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John Kelly's Washington

A musical journey into Washington, D.C., history

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The Blake High School "Revelations" sing "Washington," by William T. Pierson and Jessie I. Pierson.

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By John Kelly
Sunday, May 23, 2010

When I attended elementary school in the District, from about 1938 to 1942, we were taught to sing a song about the city. It has been running through my head recently, and I would really like to know who composed it. It starts like this: "Voices raise in a song of praise for the city great and free/With the goddess tall rising high o'er all as the sign of Liberty." The chorus begins "Washington, Washington, we love thy name./Washington, Washington, long live thy fame." If you can find out anything about this music, I would be very grateful.

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--Bruce H. Abernethy, Olney

This song -- aptly titled "Washington" -- would have been familiar to any student who attended a District school in the 1920s through the 1940s. It's also likely that schoolchildren would have sung another song: "Washington, Fair Capital." And now, thanks to Answer Man's impresario abilities and the vocal talents of some Blake High School choral students, you can hear them both. (Details below.)

The music to "Washington" was written by William T. Pierson, the lyrics by his mother, Jessie. William Pierson was a prolific composer who, like countless musicians before and after him, was devoted to making Washington a center of the music business. In 1907, he was named president of an organization devoted to creating a Washington-based music publishing house. He was still at it 15 years later, helping to convene a meeting at the Ebbitt Hotel "for the purpose of joining forces in the campaign to make Washington the musical capital of America."

He was the program director at one of Washington's first radio stations, WCAP, and later at WMAL. He and his mother penned such ditties as "True to You," "Dreaming Dreams of You" and "When You Are Near Me." The somewhat less sappy "Washington" was adopted by the Association of Oldest Inhabitants as its official song in 1920, after Pierson performed it at a meeting of the group. In 1923, a chorus of 2,000 school children sang the song at the American League ballpark at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW at the climax of the city's annual music week. President Warren G. Harding and his wife were in attendance.

Leading the children in song was Edwin N.C. Barnes, director of music for the D.C. public schools, who had an office in the Franklin School. Perhaps it was that performance that inspired Barnes to write his own Washington song: "Washington, Fair Capital." It was performed as early as 1928. The chorus to Barnes's song went, "Washington, gem of Columbia fair/Washington, heralded ev'rywhere/Ev'ry lap of Potomac's waves/Ev'ry pulse of a million braves/Sings happy notes when Old Glory floats/Over beautiful Washington."

Barnes's song was performed often around town, especially in 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.

Of course reading about a song-- even seeing the lyrics -- isn't as satisfying as hearing a song. Answer Man wagers that these two pieces of music haven't been heard, let alone sung, in decades. But with the help of archivist Derek Gray, he was able to find the sheet music in the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library. Answer Man enlisted Johnathan Dunn, choral director of Blake High School in Silver Spring, to resurrect the songs. To watch and hear his Revelation chorus performing them, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. For copies of the sheet music, including the lyrics and Dunn's arrangements, send an e-mail -- with "Score" in the subject line -- to kellyj@washpost.com.

The songs are very much of their time -- a bit hymnlike, a bit marchlike. The lyrics, to modern ears, are overblown and bordering on corny, but they can't help but stir the heart.

Next week: Two more tunes vie for "official Washington song" status.

Questions? Write answerman@washpost.com.


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