Notes on The Music District
“Another thing about Washington, D.C. . . you have a high population of blacks, which is almost a separate city. In certain areas, here it is the Capital and there are all these tourists. Then you have the real city over here. . . The people have something to say like ‘Hey, this is not just a tourist city. We live here!’ Our music is about that. We’re really about the street, the people who really live in Washington, not the politicians on Capital Hill or the President on Pennsylvania Avenue. We live here and we’re dropping the bomb, or we’re getting small, or we’re good to go. These are all our slangs and they mean something about the life we lead.” (1)
Make no mistake about it, our Nation’s Capital is a city divided. For most folks from outside of the Beltway, Washington is largely the city for millions of tourists who flock to the Mall, the White House, the Library of Congress, and all of the other major attractions. The District of Columbia, on the other hand, encompasses neighborhoods like Shaw, Mount Pleasant, and Brookland. Washington, D.C. has been a majority black city for most of the second half of the 20th century and is home to a half-million people, most of whom (despite the general perceptions about the City) do not work for the Federal Government. They are teachers, day laborers, lawyers, non-profit executives, law enforcement officers, or small business owners. The District of Columbia is also a singular place. Can you think of another city that issues its own drivers license? Are there any other citizens of the United States of America who pay Federal income tax, but are not represented in the House and Senate?
The City itself is divided into four sections: northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. Northwest encompasses most of downtown, the White House, Georgetown, the National Cathedral, and has the District’s highest per capita income. In contrast, Southeast has the highest percentage of black Americans, the highest rate of violent crime, and the lowest level of per capita income. This is especially true across the river, in Anacostia, in far Southeast where the population is nearly 100% black, where there are some lovely rolling hills, and where the main street is Martin Luther King Blvd. This section of Washington, D.C. is a true stronghold for go-go and where the music emanating from automobiles is as likely to be the Backyard Band as it is Whitney Houston. And Southeast has been a black stronghold for decades. Relatively few whites in D.C. or any of the nearby suburbs have even been “east of the River” (as they say locally) and even fewer live there.
The presence of varied genres of sacred and secular African American music in Washington, D. C. is both pronounced and varied. “Music District” celebrates four genres of black American music–gospel quartets, go go, shout bands, and r & b vocal groups–that have characterized the local scene since the 1940s. While gospel quartets and r & b vocal groups can be found around the United States, shout bands are far less commonplace and Washington D.C. is one of their strongholds. Go Go, however, is unique to our Nation’s capital and its immediate surrounding counties and is the most geographically specific form of African American popular music in the country.
In each of the sections below you will find some background material about each of the sections of “Music District.” A brief synopsis of each section of the film follows this contextual material. These notes close with an annotated audiography and bibliography.
R & B VOCAL GROUPS
Vocal harmony is the key to the other two genres explored in “Music District.” The Orioles are the focus of the section on R & B groups. Rhythmn & Blues vocal groups such as the Spaniels, the Larks, and Orioles fashioned four part-harmony singing over an insistent rhythm section; often using the same blues changes that brought Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Big Joe Turner to eager listeners across the United States. When R & B fused with country in the middle 1950s, the rock ‘n’ roll (centered in Memphis and on Elvis Presley) revolution was born.
Originally called the Vibranaires, the Orioles formed when its members were Baltimore teenagers just after the close of W.W. II. A local merchant and songwriter, Deborah Chessler, not only wrote songs for them, she also served as their manager. She landed them a spot on the influential “Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts” television show, Jerry Blaine, a New York record company executive, signed them to his newly formed It's a Natural record label. The Orioles cut a Chessler-penned ballad, "It's Too Soon to Know" and changed their name to the Orioles. In the late summer of 1948, "It's Too Soon to Know" was released on It's a Natural and quickly re-released on Jubilee. It zoomed to number one on the black music charts (then called “sepia” or “race” records) and even crossed-over to number 13 on the pop chart.
For the next five years the group had six straight successful R & B singles, including . "Tell Me So,""A Kiss and a Rose," and "I Challenge Your Kiss." In 1953 the group had their biggest hit with "Crying in the Chapel," which spent five weeks on the R&B charts and reached number 11 on the pop charts. Elvis Presley had a hit with the song 12 years later. Several strong personalities emerged in the group during this period and by 1954 the Orioles began to implode. One of its early members, Sonny Til, put together a new lineup, but the group didn't gain much attention. Til continued to lead various incarnations of the Orioles, performing concerts and re-recording the group's old hits, until his death in 1981.
In 1995 the Orioles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which marked a small renaissance of interest in their music. . The group, mostly members who joined over the past thirty years, continues to sing into the 21st century. They mostly perform around Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, though the occasionally go out of town for an “oldies” show.
Synopsis: Spotlighting the Orioles, this section opens with the group discussing the group’s history, its formation by Sonny Til, the development of r & b vocal groups, and rehearsing of “Crying in the Chapel.” The mention the importance of gospel quartets and the informal nature of early vocal harmony singing. It includes a live performance at a local club with audience interviews and a performance of “I Just Got To Know.” They mention clubs such You Can’t Find Us, Wilmer’s Park and other venues. The importance of “Where Ever You Go” and Skip Mahoney in the 1970s and stage presence in general is discussed.
Go Go emerged as a separate musical genre in the middle 1970s. Pioneered by Chuck Brown, go go fused funk with an infectious, non-stop beat. For those who have never heard it, go go music contains the following ten characteristics: 1) African American 2) D.C.- based
3) Contemporary & popular 4) Rooted in funk & hip hop 5) Male dominated 6) Highly syncopated 7) Percussion-driven by a variety of instruments 8) Thrives in live performances
9) Utilizes call and response 10) Extended performances, sometimes groups in “suites.”
Go Go became THE dominate form of black popular music in the District as well as adjoining Prince Georges County, Md. by 1980. During this early period of popularity, groups such as Trouble Funk, E(xperience U(nlimited), and Rare Essence where playing at late night clubs nearly every night of the week. The movie “Good To Go” (Island Films 1985) threatened to break the music across the nation but it was both a commercial and artistic failure and go go remained true to its racial and geographic roots. As hip-hop emerged in the early 1980s, bands such as the Junkyard Band and Backyard Band incorporated rap-like elements, such as utilizing a lead “talker.” Nonetheless, go go remains a vibrant and exciting musical form that continues to thrive in and around Washington, D.C.
Synopsis: Honing in on the importance of Junkyard Band, which emerged in the mid 1980s, this section intersperses live performances by the Band with in-person interviews. Andre Parker (Junkyard drummer), Steven “Bugs” Herrion (Junkyard vocalist and leader), Daniel Baker, Warren Weems, (two other Junkyard members) along with Rapper D playing drums in Freedom Square, in front of the White House are among those interviewed. The selections include “Come On Down to See Junkyard” (the band’s theme song) and “Hee Haw.” Ken Moore, a poster collector and go go club entrepreneur (with the Black Hole) is interviewed about the role played by posters and p.a. tapes. The improvisational and lively nature of a live go go performance is spotlighted at the end of this section.
The Four Echoes, one of the last of the jubilee-style gospel quartets still performing in the District, is the focus of the fourth section of “Music District.” These men perform in a style
that first developed in the late 1930s when the Golden Gate Quartet altered the world of black American gospel music. Fronted by Willie Johnson, the Golden Gate Quartet’s live radio broadcasts over the CBS network, their Blue Bird recordings, and live performances captivated listeners across the United States. Be the early 1940s their style of singing, which is characterized by a lead vocal styles that is half-singing and half speaking, the “pumping” bass voice, and tight four-part harmonies, were being emulated by male and female groups alike.
The members of the Four Echoes came of age when the Golden Gate Quartet was at the height of their popularity. Originally from the Carolinas and Virginia, the Four Echoes came together in the late 1940s in order to sing for Black Christians living in and around the District. But they were often called to sing “back home,” most often in churches located in rural parts of eastern Virginia and North Carolina. The group members have also been very generous in helping to teach their music to younger gospel groups in the older sounds. In fact, in the late 1980s they participated in a special “Folk Apprenticeship” program sponsored by the D.C. Arts Commission where they taught a number of area groups how to sing the older four-part harmony sound. .
Synopsis Commonly referred to as “Jubilee,” this section focuses on the role played by the Four Echoes in preserving and documenting the genre. The songs include “My God Called This Morning” and “Twelve Gates to the City.” The interviewees include long time member Deacon William Evans recalling how the Four Echoes began just after the close of World War II when they were all working at Union (train) Station John Byrdsol, gospel music broadcaster over WUST-AM discusses the role played by the Four Echoes in the D.C. scene since World War II. The next segment shows the group broadcasting on WUST-AM and how community businesses such as a local shoe shine stand and a funeral parlor support the show. The final section documents the interaction between the Four Echoes and a female group, The Stars of Hope, with whom the Four Echoes are sharing their experiences singing sacred vocal harmony. Evens closes the film with an explanation of the mechanics of four part harmony singing and suggestion that “jubilee [singing] will stand.” .
Bishop C.M. Grace, known to his followers as “Sweet Daddy” Grace (b. in Cape Verde Island, Portugal in 1884) migrated to America in 1903, and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Grace soon founded the United House Of Prayer For All People for which he functioned as its spiritual leader, counselor, and father. In 1919, he built the first House of Prayer by hand in West Wareham, Massachusetts. Within five years, he began expanding the church, first to Charlotte, soon to Tidewater Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The charismatic Grace claimed great powers and developed a line of products including "Daddy Grace" coffee, tea, soaps, and hand creams reputed to have healing properties. By the time of his death in 1960, the church was flourishing and today this 3.5 million member denomination maintains its headquarters in Washington, D.C. And the District is home to several hard working shout bands, most notably Norvus Miller & The Kings of Harmony.
With its sousaphone and baritone, the trombone–based “shout band” is an integral part of the worship services of the United House of Prayer; an African American Pentecostal denomination found urban and rural areas along the East Coast from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlotte, North Carolina. "Shout" describes the singing style and form of worship found in some 20th century African American religious denominations. Speaking directly to God through the "shout," black Pentecostals offered the direct experiences and the emotional touch of the Spirit. The term "ring shout" refers to a feature of worship throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and is coupled with the act of testimony as a basic element of religious service.
Musically, the “modern” (post-W.W. II) shout band style is “up tempo, duple meter, bright, responsive to the congregation, and incorporates a chordal wall of sound as players form a semi circle with the leader playing and directing in front. The musical form consists of three sections. The recitative, played by the lead trombone in a slow improvisatory manner, constituting a "call" for which the row tenor trombones play a fundamental chord progression. The second section. . . establishes tempo and sets the melody through repeated and then ornamented verses. The third section is "the shout," with a call response pattern and a rhythmic cadence called "backtimin" or "polin" where the sousaphone, playing a walking bass line, provides the foundation for hocket and hemiola rhythms.” (2)
Like a go go performance, the shout bands perform for as long as the spirit moves them. The length of each section is determined by the interaction between the band and the congregation. In both genres it is not uncommon for a performance to continue for up to three hours without a break.
Synopsis: An interview with Apostle Herbert Whitner opens the longest section of “Music District” (nearly 15 minutes), with some background about the history and development of the United House of Prayer for All People. He emphasizes the importance of music and spontaneous movement (dance) that are engendered by the Holy Ghost spiritual movement that permeates the services at the “House of Prayer.” D.C.-based trombonist Norvus “Butch Littlejohn” Miller discusses his own history as well as the relationship between secular musical forms and the music heard in his Church. Whitner then comments upon the relationship between a successful service and the spiritually uplifting music. The film also captures part of the “Leaders of Legend” service featuring Eddie Babb (Sons of Thunder–NYC) Legends of Leaders, George Holland (Happyland Band–Newport News, Va). along with Miller. Norvus G. Miller, son of the famed trombonist, is interviewed about his father, who died before the film was complete. This section closes with scenes from Miller’s funeral. The musical selections includes “Just a Little Closer Walk with Thee”
1) James Avery (Trouble Funk’s keyboard player), LA Weekly, November 29, 1985, p. 67.
“The Beat” Liaison CD LIA 1230. A double compact disc highlighted by classic go go performances from the 1980s through the early 2000s. In addition to tracks by Rare Essence, EU, Junk Yard Band, and Sugar Bear, this enhanced disc features video and interview material.
“Chuck Brown–Greatest Hits” Raw Ventures VPA007-2. From “Bustin’ Loose” to “Run Go” to “We Need Some Money,” this release really lives up to its name.
“Fathers and Sons” Spirit Feel 1001. This reissue looks back to the late 1930s through the middle 1950s for strong releases by The Nightingales, The Soul Stirrers, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Sensational Nightingales.
“Saints Paradise: Trombone Shout Bands from the United House of Prayer,” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 40117. This is the only commercially issued anthology of shout bands, which includes stirring performances by Madison’s Lively Stones, McCollough Sons of Thunder, Happyland Band, Madison Prayer Band, and Clouds of Heaven.
“A Warrior On The Battlefield (A Capella 1920s-1940s)” Rounder CD 1137. A somewhat random anthology that groups together groups ranging from the bass-driven Silver Leaf Quartette of Norfolk to the delightfully idiosyncratic Pullman Porters Quartette, the final five selections by the Golden Gate Quartet are arguably the best of the bunch.
Ray Allen. Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). An ethnographic study of quartets in New York City.
Kip Lornell. “Happy in the Service of the Lord:” African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). A look at the quartet community in Memphis, which includes a chapter on the development of quartets across the United States.
Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson. The Beat: Go Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop (New York: Billboard Books, 2001). The first book-length study of this D.C.-based genre.
John Morthland. “Dancin’ With Daddy G,” The Oxford American–Double issue on Southern Music (Issue 16), pp. 106-11. A fascinating look at the relationship between Daddy Grace the musical traditions found in the United House of Prayer for All People.
Nick Spitzer. Brochure notes for “Saints Paradise: Trombone Shout Bands from the United House of Prayer,” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 40117.
Deartment of Music
The George Washington University