Wilson music through the ages: go-go, jazz, and punk

Elie Salem and Alex Holmes

From jazz to R&B to rock to punk, throughout the decades Wilson students’ tastes have run the gamut of musical invention. But of all these musical funks, go-go is the most quintessentially DC.

“Go-go was just everywhere. It was like the soundtrack of life. And [you heard] it all the time in people’s cars and out in boom boxes,” Wilson alum Alec MacKaye said. “It’s just really raw, good music.”

Go-go, named for the multi-hour songs that just go and go, is a form of local music that includes a wide variety of instruments and a fusion of blues, salsa, funk, gospel, and soul.

What made go-go the near unanimous preference of Wilson students in the 70s, 80s, 90s was its unifying message. “The words are really inclusive to everybody and in the space it’s calling out. And it’s really mostly about how to have a good time tonight—that’s not something you get with punk rock too often,” said MacKaye.

The percussive, creative, and continual beats of go-go music became such a ubiquitous musical force at Wilson that it remained just as popular in 2006 as when MacKaye attended school in 1979. “Whether you were 10 years old or 17 years old you’d go to a go-go. It got people together,” said Dontrell Smith, who graduated Wilson in 2006. “[Students] used to leave school and then go to practice in a [go-go] band and go to the studio and then perform on Friday nights or Saturday night.”

Go-go emerged amidst an underground movement for a more niche form of music: punk. When MacKaye came to Wilson in 1979, he was quickly seized by the distinct mythos of underground punk. MacKaye, who was always a bit of an outcast in middle school, found the blue hair, mohawks, and new wave style of punk invigorating.  

While punk wasn’t the most popular form of music at Wilson, its fans were diehard. “A place called ‘Scandals’ in Georgetown would have one night a week of new wave punk bands,” said MacKaye. “They stopped kind of quick because they always got out of hand and [there was] a lot of destruction.”

MacKaye and his group of punk enthusiasts then created their own band despite their initial lack of musical expertise. “We played a song at the 9:30 club and got cut off. We were like, pulled off the stage, we weren’t supposed to play. We weren’t invited, we ran up and grabbed the instruments and played anyway,” recalled MacKaye, laughing. “When we started it was up in the air. Our guitar player was the only one who really knew how to play their instrument… We figured it out on the fly.”

Wilson students seem to have a habit of breaking rules for musical performance. Jack Casady was one such youngster who attended Wilson in the late 1950s. He first played guitar in the R&B band The Triumphs before switching to bass during his years at Wilson. Using a fake ID because he was underage, Casady played at various clubs in D.C. throughout high school, and even played alongside renowned bands like Little Anthony and the Imperials. In 1965, only three years after his graduation, Casady became the bass player for Jefferson Airplane, the hugely influential rock band.

50s Wilson students were just as music-loving as Wilson students today, as evidenced by the weekly All States Club dance, during which a 17-piece orchestra played “danceable dance music” from “9:30 Till 12:30,” according to their advertisement. Students danced to the music of Bernie Kessler and his Rhythm Rockers, listened to the new jazz LPs by Louis Armstrong and George Shearing.

In the 70s, however, jazz died, and classic rock was out the window. The soothing experimentation of early rock bands like The Beatles, The Animals, and The Beach Boys were replaced with a more virulent representation of teenage angst, evident in the lyrics of Queen, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC. And just a few years later, go-go became the go-to music at Wilson.

The dominance of go-go from the 70s to the early 2000s is surprising considering it’s almost disappeared from Wilson today. Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, attributes the decline of go-go popularity in DC to gentrification.

With go-go out of the picture, Wilson students have generally returned to listening to national hits, though we still have an affinity for homegrown performances. Perhaps jazz and go-go will one day come back in strength, ready to be reclaimed by a DC hungry for history, or whole new musical forms will come out of the hearts of Wilson students. Who knows what the future of Wilson music will hold?