“Louie Louie, oh baby, take me where ya gotta go.” Which is nowhere. Baby.

April 30, 2020

By Amy E. Platt

Henry, Minnie, Lizzie, and George DeMoss — of the DeMoss Family Bards — pose here in about 1890. Over the course of sixty years, the DeMoss family traveled around the United States, Canada, and Europe. Their story is one of over eighty entries about music and musicians on The Oregon Encyclopedia. OHS Research Library, CN 22530

Oregon boasts an all-star chorus of musical talent, which cuts through the cacophony of bad news and discordant voices from the apartment next door. Johnnie Ray speaks for many of us these days when he croons, “When waking from a bad dream, don’t you sometimes think it’s real?” Yes, Johnnie, we really do.

It is no use here narrating the history of music in the place we now call Oregon — it is an artform that has run parallel to human habitation in the region for over 9,000 years, and we will fall short. The Oregon Encyclopedia, nevertheless, makes an attempt, so far publishing entries on over 80 musicians and musical groups.

Before Woody Guthrie made Oregon famous by writing songs about the virtues of dams and power grids (“Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, Roll on, Columbia, roll on”), people were grabbing their instruments and meeting up in empty rooms at previously determined times. Someone came up with a clever name, and bands such as the Sagebrush Symphony and the DeMoss Family Bards were born. The Finck family was filling the Willamette Valley with music with its Aurora Band as early as the 1860s. They wore matching suits.

Woody Guthrie, OHS Research Library, bb006294
Woody Guthrie traveled throughout the United States during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s writing songs about people enduring the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. He was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941 to write a song every day for a month, extolling the promise of hydropower. By the time he left Portland, he had written twenty-six songs, many inspired by the landscape surrounding the Columbia River. OHS Research Library, bb006294

Most states have a musical claim to fame, and Oregon’s is having the first youth orchestra in the country — the Portland Youth Philharmonic, formed in 1924. The great composer Jacob Avshalomov led the group for over 40 years. Oregon has attracted many greats, including Tomas Svoboda, Ernest Bloch, Boris Sirpo, Gilbert Seeley, Helmuth Rilling, and James DePreist. Some had left a troubled and war-torn Europe before settling in Oregon's well-developed musical community. Others might have come for the excellent weather.

Portland Junior Symphony, 1928. OHS Research Library Oregonian collection
The Portland Youth Philharmonic, pictured here in 1928 when it was called the Portland Junior Symphony, is the oldest youth orchestra in the country. It was founded in 1924, and continues to train young musicians today. OHS Research Library, Oregonian collection

For certain, rain and wind are ideal backdrops to warm and darkened theaters full of singing, especially by the Portland Symphonic Choir, Oregon Repertory Singers, Portland Gay Men's Chorus, and the Capella Romana. In 2016, the Bach Cantata Choir performed “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding”—“It’s a defiant and despondent thing” — proving that the Baroque style is always relevant and cathartic, especially in times of trouble.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus flyer, 1994, OHS Research Library, GLAPN collection, Mss 2988-1
The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus was founded in April 1980 and is recognized as the fourth oldest LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) “affinity” chorus in the United States. This flyer for a fifth annual holiday benefit concert in 1994 is part of the OHS Research Library’s Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN) collection. OHS Research Library, GLAPN collection, Mss 2988-1
FBI Memorandum on the Kingsmen song, “Louie Louie,” courtesy of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
The Kingsmen was one of Oregon’s most successful rock and roll bands with their 1964 hit, “Louie Louie.” Lead singer Jack Ely’s incomprehensible performance of the song lyrics led to a controversy over whether or not the song was obscene, leading to an FBI investigation. This memorandum on the issue is courtesy of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And I don't mean FBI-trouble, like the kind the Kingsmen got into with their song “Louie Louie.” Read all about it. G-men perhaps prefer Doc Severinsen and his “Tempestuous Trumpet.” We can only imagine what they thought about Oregon's later rock scene, most notoriously on display during Vortex I (there were naked people there). They might have been fans of Everclear, however. “I’m embarrassed by the plaid you wear,” Art Alexakis sings, right before he reminds us that, “Now I’ve got no place to go, I’ve got no place to go.”

If jazz is what moves you, Portland's place in the West Coast jazz circuit is legendary. William McClendon, Dick Bogle, Cleve Williams, Eddie Wied, Glen Moore, Nancy King, Janice Scroggins, Jim Pepper, Marianne Mayfield, Sweet Baby James Benton, Mel Brown, Darrell Grant, Leroy Vinnegar, and Esperanza Spalding. They made — and make — music to dance to, weep to, and tap your toes to as you wait for the music clubs and theaters and halls and churches to open their doors and beckon you back in. What a day that will be.

Bobby Bradford and Cleve Williams, 1965. OHS Research Library, CN 25942
Trumpet player Bobby Bradford and trombonist and singer Cleve Williams perform in 1965. Williams was an important musician in the jazz scene that thrived in the African American community along Portland’s Williams Avenue. OHS Research Library, CN 25942

But we can wait, because Oregon’s music is stay-at-home portable. As Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding sings in her “Radio Song”:

“This song will keep you grooving
(Keep that traffic moving)
Play it to lift your spirits
(Soon as you hear it).”

Amy E. Platt’s Other Posts

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