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John Kelly's Washington

In 1950s, Jimmie Dodd's 'Washington' won contest to be District's official song

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The Blake High School 'Revelations' sing 'Washington' by Jimmie Dodd.

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By John Kelly
Sunday, May 30, 2010

You can leave your heart in San Francisco. Chicago can be your kind of town. If you can make it in New York, New York, you can make it anywhere. And Washington? What songs spring to mind when you think of our city?

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Last week, Answer Man wrote about two Washington songs from the 1920s that were once popular here. Today, he looks at a pair of more recent songs. The fact that you probably haven't heard either one underscores the difficulties composers have when celebrating our fair city.

Both tunes stem from 1951, a banner year for Washington songwriting. Why? It was the year that local businessman James H. Simon had a letter published in The Washington Post. Simon, a native Washingtonian, said he went to conventions around the country where the practice was for attendees to stand and sing as a band played the song commemorating their state. The bands never played a Washington song, and he didn't like having to choose between "Maryland, My Maryland" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

Wrote Simon: "I have become quite used to taxation without representation, but I am getting quite tired of posing as an adopted son and using Maryland or Virginia as my excuse for being born in Washington."

He proposed a song contest. And since Simon just happened to be the local distributor for Motorola products, he offered to supply the prizes as well. The Post endorsed the idea and kicked things off by commissioning a series of articles from musicologist Sigmund Spaeth on the state songs of America.

Contestants were welcome to write original music, but The Post also provided a list of 91 public domain songs whose melodies could be borrowed, from "Auld Lang Syne" to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Entrants were encouraged to play up one or more of the things Washington is known for: avenues, parks, stately trees, historic shrines, monuments and museums, and the "happy balance of gayety and seriousness among diplomats from every country on the globe and residents representing every corner of our own United States."

By the deadline, 3,628 entries had been received. The winner, as chosen by a team of judges that included the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and the leader of the U.S. Marine Band, was "Washington," by Jimmie Dodd, a 41-year-old singer-actor who lived in Hollywood. "Washington," the song began, "the fairest city in the greatest land of all,/Named for one, our country's father who first answered freedom's call."

Dodd came to the District to claim his $1,000. The backlash began almost immediately.

The rival Washington Daily News noted that a later verse in Dodd's song included the lines "Ole Stonewall Jackson and Franklin and Clay/All march side by side through our mem'ries today." The paper pointed out that Benjamin Franklin never visited Washington (he died 10 years before it was founded) and Stonewall Jackson fought against the Union. Sheet music omitting those verses was printed in The Post and distributed to D.C. schools.

Local real estate man James L. Dixon (husband of astrologer Jeanne Dixon) wasn't satisfied with the judges' decision. His entry, "The District of Columbia Is My Home Town," didn't even make the top five, but in 1956, he managed to get the Federation of Citizens Associations to recommend it be adopted formally. Dixon's chorus went "Proud to say, the District of Columbia is my hometown./Yes sir! I'm proud to say the District of Columbia should wear a crown."

Hometown. Crown. Greatest land of all. Answered freedom's call. You see the problem with writing a song about Washington: Most composers open a civics book for inspiration. Patriots, marble halls, freedom. Sure, those things have a place in Washington, but are they really what we Washingtonians think about, want to sing about?

Dixon's song gained no official status. As far as Answer Man can tell, Dodd's "Washington" remains the city's official song. In 1955, Dodd became the host of "The Mickey Mouse Club." The theme song to that show is one of the 525 songs that he composed. He died in 1964.

To see and hear Blake High School's Revelations chorus singing the Dodd and Dixon songs, go to http://washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Finally, Answer Man wonders: Is it time for a new Washington song contest?

For a copy of the lyrics and sheet music to the Dixon song, write kellyj@washpost.com, with "Dixon Score" in the subject line.


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