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Singing The Bye-Bye Blues: End Of A D.C. Legend

The legendary Archie Edwards Blues Barbershop, home of a weekly jam session in Northeast Washington that draws amateurs and pros from all over the planet, is about to die. The shop has been sold and will be gutted and converted into a dentist's office. (See video here.)

"It now looks like we'll have to be out sometime in January," says Donna Fletcher, a longtime player in the pickup group that gathers on Saturday afternoons in the shop on Bunker Hill Road that once housed Edwards' Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop.

The good news, such as it is, is that the jam sessions will relocated, to another of Washington's great musical treasures, HR-57, the Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, on 14th Street NW, in February. HR-57's owner, Tony Puesan, "is welcoming us with open arms," Fletcher says. "HR 57's mission is compatible with ours and in addition to holding the Saturday afternoon jams in their space on 14th Street, we may be able to partner on a variety of educational projects."

But not even HR-57's cool setting can match the funk and the dark comfort of the old shop on Bunker Hill. As my column from last year reports (on the jump), this was a place where you didn't even need to know an instrument to pop in, take a seat, and join in on the music. It has been that way in the barbershop for half a century. Regulars and one-time visitors plunked some money in the coffee can and somehow the rent got paid.

But then last year, the trustees for the building's owner decided to sell, "to liquidate her assets," the real estate man said. Now, Fletcher says, it's time, and the only hope for preserving the barbershop is an effort "to dismantle the barbershop wall to preserve and store as much of it as possible and to save all of the papers and photos and ephemera. Some things will likely be displayed at HR 57, and we will try to find somewhere appropriate for the rest -- perhaps in a mobile display and/or a museum."

Archie Edwards, the barber who started giving over Saturday afternoons at his shop to acoustic blues in 1959, died in 1998. There haven't been any haircuts at the shop since then, just a group of stalwarts who come by Saturday mornings, unlock the door, and wait to see who shows up to play. The blues barbershop was a rare jewel in this or any other city. I hope to get over there one more time before it goes away, and I'll try to follow it over to HR-57, but the passing of the real place is a sad moment, one that calls for a few hours of the blues.

My column of July 30, 2006:

In a dark barbershop on Bunker Hill Road, streaks of summer sun slant across a circle of guitar pickers. It's Saturday afternoon in Archie Edwards's old store in Northeast Washington, and an environmental lawyer, a Methodist minister, a maintenance man, a robotics researcher and a 10-year-old kid who's never before played the blues are traveling down the river together, a thousand miles away from the hot city.

The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation's weekly jam session is underway. Door's open, there's a stack of plastic chairs in the back and you're welcome to widen the circle. Might want to hurry in, though, because the owner of the building is fixing to sell it. All summer long, the situation has generated enough anxiety that somebody might have to write a blues number about it.

Store's closed all the time except Saturday afternoons. That's when Michael Baytop and a couple of the other gents who used to hang out at Edwards's Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop unlock the door and take a seat. Over the next few hours, guitars will wander in, maybe a flute, surely a couple of folks without instruments, newcomers who might just pick up a washboard and join in.

Back when Edwards was alive, Baytop would stop in around noon, when the proprietor was busy with the razor. "At about 2 o'clock he'd say, 'Okay, done cutting hair for today,' " Baytop recalls. "Somebody would say, 'I've been waiting two hours,' and Archie would say, 'You can come back Monday.' "

Now there's only one barber's chair left in the place, a shiny green swivel chair that hasn't generated a dollar in haircut revenue since 1998, when Mr. Edwards passed. Baytop had spent a dozen years of Saturdays learning the acoustic Piedmont blues and listening to the old guys' stories, and he wasn't about to let that go. He and some of the other players decided to keep the barbershop going.

"Everybody told us we were crazy: 'You don't know nothing about running a barbershop,' " Baytop remembers. "I said, 'That's okay. We're not going to cut any hair.' "

Somehow, the place just kept going. The old musicians -- some of the top names in D.C. blues history -- welcomed any and all. Saturdays became a time for playing, teaching and just wading in the music. Star players from across the continent showed up. So did film crews from Finland, Japan, Israel.

When the rent on Edwards's shop came due, the players took donations. Eventually, they made some CDs and organized some concerts to meet the rent bill, which was $100 a month when Edwards died. These days, it's $300, which just about covers the property tax and certainly nothing more. Which is why the trustees for the owner, an aged woman named Helen Loftus, have decided it's time to sell.

"Her trustee decided to liquidate her assets," says Ray Ruppert, the real estate man who manages the property, which is on a quiet little retail strip consisting of a security agency, a law office, a balloon shop, an African culture center, a dentist and a dance school.

"When I asked Mr. Ruppert if he'd thought about donating the place to us, he laughed and said, 'That's what I thought we already did,' " says Patrick Casey, a lawyer from Chevy Chase who spends his Saturdays playing slide guitar at the shop.

One of Baytop's relatives, Jeff Sibert, an ex-barber himself, has proposed to buy the property, which includes the store next door, and save the barbershop for the blues.

Sibert and Ruppert have just struck a tentative deal, under which Sibert will try to rent out the adjacent storefront at market rate and use that revenue to keep the music going in the barbershop, which he would renovate.

In a city where rents seem rocket-propelled and retailers hungrily snap up almost any space, the barbershop has managed to sit unchanged. Two bottles of electric green Jeris Hair Tonic sit on the shelf, just where Edwards last used them. There's a black-and-white TV under the mirror and a 1950s radio console up front.

On the wall in the back, some old jottings of Edwards's are framed, lyrics to a song about John F. Kennedy, and some other lines, too: "If you don't like my peaches, why don't you stop shaking my tree; if you don't stop shaking my tree, just come out of my orchard and leave my peaches to me."

A coffee can labeled "Donations" sits on the shelf. There's maybe $6 in it.

"It's not like the symphony with its patrons," Baytop says. "People who love the blues got the blues."

As word spread about the real estate situation this summer, local musicians called and wrote with support. There have been crises before, and every time the shop is threatened, "no matter what we've needed, it's almost like the Bible said, 'Speak and ye shall be given,' " Baytop says. When the society needed to set itself up as a nonprofit group, "I swear, guy walks through the door, harmonica on his hip, and he's a lawyer working with nonprofits and he asks if we need any help with that. His firm gave us $7,000 of legal work."

Miles Spicer, a guitar player and treasurer of the foundation who works for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, keeps a mental catalogue of the foreign visitors who drop by and then head home to spread the gospel of the barbershop. "They come back every year or two, or they send their friends," he says. "And some of them come to play with us. Most anyone can learn this; if you fall in with the right people and turn off the television, it doesn't take long."

My son, who is 10, plays a bit of piano but hadn't attempted the blues. The barbershop adopted him, and inside of 20 minutes he was leading a dozen musicians in an extended jam.

Jim Lande, the clarinet man, who carves the wooden bones that anyone who pops in can pick up to join the rhythm section, leans over to tell my son "a little secret: If you get the rhythm right, people don't worry so much about the notes."

Maybe Sibert is the latest in a series of miracles that have kept the home of the blues open. Maybe not. But on Saturday afternoons on Bunker Hill Road, there's no anxiety in the air. The rhythm is right, and ain't nobody worrying so much about the notes.

By Marc Fisher |  December 27, 2007; 7:12 AM ET
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Does anyone know if the R+B Shouter and Link Wray associate Bunker Hill was part of that crowd in the early 1960s? His "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" was a minor hit featured in Hairspray, but his "The Girl Can't Dance" is probably the hardest pounding rock and roll number I've ever heard come out of DC prior to 1975- and it sounds like it was recorded around 1961. I know that Bo Diddley told me Bunker Hill moved to New York City, but I've often wondered if he was part of the music crowd in the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Anyone?

Posted by: Don | December 27, 2007 9:55 AM

HR-57 is a non-profit organization, yet Tony Puesan is the "owner"? What's up with that?

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 27, 2007 5:40 PM

Oh, if only the city had some way of preserving its heritage, with a board that reviewed alterations and demolitions to historic buildings...

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