s rich cultural history. If all you know about Baltimore is The Wire and Animal Collective, it’s almost understandable that you would be horrified about the city’s underclass trying to “destroy” the city–rather than seeing it as that same underclass trying to take it back. This post isn’t going to change anybody’s perspective on the city that famously–one might say desperately–describes itself as “The Greatest City in America.” At the very least, my readership is much too small for that. But I do wonder, if more white people took the time to read up on Baltimore, whether they would stop worrying about the buildings being destroyed, and start worrying about the people who make up the real heart and soul of the city.