D.C.’s Go-Go Soul

From Club U to the H St. corridor to Prince George’s County, go-go is the local music of Washington. At music halls, packed dance clubs, and on the street, the syncopated rhythms of rototoms and congas fill the space behind the shouted call-and-response vocals. “Tell me wh-wh-wh-where y’all from!” goes the classic go-go refrain.

A new book by Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke University Press), quotes the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis as saying that go-go constitutes the most “radical opposition to English syntax.” Go-go is simultaneously the “black CNN,” informative and historically aware, and a place to “Beat Ya Feet” in raucous and hard-partying fashion, Hopkinson explains.

Hopkinson’s book comes out this month on the heels of the May 16 death of “the Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown, at age 75.

In Hopkinson’s words, “Brown’s songs reported what’s happening.” Chuck Brown was the inventor of go-go, and his intense personal connection to D.C. informed his music. Hopkinson explains,

Brown has scars from fights over D.C.’s shoe-shining turf about who could collect the 10-cents-a-pair prize; scars that commemorate the breakthrough he experienced when the Foggy Bottom neighborhood boss, a kid named Petey Greene, gave him the OK to work his territory. Each pluck of the guitar tells of the eight years Brown spent serving time at Lorton penitentiary, learning how to play it. Each burned-out Washington building he performed in reflected his weariness about the “depressing” time after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on 4 April 1968, the day he was briefly detained by police while trying to tell looting kids to go home. Forty years later, those shoe-shining memories crashed up against another triumph: walking into the gig, seeing his name on a D.C. street sign in front of the newly renovated Howard Theatre, “Chuck Brown Way.”


Chuck Brown in 2011 (photo by dbking via Flickr/CC)

Thousands flocked to the Washington Convention Center on Thursday to commemorate and celebrate Brown’s life. And while go-go deals with the death of its founder and ongoing demographic changes that have dispersed the movement, its spirit resides in the music and the people who play, listen, and dance. Hopkinson reflects,

But even if go-go—the soul of Washington—retreats deeper and deeper into the suburbs, or worse, fades to black, I do not worry about its future […] Someone will make the call. Someone will give a response. This is the essence of the story told by black music. Change. Movement. Rinse. Repeat. Never death—only freedom.

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