Monday, October 18, 2010

Arlington's Critical Role in American Music

Alan Lomax
Rosslyn was a seedy place going back to the Civil War with gritty industrial tracks interspersed with brothels, gambling houses, and bars. As the thirties brought an influx of government workers, Rosslyn began a slow transformation with the construction of garden apartments at the top of the hill overlooking the older grime. In 1940, Hot Shoppes opened a location right off the Key Bridge (roughly where Gateway Park currently sits) taking over from an infamous tavern at the edge of the Key Bridge.

Changes in Arlington brought New Dealers in the thirties and forties looking for cheap housing as demand drove up prices in DC. Two young activists and their wives named Nick Ray, his wife Jean Evans, Alan Lomax, his daughter Anna, and his wife Elizabeth rented a house at 1811 N. Oak St. at the corner of N. Oak and N. 18th St., just up the hill from the seediest part of Rosslyn. Nick Ray was a political activist, theater director, and radio producer who was working for the Works Project Administration. Ray was running the WPA’s theatre arts program that involved regular people and taught them how to tell their own story. Later, Ray would become famous for directing movies like Rebel Without A Cause. Lomax was the son of the famous folklorist, John Lomax, and had come to DC to work for Library of Congress collecting folk music. He had travelled the country discovering and recording now standard blues and country songs.

Through his work at the Library of Congress, Lomax came in contact with fellow folk singer Pete Seeger. During the winter of 1940, Seeger lived off and on at the house bouncing between Arlington, his folks’ place in Chevy Chase, and New York City. Lomax and Seeger collaborated on music and traded songs as they unwittingly began the folk music scene on the hills of Rosslyn.

On March 3, he appeared at a benefit concert for migrant workers put on by the actor Will Geer in New York. The concert was historically significant because it was the first large folk concert bringing together Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and other legendary singers. Seeger met Woody for the first time and the two began a collaboration that would prove influential for American music. A week later Guthrie arrived at the Oak Street house to crash for a while and record for the Library of Congress on March 21, 22, and 27, 1940.

During April and May, the Oak St. house became a crash pad for a variety of folk singers like Josh White, Leadbelly, and Aunt Molly Jackson. Lomax, Seeger and Guthrie worked on the manuscript for a collection of political folks songs call Hard Hitting Songs for Alan, Woody, and Pete began a project to compile a book of political songs called Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. They also collaborated with Nick Ray to develop a folk song program for CBS radio. Guthrie slept on the couch never removing his boots and eating his meals over the sink.

In mid-May, Seeger and Guthrie set out across the country heading for Richmond first and onto history. In July, Nick Ray and Jean Evans separated and Ray lost his job under political pressure for his alleged communist sympathies. Lomax continued his work collecting folk music from around the world and became a critical figure in American music.

The house is gone today and has been replaced by an uninteresting office building that belies the significance the location had in the development of our music.


  1. Thanks for this history. I had read about Woody visiting Lomax in Arlington in 1940 but I never knew the address. Too bad the house it gone. Great work. Arlington should be proud of this history.

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you like the post. Your blog looks interesting.