I hadn’t been to DC in 5 years. In the years I was in college and just after graduation, I would visit fairly often for protests and activist conferences. It felt strange getting off the bus and being surrounded by this now-unfamiliar city. Before I knew it, I was in a suburban Virginia-bound car with my friend who kindly offered to host me during this visit.
The next morning, I took the Metro back into the city. I got off the orange line at L’Enfant Plaza, across from the National Mall, and walked into the Capital Gallery building. I took the elevator up to the second floor and entered the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage. The center is home to the annual Folklife Festival and Smithsonian Folkways where my friend Meredith Holmgren has worked for the past few years. When I began organizing the tour, she invited me to do a lunchtime event in their conference room.
Before the clock struck noon Meredith gave me a tour of the office including the vaulted Folkways archives—thousands of original recordings, some dating back many decades such as this box set of Lead Belly’s 'Work Songs of the USA...'
It was an honor to present at this venue and to share ideas and stories with a group of people who are passionate about music and culture. And unlike the two events in Philly last week, I didn’t know anyone sitting around the room besides my friend who graciously introduced me. The Smithsonian staff and interns were enthusiastic about sharing their music and work experiences after I finished reading stories from my zine. And it was fun to see everyone learn new things about each other.
That infamous hit song by The Eagles made its second appearance on this tour: “My first waitressing job in high school…the kitchen staff played ‘Hotel California’ on repeat every shift…this would be interrupted by calls over the scanner radio—the head cook was also our town’s fire chief.”
Other stories ranged widely: A live performance of ‘Amelia’s Waltz’ performed each morning at the New England Literature Program; one CD, 1 to 2 hours every day for a month at Banana Republic (“utter torture with mix of brainwashing”); ‘The Whistle Song’ (safe for work version) breaking up the monotony of classical music; ‘Umbrella’ by Rhianna at a café job; and Elton John’s ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ album as the nightly soundtrack to mopping the floor at a summer camp dining hall.
As one would imagine, the discussion was smart and lively as people offered new insights I hadn’t considered yet and asked a lot of the questions I’m excited to immerse myself in exploring further. Someone brought up the distinction between hearing and listening—music as background sound vs. actively engaging with it as a work of creative expression. The associate director of Folkways observed that a lot of my stories described oppressive experiences. He admitted that, as a musician, he had never thought that the people laboring on the clock where he performed might not always be enjoying the music. I explained that The Music & Work Project is about investigating the spectrum between oppression and liberation: recognizing the ways our workplace soundtracks can further alienate, while also illuminating the endless potential for music to make us feel free and even point towards new ways of living and working.