Chuck Brown Funeral: Feeling the Joy and Stopping Time for Hometown D.C.
If you made it to the funeral of Chuck Brown, "the Godfather of Go-Go," last week at the Washington Convention Center, you could be forgiven for not feeling too sad.
You might instead have thought that right then and there was not a bad time to go, what with the music, the dancin’ in the aisle, the jokes, the gospel, the politicians trying to boogie, the singing, the energy and what all. The funeral—and it did have moments of quiet, moments of prayer, ministers and pastors and church people—was nothing short of a party, all of a celebration. “This ain’t no pity party,” somebody said. For sure, it wasn’t. And in spite of all the noise, the brashness, the soul and heart-felt things going on, that electricity, and repeated reminders that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that go-go swing,” there was also something nostalgic about the whole thing. It was something of a time machine, this partee, and it took you back to the 1970s, when Brown was in ascendancy, and the 1980s, when he was king and go-go ruled in almost all, but not all, of Washington as its rightful, homegrown music. It was a time, when Marion Barry, with both edge and arrogance, was dubbed "mayor-for-life," and Donnie Simpson was a star deejay with his thumb on black popular music—funk, rap, hip hop and, always, go-go.
Might as well have gone back: Simpson was the moderator, your host, the emcee. “Let’s show folks how we do a homecoming,” he yelled out. The Brown family was there, there was a huge picture of Brown near his flower-smothered coffin, and dignitaries as well as politicians, some of them trailing their own troubled clouds with them. There were constant references to Washington as a hometown, the kind that had little to do with the Greco-Roman and Federal style architecture, the business of world affairs, white houses and white domes.
This was a gathering of old hometowners, of the city’s declining, but still potent, volatile black population, the kind that went to any place where Brown used to play, in the clubs, outdoors, in the neighborhoods and schools and they came to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Chuck Brown, a hometown guy by any other name, even though he came to D.C. by way of a hard-times upbringing in North Carolina as a kid, and an eight-year stint in prison. Or, as stated in the program's biography: “In the mid-1950s, he shot a man in self-defense and was convicted of aggravated assault which charge was bumped up to murder when the victim later died.”
It took eight years out of his life—but it also changed his life completely. In prison, he traded a five cartons of cigarettes for a guitar, a deal by any other name, and the rest is long-term, pain-staking and hard-work history when he finally broke through with his signature sound, which is like no other. It was heavy with brass, rambling guitar, drums, it had the influences of the islands and African tribal sounds. The end result was an original, rhythm stripped to its essence.
The music dominated proceedings at the Washington Convention Center May 31. It rained go-go all afternoon, soaking everything and everybody up, dried up the sadness like a super-mop, put the spring even on the legs of local politicians.
Simpson was ageless and unchanged, and moved. “Oh, man, that man, what a time,” he said. “I loved that man and I know he loved me. He loved this city. He was always for Washington, for you folks, for us, and his music was nothing like anything anywhere else, and believe me, I know. I come from Detroit, and we had a little music going there, too.”
The afternoon wasn’t so much a time-machine, it was a time-stopper. If you blinked, you could be in some of those clubs, many of them gone, you could hear the man in person, so to speak, and his generous spirit. It was a little like nothing had happened since then: there was a moment you could hear a roar from the huge crowd, maybe eight or ten thousand strong and people rushed to the pathway to the stage and all of a sudden you heard the rush and sound, crowd chants: “Barr-eee, Barr-eee.” Marion Barry was in the house.
Simpson said that Barry, like Brown, was always for the people of this city, and “you all know that, for sure.” Barry said that “Brown was about love, love of city, of his people, of music,” he said. “I keep hearing that mayor-for-life thing. I kind like that. But this is Chuck’s day. He was my friend, my good friend, and he was this city’s best friend.”
All the folks there were going to keep go-go alive. For elected officials, it was an opportunity to kick back and forget little things like ongoing investigations, and instead celebrate the moment. Mayor Vincent Gray, who could count himself as one of Brown’s friends, said he would send legislation to the council to create a park in Brown’s honor, then busted a few moves on the podium. District Council chairman Kwame Brown wanted to start a "Go-Go Hall of Fame." D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said she was going to go to Congress with legislation to create a Chuck Brown Day for his birthday.
During the course of the afternoon, amid all the speeches, and folks running into each other from back in the day, it was easy to see that Brown and his music, would outlast the occasion of his passing. It was true—with some exception—that go-go never spread like wildfire across the country, that he had indeed invented, created an anthem disguised as a genre for the city’s neighborhood, hometown identity from back in the day. Even in the city, go-go was not a fixture everywhere but was saturated in the sidewalk, and Sunday-in-the-morning after Saturday night of the city’s black neighborhoods. But it’s also true that it continues to grow, that it’s recognizable by more and more people these days.
At the Chuck Brown memorial service—that flight homeward-bound—it was recognized by everyone, people swayed, people danced and they heard inspirational speaker Willie Jolley rhyme in time, they heard the Chuck Brown Band, they heard his children, they heard Huggy Lowdown, they heard Big G, Nekos and Wiley Brown, Nat “the bush doctor” Mathis, they heard the rangy Y’Anna Crawley sing “Thank You,” they heard Isaiah sing “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus,” Ty Tribbett move across the stage like a dynamo singing “Victory,” both gospel songs dipped in the speed of go-go, and Cliff Jones sing the moving “Steal Away To Jesus.”
They heard everything, even the rustle of a big soul like Chuck Brown’s stealing away.