Those in the know already realize Tacoma’s history runs deep in many niches and interests. The City of Destiny was home to notable people in politics, civil rights, industry, crime and literature, all of which have been mentioned in countless books and presentations.
Sure, some people have read how Tacoma played a booster role in rallying soldiers and supporters during World War I with one of the first chart-topping hits, “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues,” a century ago. Others know about the Barons, the Ventures and the Sonics. Yet others remember the Clan Gordon Pipe Band, dating back to the 1950s. And locals today recall how the city played a key part in creating the grunge rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s.
A common note is Tacoma’s long roster of musicians who played the city’s deep, rich soundtrack as it progressed to the modern era — a march that continues to this day. A five-year-long research and writing effort are crafting a historically mixed tape of booster songs, protest chats, rock ballads, hip-hop tracks and thunder strums for future generations to enjoy.
The Tacoma Music History Project
The Tacoma Music History project started about five years ago when Tacoma Historical Society Communications Manager Kim Davenport began teaching a class at the University of Washington-Tacoma as an interdisciplinary course bringing local history and music together.
“Rather than most music courses, which explore a particular genre or time period, this class explores all kinds of music created in this particular place we call home,” Davenport said. “My students often tell me that yes, they learned a lot about music in my class, but more importantly, they learned things about Tacoma that helped them understand and appreciate it more.”
The class explores local history through the life, times and songs of musicians with ties to Tacoma. Students then go off to research their own musical genre, artist or theme to add to the growing soundtrack of our knowledge of the music that made us.
“There are stories of kids making music in school, of people using music for worship, of music for civic celebration, of world-famous artists visiting Tacoma and local people making it big with musical careers elsewhere,” Davenport said.
Notable Women in Tacoma’s Music History
Mentioning just one of the “best” or “most interesting” persons from the city’s musical past is impossible, according to Davenport. Still, two women rank up there on both counts — Margaret Goheen and Nettie Asberry.
Goheen grew the Lincoln High School choir over her 30-year career to be a nationally recognized choir, which started the musical careers of many of her students and inspired the city during one of its darkest times. While the Great Depression brought commerce and steady paychecks to a standstill, the choir rallied the city behind its fundraising efforts to represent Tacoma at a national competition in St. Louis. The choir traveled by train filled with daffodils.
Asberry was not only a world-class pianist and teacher, but she helped founded Tacoma’s chapter of the NAACP and championed racial equality at every turn.
The Future of Tacoma’s Music History
The research of Tacoma’s musical past continues, so there are countless people, bands, venues and genres left unexplored, while the roster of legends and future superstars continues to grow because the city still has a vibrant music scene adding notables to the list.
“There’s so much great music being made in Tacoma, representing such a diverse population and range of musical tastes and genres,” Davenport said. “I won’t try to predict the future by guessing who might become a big star or change the direction of music going forward, but I will say that I can guarantee musicians from Tacoma will continue to have an impact, locally and around the world.”
Davenport is compiling the research of Tacoma’s musical past into a textbook. The effort will spin off into a future writing project that could contain a collection of vignettes or deeper dives into particular local musicians.
Music and history fans can find information and songs from Tacoma’s musical past, present and future on the Tacoma Music History website and YouTube, as well as in printed form in Davenport’s “Sounds of our City: Twenty-One Musical Tales from Tacoma History.”