Many metropolitan areas, like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, have recognized music cultures—but what about D.C.? Washington’s reputation as a glossy, suited-up political mecca often overshadows its thriving music scene and the important history behind its evolution. Thanks to the leadership and philanthropic support of music professor and prolific author Kip Lornell, the D.C. Vernacular Music Archive (DCVMA) hopes to change that.
From the driving percussion of go-go to the stripped down sounds of punk rock—and everything in between—the history of D.C.’s local music is as diverse as it is complex. Housed in the university’s Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, GW’s new archive chronicles the sights and sounds that have defined and transformed the district from the perspective of those who experienced them. The task is a big one—and no one else is the country is doing anything like it.
“The DCVMA is the only archive in the country that is looking at a particular metropolitan area and archiving material from that area,” Professor Lornell explains, “all the vernacular music, including the music of more recent immigrants from Ethiopia and El Salvador. ”
Vernacular is a key word for Lornell and colleague, Steve Lorenz, PhD ’14, a partner in his efforts to grow the DCMVA.
“It means colloquial, local—in many cases, it means blue collar,” says Kip. In other words, Steve adds, it’s the “music of the streets.”
The archive brings together four genres foundational to D.C.’s music scene: go-go, punk, bluegrass, and folk. Collections of reel-to-reel tapes, photos, production notes, and concert flyers from artists, DJs, fans, and concert-goers line the archive, in addition to the work of Lornell’s students.
“GW students are doing really interesting research on D.C. as a laboratory for vernacular music that shouldn’t just end up on a shelf somewhere collecting dust; there’s a greater need for it,” Kip says. “Think about the emergence of New Orleans and jazz at the turn of the 20th century. If someone had actually been interviewing Buddy Bolden in 1905, we would have very different view now of what was going on at that time.”
There are also pieces of GW’s own history dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, when former Colonials organized the university’s Folk Music Club. Black-and-white photographs in the archive capture the energy of banjo-wielding musicians who gathered at the historic Woodhull House for open sings—think group karaoke where the full crowd knows all the words and melodies. The club later played a pivotal role in the formation of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.
But Kip and Steve see the project as moving well outside these genres; it’s the region itself that’s the focus.
“The intent is that the Vernacular Music Archive will fill any gaps and give a more rounded view of vernacular music around D.C.,” says Kip. That means looking at the influx of cultures, recording oral histories of musical expression, and documenting music produced by people in and around Washington, D.C. that is usually ignored by other institutions or the press.
“Right now there is a sense that stuff is disappearing with people’s memories, and we’re losing critical history,” says Steve.
But the DCVMA isn’t about just safeguarding its expanding collections: sharing its resources is just as important.
“We don’t want papers and records to just be sitting up there,” Steve explains, “we want people to come in and use it. That means programming, events, and community involvement in addition to being a solid research center.”
Their mission: preservation first, then digitization to provide broader access to the materials for people around the globe.
The mandate is broad, which poses some challenges since the majority of their personnel are volunteers. That’s why philanthropy is a critical element for the archive’s growth and success. Kip himself made a leadership gift to support the archive in 2015 and hopes support from music lovers, D.C. locals, and GW alumni will help further their cause.
“What seems to be so commonplace now might be lost to time,” Kip says, “and that’s exactly what we don’t want to have happen.”
If you’re interested in donating materials to the DCMVA, email Kip Lornell. To learn more about how to support the continued development of this archive, please contact us at email@example.com or 202-994-8928.