Washington’s 7th Street NW is often a mix of various melodies and cadences from an assortment of entertainers. This phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, even Langston Hughes took note of the sound of 7th Street.
From H Street to E Street, the corridor is often animated by a variety of street musicians. The performers give sidewalk traffic a sampling of the city’s indigenous rhythms and native beats. From the repetitious slow jazz chord of a novice saxophonist to the staccato thumps and wamps of a veteran bucket drummer, their sounds enliven a lively street.
The swing of Seventh Street has long served as the creative inspiration for scores of known and unknown artists throughout the city’s history. One of the more famous to acknowledge the influence of the street’s concord is the writer Langston Hughes. In his autobiography,The Big Sea
, under the section on “Washington Society,” Hughes writes:
“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street - gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn’t help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs—those of Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.”
From Southwest DC, “JR,” a long-time bucket drummer occupying prime 7th Street real estate (the alcove next to the metro’s Verizon Center exit), told me, “If you want to go back in history, there was people that done this before me.” Being a DC street musician, he said, is “just an original thing.”
Optimal times to play, according to JR, coincide with Capitals, Mystics, Wizards games, and concerts. It’s best to catch the flow coming to the event then rest to conserve your energy so you can hit the crowd when they start leaving. He’s pulled in as much as $400 before, but advises, “When you hustlin’, it’s all about patience.”
To deter would-be-thieves, street musicians often bring someone with them or pay someone they know on the street to keep a watchful eye on their earnings. “Snatch and runs are part of the game,” said one musician who didn’t want to give his name. “But we’re out here regularly. Some are old faces, some of these boys are new faces.”
Everyone I spoke with repeated the known axiom that “practice makes perfect” and your sound is what sets you apart. “When we rock like we do, we get respect, because people understand what we’re doing. This is a part of the city that ain’t goin’ nowhere.”