Washington has many blessings -- monuments and memorials, baseball and bureaucrats -- but it doesn't have a song. It has never really had one.
Can a city without a song be considered romantic? Can it be cool? Can it ever be considered . . . lovable?
No. No. And no way.
Every great American city has a great, or at least well-known, tune about it. New York, with its endless bouquets from Broadway, leads the nation in musical references. Hollywood (and Los Angeles) and Nashville may not be far behind, for the obvious reason that one is the movie and pop music capital and the other the country music capital. Other cities have been repeatedly honored in song because of their unique musical heritage: New Orleans for jazz, Detroit for Motown, Chicago for jazz and blues, Memphis for blues, rock, rockabilly and country.
Cities with no obvious connection to the entertainment-industrial complex have had great popular songs written about them, inspired by them, or closely associated with them. San Francisco ("I Left My Heart in . . . ," " . . . [Be sure to wear flowers in your hair]"). St. Louis ("Meet Me in . . ."). Kansas City ("Everything's up to date in . . ." "Goin' to . . ."). Phoenix ("By the Time I Get to . . . "). Miami ("Moon Over . . . " Will Smith's "Miami"). San Jose ("Do You Know the Way to . . . "). Philadelphia ("Philadelphia Freedom" and, by association, the theme from "Rocky"). Boston ("Please Come to . . . ," "Dirty Water").
Even third-tier metropolises like Galveston, Abilene, El Paso, Chattanooga, Kalamazoo, Tallahassee and Gary, Ind., have had memorable, venerable songs.
And, adding insult to injury, Baltimore is in the derby, too. While it's not the standard it once was, Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole" has been widely performed over the decades. George Harrison recorded "Baltimore Oriole."
Meanwhile, Washington can't hit a note. Go ahead: Name a popular Washington song.
Yes, there are songs associated with the District of Columbia, but that's not the same thing. "Hail to the Chief" certainly creates an instant association with the president, but it's silent about where those presidents reside. Every Sousa march inspires thoughts of an official state parade, although not necessarily one down Pennsylvania Avenue. "The Star-Spangled Banner" has an obvious connection to the nation's capital, but it's really about the nation (or more narrowly, a naval bombardment in Baltimore Harbor), not the capital. "Hail to the Redskins" mentions D.C. ("fight for old D.C.!"), but it's a Redskins song, not a paean to their home town (which, technically speaking, is Landover, anyway).
It's not as if Washington doesn't fire the national creative imagination. It does, just not in song. The city is known for substantial contributions to two fringier genres of pop music -- go-go and punk -- but neither have brought about a District-centric hit.
Numerous movies and TV shows have been set here (A short list: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "All the President's Men," "Dave," "Broadcast News," "The Pelican Brief," "St. Elmo's Fire," "Enemy of the State," "The West Wing," "The District," "Murphy Brown"). There are enough Washington novels and suspense thrillers to pack a wing of the Library of Congress.
It's true that Parliament's "Chocolate City" and the Blackbyrds' "Rock Creek Park" got some traction back in the mid-'70s. In 1999, the New York-based indie rock band Magnetic Fields included "Washington, DC" among its critically praised "69 Love Songs" -- the refrain of which goes "W! A-S-H! I-N-G! T-O-N, baby, D-C!"
But those weren't durable. No song swells the municipal breast with pride when it's played during the seventh-inning stretch at RFK or when the masses gather on the Mall, as they will today. No lyric has ever been catchy enough, no tune sprightly enough, to communicate the virtues of this city to the world. Not even Washington's greatest musician, native son Duke Ellington, who composed more than 1,000 songs, ever captured his home town in a widely remembered tune.
Lesser mortals have tried. The annals of the Historical Society of Washington are rife with the sheet music of would-be Washington anthems. These include "The Washington Waddle" (1914); "On the Steps of the Great White Capitol (Stood Martha and George)" (1914); "The White House in Washington and the White House in the Lane" (1922); "Washington, Fair Capital" (1927); "Washington Belongs to You" (1932); "The District of Columbia Is My Home Town" (1951); "Washington Winterland" (1954); and "Pale Potomac Moon," which congenial 1950s TV and radio host Arthur Godfrey wrote in 1938 and used as his theme song. Several of these songs attested to the natural and man-made charms of the national capital; some made fun of them. Here, for example, is a satirical 1906 ditty called "In Washington:" "In Washington, in Washington / One thing's free there / and that's hot air."
None of these songs lasted, says the Historical Society's research librarian, Gail McCormick, who isn't exactly sure why. "It could be the fact that Washington was a sleepy southern town until after World War II," she says.
In fact, civic leaders tried to change that in 1951 by holding a contest to create a popular song about and for the city. After studying 3,628 entries, a distinguished panel of musicians chose "Washington," by Jimmie Dodd (who later became the adult host of the original "Mickey Mouse Club" and the writer of its theme song). Dodd's song, which was perhaps instantly forgotten, included the lyrics, "God bless our White House, our Capitol, too / And keep ever-flying, the red, white and blue."
Two of the better-known songs about Washington -- and they aren't all that widely known -- eschew lyricism and uplift. They are instead deeply bitter and cynical, which probably accounts for their failure to crack the Top 40 or to become widely beloved and celebrated. One, "Bourgeois Blues," by the legendary black musician Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, was written and recorded after Ledbetter was denied lodging in various white-owned establishments in Washington around 1940:
"Come along people, listen to me / Don't try to find no home in Washington D.C. / Lord it's a bourgeois town, it's a bourgeois town . . . Home of the brave, land of the free / I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie / White folks in Washington they do know how / Throw a man a nickel just to see him bow."
A more recent song, Steve Earle's "Christmas in Washington," is already outdated: "It's Christmastime in Washington / The Democrats rehearsed / Gettin' into gear for four more years / Things not gettin' worse / The Republicans drink whiskey neat / And thanked their lucky stars / They said, 'He cannot seek another term / There'll be no more FDRs.' "
Maybe that's the problem right there. Washington is too closely associated with politics and government to inspire poetry. You can't dance to politics. Mark Russell and the Capitol Steps can pen their satirical ditties about the latest Washington scandal or controversy, but popular songs are usually about enduring themes -- love, heartbreak, beauty, etc. Maybe Washington just doesn't have that kind of magic. What's so great about a filibuster, anyway? And what rhymes with "Democrats and Republicans"?
Nevertheless, we throw down the gantlet, whatever a gantlet is. No contests, no challenges. Just a call and a plea to all the budding Ellingtons and Billy Joels and Dr. Dres out there: Make a great song about Washington, D.C.
The beauty of the Tidal Basin, the grandeur of the Capitol dome, the pageant of democracy, this place that we call home. . . . (See?) Tell the world about Anacostia or Petworth or Georgetown. Or the parking in Adams Morgan.
Make this town sound cool. Make it seem romantic and lovable.
But most of all, just make it sing, kid.