November 2012

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (Library of Congress)

How Washington Saved Folk Music

Sure, it seems a bit counter-intuitive. How could the favorite subject of protest music also be its greatest protector? Well, believe it. If it wasn't for Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress there might not be a Woody Guthrie — and thus by extension — a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen, and well … you get the rest. In March 1940, Lomax arranged for Guthrie to travel to Washington, D.C. to record traditional ballads and his original songs at the Department of the Interior recording lab. What emerged from three days of sessions is one of the purest documents of Americana ever released.

Mail Your Christmas Cards Early

The holiday season is pretty busy for the United States Post Office -- lots of letters and packages going all over the country, from coast to coast. And we're all familiar with the warnings that tell us to mail our items early if we want to guarantee delivery by Christmas. Well, apparently D.C. residents weren't heeding the warnings back in 1921. So the U.S.P.S. called in the big fella to get the point across.

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Bob Dylan's Greatest Pic

Washington doesn't usually get mentioned in the pantheon of great American music cities but we've had our moments. One of them was Sunday, November 28, 1965 — 47 years ago today — when Bob Dylan played the Washington Coliseum.

Curiously, details about the concert itself are scarce — the Washington Post didn't bother to write a review (kind of surprising since Dylan was very well known by 1965), and Dylan's own website doesn't have a setlist from the show. But the singer's visit to Washington was significant for one now-famous image the concert produced.

Yarrow Mamout's Place in History

Yarrow Mamout was the most prominent African American in early Washington.  He was a Muslim, educated in West Africa to read and write in Arabic.  He and a sister arrived in America from on a slave ship in 1752. After forty-five years as a slave of the Beall family of Maryland, Yarrow (his last name) gained his freedom and settled in Georgetown. In 1800, he acquired the property at what is now 3324 Dent Place and lived there the rest of his life.

The house on Yarrow Mamout’s old lot in Georgetown is scheduled for demolition, but efforts are underway to save any artifacts from his occupancy as well as his mortal remains from the bulldozer.

In one of D.C.'s more creative publicity stunts, this oversized chair in Anacostia served as a home for model Lynn Arnold in 1960. (Source: Flickr user stgermh. Used via Creative Commons license.)

The Big Chair in Anacostia

Creative advertising wasn’t just for Don Draper and the New York Mad Men.

In 1959, Anacostia’s Curtis Bros. Furniture Company commissioned Bassett Furniture to construct a 19.5 foot tall Duncan Phyfe dining room chair to put on display outside their showroom at V St. and Nichols Ave. SE (now Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd. SE).

In one of the more creative publicity stunts D.C. has ever seen, the company then convinced local model Lynn Arnold to live in a glass apartment atop the chair for seven weeks. Crowds flocked to the store in droves to check out the scene.

A D.C. Dome?

Tomorrow afternoon, the Redskins will play the Cowboys at colossal Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. With a seating capacity of up to 100,000, a retractable roof, and a 60 yard-long HD video board amongst other amenities, the stadium is something to behold.

But, when it comes to innovative stadium designs, the Cowboys have nothing on former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

George Washington’s Overdue Books

George Washington, the father of our country, was a deadbeat book borrower? Apparently so. In April of 2010, the New York Library Society was going through the process of restoring and digitizing their holdings when an employee stumbled across the long lost fourteen-volume collection, Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the English House of Commons. But, the collection was missing a volume. A check of the old circulation ledger proved that volume #12 had last been checked out by library patron George Washington October 5, 1789, along with a book by Emer de Vattel, entitled Law of Nations.

The books were due back on November 2, but according to the records, neither was ever returned.

Hugh Bennett and the Perfect Storm

Think the impacts of the Dust Bowl were only felt in the Great Plains? Think again. In the spring of 1935, a dust storm nearly blocked out the sun above Washington, alarming local citizens and spurring Congress to take action on soil erosion policy.

The Who and Led Zeppelin Concert Poster, Merriweather Post Pavilion, May 25, 1969, Tina Silverman, artist

Merriweather Post's Legendary Double Bill

The Who vs. Led Zeppelin 

It's one of the eternal questions argued by classic rock aficionados — which of these virtuoso power trios could rock the hardest? Perhaps the only people qualified to make that call were those lucky enough to be at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. on the night of Sunday, May 25, 1969, when Led Zeppelin opened for The Who in one of the most epic double bills in rock history. It was a pairing of hall of fame live acts that would never be seen again on the same stage.

Capital for a Day

Almost 200 years later, Brookville, Maryland celebrates its brief moment in history. (Photo source: Flickr user dan reed!)

If you’re passing through Brookeville, Maryland these days the town might not seem too different from the other suburban stops along Georgia Avenue. But don’t be fooled. Brookeville has a unique claim to fame. For one day during the War of 1812, it was the capital of the United States.

But if a couple of residents would've had their way, it wouldn't have happened!

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolutionary War. (Photo by James A. DeYoung/Alexandria City website)

The Less-Known Unknown

Yesterday, we posted a story about the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery in 1921. Most readers are probably familiar with that memorial (and, if they read our post, they now know a little about its history). It is, after all, one of the most sacred places in the country.

But, what you may not know is that there is another Tomb of the Unknown just down the road in Alexandria, Virginia. In the burial yard of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House at 323 South Fairfax Street lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution. It is just seven miles away from its more famous counterpart, but light-years apart in the amount of attention it receives.

General Ambrose E. Burnside, the father of the sideburn. (Source: Wikipedia)

November is an Appropriate Time to Remember Ambrose E. Burnside

Just as this week’s cold snap sent many people searching for their winter coats, it also reminded some shivering citizens of a particular month-long “celebration” that keeps their cheeks warm, too: “No-Shave November.”

As a person who appreciates history and a good facial hair crop, I couldn’t help but think of certain furry Civil War general who rose to prominence 150 years ago this week.

Buttons like this could be seen around D.C. in 1964 as District residents voted in their first Presidential election. (Source: ebay)

D.C.'s Electoral Vote

It’s Election Day, and hopefully most of you are braving the cold and the lines at your local polling place to make sure your voice is heard. If you cast your ballot for a presidential candidate in the District, you exercised a right that has only been around for 52 years; that’s how long DC residents have had the right to vote in presidential elections, a right granted by the 23rd Amendment.

Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh in 1937. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Redskins Rule and the Election

Well, the Redskins may have trouble winning football games these days, but they have proven quite effective at predicting presidential elections over the years. Since the team moved to Washington in 1937 there have been 18 presidential elections. In 17 of those, the so-called "Redskins Rule" has held up:

If the Redskins win their last home game before the election, the incumbent's party will win the election and keep the White House. If the Redskins lose, the challenging party's candidate will win the election.

So, what does this mean about this year's election?

A Friday Photo: Jazz for the Bears

A Friday Photo: Jazz for the Bears

I came across this photo while doing some research about the National Zoo. It's a picture of jazz quintet playing a concert for a polar bear in the 1920s. Errr... what? I'd really like to know what precipitated this. Did these dudes just wake up one morning and say, "Hey, let's go down to the zoo and play a set for the bears." "Good idea, I'll see if Gertrude is free to dance for them."? Well, in any case, the bear seems to be enjoying it. Or maybe he's just waiting for his chance to take a swipe at them through the bars.

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Southern Maryland Dutch Country

Amish horse and buggy on the road in Southern Maryland. (Courtesy of St. Mary's College of Southern Maryland Archives.)

Amish horses and buggies in the Washington, D.C. Metro area? Yep. It's true. Over 200 Amish families live and work in St. Mary’s and Charles counties in Maryland, less than 40 miles from downtown D.C. The settlement, which is centered around the town of Charlotte Hall, dates to 1939 when seven families migrated to the area from Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania for the cheap Maryland land(!) and to escape pressure from the Pennsylvania state government.