Northeast Musical Mecca Makes Way for Dentist’s Office
standing room plus, like rush hour at the crossroads, provoking a second, smaller but equally spirited jam out on the street. “What are they gonna do, evict us?” someone asked as the late afternoon chill inspired some up-tempo, heatgenerating play. Inside, the music and good spirits didn’t fade away until, appropriately, the midnight hour.
A recent gathering featured nine guitars, three mandolins, a washtub bass, assorted harmonicas, wooden rhythm bones and an upright piano, all playing a tune around the room. Someone would kick things off, then pass along the melody to be picked, plucked, blown or tapped — even whistled — until it came back full circle to the starting line. No audience here, just participants, even it if was just tapping a foot in rhythm.
“If you can’t have fun, why do it?” asked Warner Williams, one of several veteran bluesmen who have been longtime citizens of the blues circle.
That Archie’s Barbershop was closing caught no one by surprise. The last snips of hair fell to the floor in 1998, and the barbershop opened only for the Saturday jams (it also served as headquarters for the nonprofit Ar- chie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation). It got by on donations, benefit concerts and, in recent years, CDs featuring Archie’s regulars. A third anthology, “Don’t You Weep and Moan,” was recently released, with a picture of the now-shuttered barbershop on its cover.
None of it added up to enough, and efforts to buy the property were unsuccessful. The space will be gutted and converted into a dentist’s office.
Blues artist Eleanor Ellis, who played with Edwards in the 1980s and co-founded the Blues Heritage Foundation in 1998, finds that ironic, given that the foundation was started “because only a few musicians would come to the barbershop after Archie died, and we just didn’t want to see it gone, or turned into a dentist’s office. We wanted to keep it open just because of Archie’s presence.”
Until recently, that meant a jumble of stillsharp scissors, shaving mugs and hair tonic bottles, an ancient cash register, a rack of old singles and newspaper clips, concert posters and framed lyrics, a small barber pole in the window that lighted up but no longer spun. Also vintage photos of Edwards, the shop’s musical and tonsorial patrons, and legendary bluesmen such as Mississippi John Hurt, who lived in Washington for three years after being rediscovered in the early 1960s.
Hurt, Edwards’s biggest influence, often stopped by for a shave and haircut, good conversation and blues jams late into the night. He’s the one who insisted Edwards keep the Piedmont traditions alive, although he was unable to do so full time until retiring from the government in 1981 at age 63. (The barbershop was his side job.) Edwards recorded two albums, the first when he was 63. He toured here and abroad, but most of his playing was done regionally, with the barbershop the most likely place to hear him, particularly after he retired. Then it might be Edwards playing alone, or with a friend or two, or the visiting blues devo- tee. It was loose, as informal as any barbershop conversation: tunes exchanged, little lessons learned, nothing like the cacophonous community jams of recent years.
“There’s a ton of history in that place,” said Miles Spicer, guitarist and assistant treasurer of the Blues Heritage Foundation, noting that “for 50 years people knew exactly where to go.” Spicer encountered Edwards 10 years ago, when Spicer was a University of Maryland student. “I had a guitar and didn’t
Piedmont bluesman Archie Edwards recorded two albums, the first when he was 63. He died in 1998 at age 79.