The guy who wrote the DC punk anthem weighs in.
Swann Street has a new name: Swann Street. A road in northwest DC is said to be named after Thomas Swann, a 19th-century congressman and governor of Maryland. But recently, the Dupont Circle ANC passed a resolution honoring another person with the same last name: William Dorsey Swann. The signs will not change; their meaning will be very.
Although the two Swanns shared the same quintet of letters, they couldn’t be more different. Born into privilege, Thomas was a slave owner who lived at Morven Park Manor in Leesburg. William Dorsey, meanwhile, was born a slave, then moved to Washington and became a remarkable pioneer of queer rights. In the late 19th century, he held a series of secret dances in which a group of formerly enslaved men – dubbed the Swan House – dressed in women’s clothing. It was called Queen of Drag. When police raided one such rally in 1888, Swann fought back, and the ensuing brawl is considered one of the earliest acts of LGBTQ+ rebellion.
One person who was excited about this name change is Geoff Turner, best known as the frontman of DC punk giants Gray Matter and Three. The latter group’s Swann Street became one of the scene’s most enduring songs. When Turner wrote it in the 1980s, he was living in a flat on Swann Street. One day he was fired from his job at Graffiti Video. Walking home “was one of those journeys of self-doubt,” he says. “I tried to run back across the city where I failed to build my new life in the city—I thought about that while I looked at the sidewalk. When I got home, it became critical to my confidence to create a song to capture that feeling. The song was written in about 15 minutes.” The words “Swann Street” do not actually appear in the text; the title itself encapsulates that time in Turner’s life. “You could call it the ’39th place,'” he says with a laugh. In the years since “Swann Street” was released, the track has grown — becoming an anthem of youthful confusion that still resonates.
Turner was delighted to learn of the Swann Street name change. (The ANC resolution isn’t official; that would require action by the D.C. Council, which could happen.) “When individuals get their way, I like things like that,” he says, referring to the William Dorsey Swann story. “I grew up in a punk community where making your own way through the world in your own way is the number one priority.”
Now that Swann Street has a new moniker, will Turner also change the title of the song? “Oh yeah,” he says. “I will definitely change the name of ‘Swann Street’ to ‘Swann Street.'”
This article appears in the September 2022 issue of The Washingtonian.
D.C. native Rob Brunner returned to the city in 2017 to join The Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He has also written for the New York Times Magazine, New York and Rolling Stone, among others. He lives in Chevy Chase DC with his family.