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Lift every voice and sing

An evening in the stadium with Washington’s beloved national anthem singer

Lift every voice and sing

D.C. Washington at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Lexey Swall/Genesis)

It was a warm spring day at Nationals Park, where a major league baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees was beginning in a few hours. Batting practice had started, and Nationals star Bryce Harper was hitting home runs.

D.C. Washington had just arrived at the stadium, and yes, that is the name his parents gave him when he was born—in Arkansas. His grandmother wanted his initials to be “D.C.” and so his parents complied. The D.C. stands for Dwight Clyde but the only person who ever calls him Dwight is his wife.

Washington, 63, has spent his whole life explaining his name, but it and his singing chops have solidified him as a local hero in this town. Washington has sung the national anthem regularly for the Nationals for at least a decade, going back to 2007 when the team was losing many more games than it won.

After the Nationals became successful, the team kept calling him to sing. Over the last seven years the Nationals have had the most wins of any team in baseball, though they’ve painfully flailed in the postseason. The fan base of the relatively new team has grown fonder and fonder of Washington. Local papers have named him “best national anthem singer.”

At the beginning of March, when the Nationals were in a nosedive, Nationals beat writer Chelsea Janes tweeted: “Guys, D.C. Washington is here. Everything is going to be just fine.”

“D.C.! D.C.!” yelled a woman in the stands, trying to get his attention. The security guards slapped him on the back as he came onto the field.

He grew up in “a singing family,” singing at church and playing the French horn in high school. He became a voice major in college to dodge the French horn. After graduating, he had a 22-year career in the U.S. Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel—and now he works as a defense contractor. In a city that includes huge military institutions like the Pentagon and Walter Reed, the Nationals set a special time between innings to honor military members every game. The Washington Capitals’ regular anthem singers are both military men too (hockey does the Canadian and American anthems).

Washington regularly leads worship at his church, Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va., a nondenominational church of about 2,000. Immanuel Bible is why he and his wife are still in the Washington area; they’re committed to that community.

He serves on the board of a local rescue mission, where he used to serve with former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. Two of his friends from Immanuel came with him to the stadium for this particular game. One of them had been in a Christian barbershop quartet with Washington.

Despite singing in front of thousands of people on a regular basis, Washington doesn’t like the spotlight. Throughout the time we spent together he kept asking why anyone would want to read about him, laughing his deep laugh.

Initially his anthem singing began with the Washington Redskins, and he sings at D.C. United games as well. But he’s a big baseball fan. Soon after the Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) moved to the district, Washington mailed a CD to the team’s entertainment director, Tom Davis. Davis listened to the CD and gave Washington the green light.

Davis, who still manages on-field entertainment, says after Washington’s first game performance of the anthem he thought, “He’s got to come back more than this.”

But Washington was a ball of nerves at the time. He spent days repeating the words to himself, anxious that he would end up on a video highlight reel for a major mistake. The hardest part of singing the anthem, in his view, is not the range of notes but the words.

“The rhyming scheme makes no sense. ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hail by the twilight’s last gleaming. ...’ Nothing rhymes there!” he said. “It doesn’t rhyme until the next phrase. There are lots of times when I’m out there thinking, ‘Did I just sing the first phrase, the second phrase first, or am I repeating the first phrase?’”

The other tricky part is if the stadium has a delay in the speakers—he experienced almost a full second of delay when he sang using a handheld mic in another stadium recently. The key then is not to sing with yourself, because you’ll slow down more and more and more. Nationals Park has very little delay.

Washington volunteers to sing the anthem, but the Nationals give him a few tickets to any games he sings. One time he was playing golf with his brother at a course in the city, when he got a call from Davis asking if he could do the anthem. It was an hour and a half before the game, but Washington rushed to the stadium and showered up there before going on the big screen.

Every anthem singer has his or her style. There’s the diva with drawn-out improvisations, there’s Marvin Gaye’s funky version at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Whitney Houston’s at the 1991 Super Bowl—which Washington called “absolute perfection.”

The anthem is famously difficult to sing, and national anthem screw-ups garner more fame than successes—like Fergie’s cringeworthy, all-around disastrous rendition (24 million views on YouTube), or Michael Bolton’s moment forgetting the words and having to look at his hand where he had written the lyrics.

“I respect anybody who gets out and tries it. It’s not easy,” Washington said. “I would say to anybody who wants to do it, just do it and be done with it. … I never got the sense when I see Whitney’s rendition, that she was making it about herself. That’s where people get in trouble, if they make it about themselves.”

Paul Kim/Washington Nationals

Washington sings before Game 2 of the 2017 National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park. (Paul Kim/Washington Nationals)

The way Washington sings, he takes some of his cues from worship singing. It’s an anthem, after all, he said, meant to be sung together. He sings at a quick tempo, with only a few twists toward the end. His tenor is clear and unwavering.

“It’s an anthem, not a dirge!” he said. “It’s celebrating who we are as a people, as a country. So although I have some stylistic things I do, they’re in keeping with the tempo, they don’t take away from the notion that we can all sing together.”

As a worship leader he applies the same principle to congregational singing, which he says should be made up of songs that the congregation is comfortable singing, not songs that make the leaders the center of attention. The words of a song are the most important thing to him, which is why his favorite worship songs are hymns, either old or contemporary.

‘It’s an anthem, not a dirge! It’s celebrating who we are as a people, as a country. So although I have some stylistic things I do, they’re in keeping with the tempo, they don’t take away from the notion that we can all sing together.’

 

As batting practice continued, Washington waited on the field with Nationals staffers. Bob Carpenter, the television play-by-play announcer for the Nationals and a legend going back to his days covering the St. Louis Cardinals, approached Washington near home plate.

“You doing the anthem tonight?” Carpenter asked. Washington affirmed. “Sweet,” said Carpenter. “I don’t know if it’s a guaranteed win, but that’s a good start for us. … You’re amazing. I love the way you do it, man.”

This kind of greeting continued throughout batting practice, from Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to more broadcasters. Washington avoids talking to the players unless they approach him because he thinks they need to focus on doing their jobs. The broadcast on-field reporter Dan Kolko found him, and Washington greeted him loudly, “My man!”

They chatted. “I’ll be listening, like always,” said Kolko at the end of a conversation.

Dave Jageler, who is one half of the Nationals’ radio broadcasting duo, popped over next. “You got the anthem tonight?” he said. “Awesome.”

As batting practice wound up, Washington headed to a locker room where he waits until the start of the game. He doesn’t eat before singing, but he doesn’t have much of a special routine otherwise. He and his church friends swapped stories. One, Ron Owens, said he and his wife have already told Washington that they want him to sing at their funerals, and they’ve picked the song: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

“Your hair will just tingle it’s so good,” said Owens.

An African-American who grew up in segregated Arkansas, Washington carefully talked over the national anthem protests in sports, where some athletes have knelt to protest police brutality. As a guest invited to sing the anthem, Washington would never protest, and he says he is “proud of being an American.” But he thinks the kneeling protest is respectful (as opposed to sitting), and that the act of peaceful protest is a very American tradition.

One time he was on the anthem singing schedule for Black Heritage Day at Nationals Park, and he got to sing what historically is known as the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” After “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he sang the national anthem, then “God Bless America” in the 7th inning.

“The Negro National Anthem helped me understand how to sing the national anthem,” said Washington. He doesn’t see it as a substitute to the national anthem, but a supplement. He began reciting the song: “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” “It provides me a sense of foundation, that says even though we are not that more perfect union, don’t give up. ‘Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught you. Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought you.’ That informs my ability then to get out and say, ‘I am an American.’ Even though America may not always live up to the ideals.”

It was showtime. Washington walked the tunnel from the locker room to the field, flanked with team staff and behind an honor guard carrying the flag. He stood on home plate, a cameraman in his face.

“Please remain standing as we honor our country, with a performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” boomed the announcer in the stadium. “Ladies and gentlemen, D.C. Washington.”

The crowd whooped, and the Jumbotron filled with his face. Washington sang the anthem—gorgeously, perfectly. He came back to the sidelines relieved, as the players poured onto the field. He and his two church friends exited the field to watch the game in their seats.

—This story has been updated to correct the title of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • T Williams
    Posted: Tue, 07/17/2018 12:51 am

    Marveling at D.C. Thank you for this interesting look at an interesting man with an interesting job. I enjoyed getting to know D.C. and I also enjoyed learning a little about the "Negro National Anthem". I love the "harmonies of freedom" phrase. I also enjoyed the accompanying picture. I could almost hear D.C.'s deep laugh. Play ball!

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Tue, 07/17/2018 07:05 pm

    Too bad I live in the other Washington. I would attend his church in a heartbeat just to hear him lead the congregation in worship.