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DC Music Archive Opens at Gelman Library

DC Music Archive

Washington’s reputation as a glossy, suited-up political mecca has often overshadowed its thriving music scenes. The light guitar strumming of folk, the screaming, thunderous vocals of punk rock and the percussion-driven rhythms of go-go showcase just a few of the city’s endemic sounds—and a partnership between the GW Libraries and Kip Lornell, Adjunct Professor of Music at GW, is out to document and preserve this rich musical history through the creation of the DC Vernacular Music Archive.

The collection formally opened in late October 2014 at the Melvin and Estelle Gelman Library with its first exhibit, “Hear in DC: Vernacular Music in the Nation’s Capital” and a symposium featuring the Folklore Society of Greater Washington President Andy Wallace, Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye and GW’s artist-in-residence Stephen Wade. The archive is the latest university effort that increases the footprint of GW on the DC arts and music scenes.

The GW Libraries has collected and preserved music for years, developing materials for both a Washington DC Punk Rock Collection and an International Counterculture Archive. Combining this existing interest with Kip Lornell’s extensive knowledge of DC music led to the creation of the DC Vernacular Music Archive. “There is no other vernacular music archive dedicated to a particular city or country,” Dr. Lornell explained.  “What seems to be so commonplace and so ephemeral today is exactly ephemeral, unless somebody steps up and decides this kind of thing should be archived.”

Currently the archive focuses on three genres important to the sound and history of DC: punk, folk, and go-go.

The bulk of the punk archive began when librarian Dr. Mark Yoffe identified and purchased materials from Dischord, a local independent record label established by Ian MacKaye to produce and release material from his own band, Minor Threat, but which grew to support other local bands like Q and Not U, Jawbox, and MacKaye' next band, Fugazi. The collection expanded when librarian Tina Plottel established the Kansas House Project, a collection of oral histories with members of the DC punk community. 

The folk collection draws from GW’s history in the ‘60s and ‘70s when students organized the university’s Folk Music Club.  This club was an early predecessor of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.  One of the highlights in the archive is a collection of photographs from the early years of the Folk Music Club, when students and locals would gather at the historic Woodhull House for open sings, where musicians would lead the audience in well-known songs to which everyone could sing along.

The audience participation aspect of folk is even more pronounced in go-go.  An important representative of black identity in DC, go-go is the “most regional genre” of music in the United States, according to Dr. Lornell.  “Go-go has really stayed very local—it is the DMV.” In his book The Beat, co-authored with former go-go band manager Charles C. Stephenson, Jr., he likens go-go to attending a black Pentecostal church service: the musicians and patrons know each other, they’re passionate about the music, and they get together on a regular basis. Call-and-response refrains are frequent, bringing the audience into the performance and promoting neighborhood pride.

The DC Vernacular Music Archive is part of the GW Libraries’ ongoing interest in Washingtoniana and the preservation of DC history. The inaugural display is open to the public and located on the 7th floor of Gelman Library. To learn more about how to support the continued development of this archive, please contact us at gwlibdev@gwu.edu or 202-994-8928.

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