10 Songs That Define Washington's Music History
Washington state is on the edge – the geographical edge of the continental United States and the cutting edge of music.
Throughout its history, Washington’s remote location and raw materials have inspired innovation and experimentation in both industry and music, with Northwest bands driven by DIY sensibilities and a healthy rebellion against convention. Grassroots forces formed whole styles and whole scenes here, and homegrown sounds continue to echo throughout our state.
Here’s my chronological list of 10 songs that are musical touchstones for Washington state. These songs also represent music styles that incubated in Washington and ultimately resounded worldwide.
1. Bing Crosby, “Black Ball Ferry Line” (1951)
It was in the unique acoustics of Spokane’s Clemmer Theater that Bing Crosby developed his trademark singing style. His phenomenal success as a vocalist led to his ultimate rise as the world’s first multimedia star. He recorded “Black Ball Ferry Line” in 1951, namechecking his home state’s famous ferries.
2. Bonnie Guitar, “Dark Moon” (1957)
Out of Washington’s thriving 1950s country music scene arose guitarist and vocalist Bonnie Guitar — the Northwest’s first country music star. Her crossover 1957 single “Dark Moon” was her first national hit. Bonnie currently lives in Soap Lake, Washington, is in her 90s, and reportedly still plays out occasionally.
3. The Wailers, “Louie Louie” (1961)
Northwest anthem “Louie Louie” started as a calypso-doo wop song by Louisiana native Richard Berry, who first recorded it in 1957. When Berry toured the Northwest, The Wailers picked up the song, and their version became a local favorite. The rough garage rock sounds of The Wailers, The Frantics and The Sonics had a great impact on the development of grunge.
4. The Ventures, “Walk, Don’t Run” (1964)
Instrumental band The Ventures popularized the surf sound. The Tacoma group still performs today, over a half-century after recording the classic “Walk, Don’t Run,” one of those songs you know even if you don’t think you do.
5. Jimi Hendrix, “Spanish Castle Magic” (1967)
Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix is known today as the greatest rock guitarist not only of his generation, but … ever. His rock-and-roll classroom was The Spanish Castle, a club on Highway 99 between Tacoma and Seattle. The club’s roster included some of the great acts in the early days of rock and roll, including the guitar and organ-driven sounds of Northwest bands The Sonics, The Wailers and the Dave Lewis Trio. After Hendrix saw so many amazing shows there, what a thrill it must have been when he eventually entered the Spanish Castle as a performer. Hendrix recorded “Spanish Castle Magic” in 1967, just a few months before the club was demolished.
6. The Overton Berry Trio, “Hey Jude” (1970)
Say what? There was a time in the early ‘70s when, in the unlikely location of Tukwila, a thriving scene flourished in the lounge of The DoubleTree Inn, with the Overton Berry Trio at its nexus. The electricity of their jazz-infused blend of traditional, swing and pop music was a magnet for an audience living outside the city limits. Overton wowed audiences with his keyboard improvisations on “Hey Jude.” The trio’s cover became a signature song of the Northwest’s funk and soul scene and an underground favorite of DJs worldwide.
7. Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Posse On Broadway” (1988)
Washington’s hip-hop scene began to emerge in the 1980s with Sir Mix-a-Lot. His first hit was the 1988 single “Posse on Broadway,” which takes a lyrical cruise through south Seattle on the way to Capitol Hill’s main drag.
8. Nirvana, “Love Buzz” (1988)
By the time Nirvana catapulted to national stardom in 1991, the local music scene was heady with the underground sound of what became known as grunge. Nirvana’s local breakthrough was their 1988 cover of “Love Buzz,” a song that incorporated just enough pop sensibility to make the band’s hard-core dynamics accessible.
9. Fleet Foxes, “White Winter Hymnal” (2008)
Capturing the bleakness of the long Northwest winters, mountain-echo flannel quintet Fleet Foxes play self-described “baroque harmonic pop jams.” Their beardy folk pop aesthetic and minimalist style stood out in contrast to the glossy production values of mainstream music, and they rose to prominence both in spite of — and because of — that style.
10. Macklemore, “Thrift Shop” (2012) (Warning: language)
Washington native Macklemore broke records with his 2012 single “Thrift Shop,” a tribute to Seattle’s secondhand stores and a social commentary on bling. As the only independent artist in the 21st century to score a hit on the Billboard Top 100, Macklemore points the way to new directions and distribution models for music.
There are a zillion artists who might make this list.
Like Helen Louise Greenus, a Capitol Hill native and an extremely accomplished Hawaiian guitarist, famously performing alongside Palakiko "Frank Ferera" Ferreira, the first Hawaiian music star in the 19-teens.
Vic Meyers was a Seattle jazz bandleader as well as lieutenant governor and secretary of state of Washington. “Shake It And Break It” by Vic Meyers' Hotel Butler Orchestra has been identified as the first commercial recording ever made in Washington, in 1923.
Experimental pioneer John Cage created some of his most resounding work while in residence at Seattle's Cornish School during the pivotal years 1938 through 1940. Seattle entertainer Ruby Bishop is still playing piano bar for Seattle audiences in her 90s. These artists and so many more are integral to the tapestry of Washington music.
So, how to confine the list to 10? I imposed these editorial guidelines:
- The list spans a wide swath of the history of recorded music.
- All the artists on the list are Washington natives.
- All of the songs on the list speak directly to a distinct aesthetic of Washington state.
- All of the songs have a very far lasting reach. There’s a reason they were hits and still resonate today.
- Remember, its songs, not bands!
When it comes to music, everyone has an opinion. So let’s hear from you! What are your top 10 songs that show the history of Washington state? Go to our post on the KUOW Facebook page, then name your tunes, and please include a sentence about why they made your list.
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