Let’s go-go and learn about the history of DC music


Photo by Chau Nguyen

Chau Nguyen

Tracing back to its roots, DC has a reputation of cultivating its own genres, including go-go. The city’s vibrant music scene has shaped DC culture and helps to explain who we are as Washingtonians.

Much of DC’s musical history is centered on and around the area of U Street in Northwest, once known as “Black Broadway.” In the 1900s, dozens of musical artists, such as John Philip Sousa, Van McCoy, and Johnny Gill, became local DC celebrities and soon reached international stardom. U Street is known for producing some of the DC greats: most notably Duke Ellington, who played his first piano notes in the District.

Native musicians Shirley Horn, Chuck Brown, and Marvin Gaye were regular fixtures on the entertainment circuit, playing at venues such as Bohemian Caverns and the Lincoln Theatre. Though relatively different, all three helped put DC musicality on the map. Chuck Brown, the Godfather of go-go, created this unique form of music, similar to rap, by mixing R&B and funk. Marvin Gaye, the Prince of Soul, helped shape the sound of Motown with his soulful, soothing pitches. Lastly, Horn’s contralto vocals boosted people’s desire for jazz artists. As a true testament to these DC greats, the annual DC Jazz Festival, the largest music festival in the District, annually honors all artists and includes more than a hundred performances at venues throughout the city.

Though the district is not in close proximity to the Appalachian Mountains, surprisingly, many bluegrass and country music artists set their stones in the DC area. The first nationally televised country music concert was broadcast from Constitution Hall in 1948. That milestone was followed by a generation of country, bluegrass, and folk songwriters including Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter. These musical artists got their debut with regular performances in Dupont Circle. Good bluegrass and country music can still be found nowadays at Madam’s Organ in Adams Morgan, at the Birchmere or Nick’s in Alexandria, and through free summer concerts at the Library of Congress.

With the advent of personal computers and digital sound editing equipment, a new genre, electronica, came into the DC music scene. DC’s electronic music Mecca, Eighteenth Street Lounge, is where top DJs from around the globe showcase their soft beats and ultra-cool style. The success of Eighteenth Street Lounge has led to the opening of several other lounge-style clubs that also feature electronica sets, including Chi Cha Lounge and Local 16.

The Kennedy Center, tucked against the Potomac, is a world-class venue and home to two of the most prestigious organizations in the world, the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra. The Washington National Opera presents five productions per season at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The National Symphony Orchestra also resides in the Kennedy Center. The DC area is also the capital of choral music, with more than 70 choral groups throughout the region, including the Air Force Singing Sergeants, National Christian Chorus, Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, and the Washington Bach Concert.

Where better to explore all that music has to offer than our very own backyard? DC has been home to some of the major musical innovations of the past 50 years and continues to give rise to hidden musical gems.