Dreaming of taking the District by song

In 1968, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony A. Mitchell conducts the U.S. Navy Band for the last time upon his retirement from active duty.
In 1968, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony A. Mitchell conducts the U.S. Navy Band for the last time upon his retirement from active duty. (Courtesy Of The U.s. Navy Band)
  Enlarge Photo    
By John Kelly
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nestled in a folder in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is the music to "The Hymn of Washington," written in 1927 by Agnes M. Newman and set to a melody by Haydn. It starts with the line "City famed in song and story, shrined within the hearts of men/Objects of a people's glory, thou, the Nation's diadem."

This got Answer Man thinking: Washington is certainly famed in story. But song?

Well, yes and no. As we have seen over the last two weeks, many artists have tried to write a Washington song that sticks. Songs by William Pierson and Edwin N.C. Barnes were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Songs by Jimmie Dodd and James Dixon were popular in the 1950s. Dodd's song "Washington" remains the city's official anthem. But nothing has persisted.

It isn't for lack of trying. All manner of people have been inspired to celebrate Washington. In 1959, Anthony Mitchell, then assistant conductor of the U.S. Navy Band, wrote a march called "Our Nation's Capital." Two years later, District Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin made it the city's official march, telling The Post: "I found it so stirring that for the first time since I left the Naval Academy, I felt like marching."

Words were added by Navy Band clarinetist Dixon Redditt. They start: "Oh, welcome to our city, the capital of our nation, the fairest of them all/The tree-shaded city beside the blue Potomac is sounding a welcome call."

Other songs have flirted with officialness. In 1984, then-D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis presented a bill to make songwriter Mark Williams's "This Is My Town" the official song. Its lyrics include the lines "Sometimes we're overshadowed by the monumental grounds/and people who come to visit forget that we're around/But from now on we're going to raise our voices in harmony/and sing 'We're proud to live in D.C.' "

A fine sentiment, but some felt the song was a little too anti-tourist. The bill went nowhere.

Sam Smith is a native Washingtonian who last year relocated to Maine. In 1977, he penned a jaunty musical stroll through various District attractions titled "Washington, My Hometown." He also tried to get official status for it, and though he managed to rhyme "Redskins in the fall" with "Folk Life on the Mall," success eluded him.

Local musician Lincoln Ross saw his song "Come to Washington" used on the premier broadcast of the 2005 ABC 7 news magazine show "Metropolitan Edition" with Gordon Peterson. "After that, we got as far as having it aired on WPFW a few times and even performing the tune live at Mayor Fenty's inaugural ball," Lincoln wrote Answer Man. Songwriter Carol Boyd Leon, composer of George Mason University's school song, took her own stab at a D.C. song in 2005 with a march called "By George, It's Washington!" People are still trying to snag the musical brass ring. Artist Andrei Kushnir, owner of the American Painting Fine Art gallery on MacArthur Boulevard, recently commissioned local singer/songwriter Zac Quintana to write a D.C. song. Zac performed "In Washington" on Saturday at the opening of a local landscapes show.

Big names who have celebrated the city in song range from Parliament's "Chocolate City," title track from the funk group's 1975 album, to "Washington, D.C." by indie darlings the Magnetic Fields. Answer Man has always been partial to "Washingtron" by Tru Fax & the Insaniacs.

Laurel's John McLaughlin remembers the glory days of WMAL in the 1960s, when they played "a wonderful song about D.C. when they did their station identification . . . I wish you could find all the words to this song because it really reflected the beauty of Washington." Answer Man found the really quite moving song, known as the "WMAL Anthem," on YouTube.

Finally, Eleanor Lawson expressed the sentiments of many when she wrote: "Washington, D.C., does have a song. It's sung every week during the fall and winter seasons; sometimes it's sung with great happiness and other times it's sung like a funeral dirge. It's a spritely little ditty, and the first line is 'Hail to the Redskins. . . .'"

For links to some of the music mentioned here, visit today's column at www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly and click on the song titles. Send questions to answerman@washpost.com.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company