[Photo by Ron Cogswell]
As our nation's capital, D.C. takes up a big place in the country's imagination. This has led to a slue of TV shows and movies (some better than others) based in the Capital, but it has also generated quite a few songs. Several recording artists, both local and from farther afield, have written songs about places in our fair city. Here are a few notable ones, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.
— Andrew Wiseman
"Chocolate City," Parliament
Parliament's tribute to D.C., from the album of the same name, came out as a number of American cities had obtained majority black populations. The song describes an African-American cabinet, with Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin in the White House, Ike Turner as Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Pryor serving as Secretary of the Education, and so on. It also talks about D.C. as a chocolate city as opposed to its "vanilla suburbs" and even predicts a future black president. The album cover shows the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol building rendered in chocolate (and of course, the name lent itself to the Chocolate City Beer.) The album proved very popular in the D.C. area, with 150,000 copies sold here soon after its release. That was more than 5% of the metro area's population at the time.
"13th and Euclid," Dismemberment Plan
The D-Plan's "13th and Euclid" from 1995's ! talks about a mugging at that Columbia Heights intersection, more than a decade before the arrival of Target and Best Buy and the 11th Street "hip strip" of bars and restaurants — in fact, even before the Metro station opened. The neighborhood in those days still had visible reminders of the 1968 riots, with many vacant lots and abandoned homes and a reputation for higher crime. The disjointedness of the song heightens the fear in the lyrics, which talk about giving up your wallet while bystanders refuse to help. Maybe not the best day for local boy made good and D-Plan frontman Travis Morrison.
"Rock Creek Park," Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds
"Rock Creek Park," from 1975's City Life, would probably be frowned upon by the National Park Service; the only lyrics are "doin' it in the park, doin' it after dark, oh yeah, Rock Creek Park, oh yeah, Rock Creek Park" with the occasional sensual moan thrown in. The funk song, by the D.C. native Donald Byrd and his band the Blackbyrds, which included some Howard University students, was a hit in 1976 and was sampled by a number of hip hop artists, including another D.C. native, Oddisee, who appears later in this list.
"Walter Reed," Michael Penn
By Sean Penn's singer-songwriter brother Michael, "Walter Reed," from 2005's Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 talks about somebody giving up and wanting to be taken to Walter Reed Hospital, the former military hospital located between 16th Street and Georgia Avenue north of Aspen Street NW. The video, continuing the album's 1947 theme, shows Penn walking through scenes of post-World War II suburbanization and growth, which are reminiscent of D.C. from that time. The city grew by nearly 200,000 people between 1940 and 1950, and many houses in upper Northwest, where the hospital was located, date from that era. Penn also walks past a building with the word Geranium on it, which is the name of a street a couple of blocks north of the hospital campus, but that might just be a coincidence.
Walter Reed from Mimeograph on Vimeo.
"The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," The Postal Service
From the Postal Service's sole album, 2003's Give Up, "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight"'s narrator talks about visiting a "gaudy apartment complex" where a current or maybe former lover lives, but feeling out of place and realizing he was the reason they broke up. The song implies more than it states, but you could easily picture Ben Gibbard standing in the rain outside one of the grand mid-century apartment buildings on 16th Street or Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues NW — maybe the Camden Roosevelt at 16th and V or one of the many in Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, or near the National Cathedral.
"Washington, D.C.," The Magnetic Fields
"Washington, D.C." from 1999's 69 Love Songs, has a lot of nice things to say, complimenting the Mall scenery and the cherry blossoms, but is more about fond feelings for the city because band frontman and songwriter Stephin Merritt's love is there: "It's not the people doing something real/It's not the way the springtime makes you feel… it's my baby's kiss that keeps me coming back." It's a great song for enjoying a nice day in town, ideally with your baby.
Rock Creek Park, Oddisee
D.C.-area hip hop producer Oddisee dedicated his 2011 album to the park, building around samples, including some from the aforementioned "Rock Creek Park" by the Blackbyrds. Other songs on the relaxed, jazzy album reference the park, like "Carter Barron" after the Amphitheatre and "Closed at Dark" after the signs around the park. On his record label's site, Oddisee says he imagines the album as a soundtrack: "What does walking along the trails of the park sound like? What does driving on the narrow tree lined roads sound like? This album is my interpretation of Rock Creek Park through break beats, samples & live instrumentation."