Washington, D.C. almost certainly represents the most curious locality on the US100 itinerary, both within and outwith its musical context. Its stateless status renders it something of a political freak within the US, while the capital on its face lacks the globally recognisable cultural and musical exports of New York, Nashville, or San Francisco. Like many, I have been guilty of viewing D.C. as something of a soulless entity, its only purpose to facilitate the bureaucratic toing and froing of the US political elite with little in the way of a distinct community, culture or creativity.
As such it is pleasing that US100 dictates that, rather than pick the localities I think I ought to cover, I am instead guided by where Brent, Andy, Aniela and me pitched up in 2015/16 (Faye as featured in New York had by this point had enough of us). Being the enthusiastic tourists that we were, skipping D.C. – and with it the chance to take stern looking selfies in front of the White House – did not seem viable. And so, utilising our very reasonably priced Amtrak cross country rail passes, we left New York’s Penn Station and headed for the seat of the world’s most famous federal government.
This was perhaps where the first seeds of US100 were planted. Arriving in the capital, I realised that despite a life of studying history and politics I barely had an idea about America’s. No connection had been made to music, but a part of me resolved to immerse myself completely in this country until I understood it. But equally fascinating to me was the realisation that away from Capitol Hill, the city of Washington, D.C. still requires a local population to make it function – and wherever you find workers paving roads, building structures or cooking food, you’re also likely to find entertainment and art.
Washington has experienced its fair share of societal turbulence, but unlike any other US city civic issues are accentuated, compounded and crystalised by the immediate presence – and ultimate rule – of the country’s federal elite, the reality of an unequal and segregated life often making a mockery of the slogans of national noble aspiration that adorn the city’s landmarks. Washington’s citizens pay the highest federal tax rates per capita but because they do not live in a state have no representation in the United States Congress. Furthermore this majority African-American city is among the most racially segregated in the country.
But typical of urban America, the people of D.C. are inclined to use artistic passions to channel injustice, frustration, or disillusionment into positive expression. As per New York, our holiday itinerary did not include the seeking out of D.C.’s musical history, and so we did not end up in any venues devoted to gogo music or the the city’s punk movement, known as harDCore. Indeed none of us had ever heard of such scenes until I embarked upon the US100 process, by which time my tracks had already been selected. I’ve since discovered a vibrant pair of genres that owe much to the District’s unique status; while they won’t be covered across these four tracks, D.C. punk is explored in depth in this US100 interview with a lead proponent of the movement, Mark Andersen.
My D.C. selections were instead driven by two key interests. Firstly I was curious as to individual musicians who actually came from the District, and discovered that the city counted Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye among its graduates. I wouldn’t consider either artist an all time favourite but nonetheless I knew there were tracks I enjoyed from both – and remember this was originally merely a casual playlist – so on went Take The “A” Train (Track 12) and What’s Going On (Track 13).
As it happens the latter of the two nicely segues into the other way I aim to connect Washington to musical expression: the spirit of American protest that at various points in US history has resulted in large numbers of the country’s citizens descending on the capital for marches and demonstrations. The way in which protest music, and in particular its connection to the civil rights movement, will be explored in tracks 14 and 15.
12. Duke Ellington – Take the “A” Train (1941)
13. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)