Elizabeth Dranitzke

Pearl and Joel Bailes

Joel Bailes plays the piano and the fiddle and Pearl the harmonica with the Capitol Hillbillies, the performing group they founded in 1983. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you probably have enjoyed their music on the Hill.

Pearl and Joel met and married while attending New College in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Joel says that he found in Pearl what he was truly looking for: a companion with whom he could harmonize. The Baileses have been living on Capitol Hill since 1980 and have touched many lives through their music, through Pearl’s work as a 4th-grade teacher, and Joel’s contributions at the Library of Congress. In 2018, they were honored with Capitol Hill Community Achievement Awards.


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Interview Date
May 20, 2023
Randy Norton
David MacKinnon
Diane Platt

Full Directory

NORTON: This is Randy Norton. I’m at Joel and Pearl Bailes’ house, 644 East Capitol Street [NE] Washington, DC. It is May 20, 2023. I’ll start off with Pearl and ask, where are you from originally?
PEARL: I was born in San Raphael, California. But I didn’t live there. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee.
NORTON: Where did you go to school in Memphis?
PEARL: I went to Grahamwood Elementary School and East High School.
NORTON: How about you Joel, where are you from?
JOEL: I was born in Columbus, Ohio, but we moved away almost immediately to Delray, Alexandria, Virginia, which I loved. Then they tricked me out of school halfway through my first grade and put me in sterile Wheaton, Maryland, where I spent all the next years until I went to college. Bedroom community of Washington, DC. My father worked for the government. So, I grew up in Maryland. Didn’t like it.
NORTON: As I understand it, both of you went to New College in Sarasota [Florida].
JOEL: Now very, very famous if you look at your news. Every night,  all the major news—daily magazines and newspapers are about New College because the governor has taken it over. It’s amazing. We…
NORTON: Has there been protests and stuff amongst the alumni and the students?
PEARL: The alumnus, the alumni organization is backing the students.
JOEL: They raised $130,000 in a couple weeks for their alternative commencement, all the students did. MSNBC is talking about it all the time. It seems crazy to us. A small college. It was 200 people when we went there, 300 maybe.
NORTON: When did you all start?
JOEL:  ’66
PEARL: 1966
NORTON: That’s when I would have started. In fact, I remember thinking briefly about going to New College, but I was a military junior, and so I wasn’t going to go to this sort of new and exciting school.
JOEL: It wasn’t accredited for three years.
NORTON: Is that right? That I didn’t know.
JOEL: When we went there, it wasn’t.
PEARL: While we were there, it got accredited.
JOEL: At the end of our tenure. Please go ahead.
NORTON: What did you all major in?
PEARL:  Literature, for both of us.
JOEL: English literature. English and American literature.
NORTON: How did you all meet?
PEARL: Everybody knew everybody. So we met on the first day. One of the first things we did together was very early in, I guess was still orientation, maybe…
JOEL: It was four days into that week, I think. In September.
PEARL: Maybe the others, the older students weren’t even there. I’m not sure. Anyway, some families in the community invited Jewish students for high holiday dinner and services.
JOEL: That’s in September, often. And it was that year.
PEARL: It was that year. So we went to Rosh Hashanah dinner and services together.
JOEL: New Year’s. There were six Jews in the whole school, I think. Pearl and I were the only ones who answered this call for local hospitality. It was a house just like Pearl was familiar with from Memphis: suburban, white and/or Jewish…and me too. Kinda above financially from what I was used to. But just a very nice, suburban house. They were gracious hosts. Pearl and I went to that, and we met there.
PEARL: But we’d already met.
JOEL: We saw each other the first day. It was a small school.
NORTON: Obviously at some point, one thing led to another, so how did you all become more deeply engaged?
PEARL: It’s really a good question.
JOEL: I ran a bar there illegally with my roommate called Piglet’s Place.
NORTON: Piglet’s Place?
JOEL: …[For] Winnie the Pooh. That was his name for it. He called it that. I accepted that. He was my partner—roommate. We transformed the bar very cleverly. Took the mattresses off, put them against the wall, raised the beds up on cinder blocks and had plywood flat pieces of wood which fit into the top of these metal frame beds to make tables. We raised our Formica-topped desks on cinder blocks for a bar and [took out the books and] put a towel in the metal bookcase and put glasses—I’d bought a bunch of glasses—upside down on the towel. [Took out the books, or at least in this area.] We had fake Tiffany plastic chandelier-y things on the lights. This is part of the story of how we met for real. We only let men in there. That was my idea.        
JOEL: So, there wouldn’t be fights and stuff. [Laughter.] We were serving beer illegally. It was silly. We got a townie who wanted the money to buy us the beer, which he did. We went with him and brought the beer back and gave him some extra money, I don’t remember how much. It wasn’t exorbitant. It was cheap. Beer was $5 a six-pack…or $3…it was really cheap.
NORTON: Was this your first year there?
JOEL: Yeah.
NORTON: Okay. You would have been underage anyway to buy beer, so you had to have somebody else buy it for you.
JOEL: Yeah. On weekends, there wasn’t a lot to do for us underage college people, and we had people come to the art bar. I had a tape recorder in the hollow of the desk playing music I liked. I had some nude paintings on the wall, paintings I had done in color, painted on butcher paper.
Pearl led a protest outside our door. This is Pei dorms—I. M. Pei, the famous architect, designed the dorms. We heard if the school failed, they’d become a motel. Everybody had their own entrance to their own separate room. Everyone had their own bath and bathroom. Everyone had their own balcony. It was pretty neat, pretty fancy.
NORTON: I heard that of a lot of schools back then particularly.
JOEL: So, Pearl’s outside our door saying, “Piglet’s unfair.” She might have had a sign. I don’t know, it was a picketing thing where she was marching around. There were one or two ladies our age with her, at least initially. But I more or less remember her by herself. Then I guess I came out to see what was going on after we closed the bar. She was out there picketing as I recall. Maybe you have a different memory. I brought her inside so we could, like, discuss what was going on, and that was it, dude.
NORTON: How do you remember it, Pearl?
PEARL: I don’t remember that that was it.
JOEL: That was our first kiss.
PEARL: Are you sure?
JOEL: Absolutely.
PEARL: I thought it was way like a whole other year later when we were living in the co-op.
JOEL: No! We weren’t a couple then, but we kissed.
NORTON: Were you successful in letting women into this illegal bar?
JOEL: Yes.
NORTON: Good work.
JOEL: Pressure.
PEARL: Shall we shut the window because of that noise…?
JOEL: Pressure. [Sound of drill and window shutting.]That’s what Tocqueville says…that public opinion is what moves America. Not that you or anyone understands public opinion. Here’s the…
NORTON: Don’t talk while you’re closing the window. You can put it back on.
JOEL: Will do. You have the floor, Pearl.
PEARL: I have a different memory, but it’s a long, long time ago.
NORTON: What’s your memory about how you all got more serious, or when and how?
PEARL: We lived in a co-op. I guess it was our third year or second year? Third year.
JOEL: Okay, because I came back from Ireland.
PEARL: Yeah, you went to Ireland for—and then…
JOEL: Yeah. We could take all this time off if we wanted because there were no grades at the school, and I was doing an independent study.
PEARL: At that point, we weren’t living in the dorms anymore, and there was a co-op. I’m not exactly sure how…
JOEL: It was the era of free love dude. [Pearl laughs.]
NORTON: I remember [laughter].
PEARL: We had a lot of interests in common, particularly music.
NORTON: While you’re still talking, where did your interest in music come from? What was your background in music?
PEARL: Hum, that’s a good question. My mom was very interested in folk music. My father loved classical music and played classical LPs all the time, and we listened to the Metropolitan Opera on weekends growing up. Meanwhile my mom was interested in people like Burl Ives and Tennessee Ernie Ford and those folks. In school, I was in the school band. I played the oboe. I took a little bit of piano lessons when I was in elementary school. I attempted to learn classical guitar when I was in high school.
NORTON: What about you, Joel? What was your musical background?
JOEL: The overview is an ethnic and historical phenomenon you may or may not be familiar with. In this country—when I use “commie” it just means leftist and all that historical ... All the commie Jews who wanted to identify with the “people” weren’t the people,  they were Jews and they wanted to be with the people. The people are mountaineers who play fiddle and all that folk music. This is back in the day.
Now it’s different. The population is different in the U.S.  Just like baseball, identifying with a phenomenon like that. My people, my aunt, she even got a record for a study from the Library of Congress. She ordered one in 1948 or so…folk song. My father was older by 16 years, but he took his cultural leads from her to some degree. He was the oldest and she was the youngest of the four children, the siblings.
I grew up with Burl Ives records and my father trying—this is this competition thing, which is healthy in my case as far as I know with sons and fathers—Father tried to play harmonica and couldn’t play it. And I picked it up and could play it later. He tried to play ukulele and couldn’t play it. He didn’t stick with it. He didn’t have anything. I picked up the ukulele and could play it. That same year, I got a guitar when I was 15. He tried and failed on those instruments. He tried to sing. Carl Sandburg, you may know as a folk song singer as well as a poet. I have the 78s [78 rpm, an old record format before vinyl LPs] from my aunt, that same person. My father would sing in this noble voice in the shower—I heard this my whole life growing up—“Sad and I’m lonely. My heart, it will break.” It’s not the way folk people sing, but my father was trying to do that. He wasn’t any good at it. I improved on it, in my own opinion, my own approach.
So, the music…I grew up with him being interested in American folk song. My aunt was, but I didn’t have direct experience of her. She did give me all her 78s when I was already grown up. As you know, folk music is something that anyone can do pretty much. It’s very hands on. It’s pretty simple. Don’t need to be fancy. So, I took to it, and I grew up with that background of the Jews, the leftist Jews. My father wasn’t directly like that, but it was a wave of feeling, a trope to like identify with the working class. All through the 30s, the Depression, all that, my father played folk music records. But mostly Burl Ives. He didn’t even get to the Weavers. He didn’t have any Weavers records. That would have been a match for him, but he didn’t. Just Burl Ives. I grew up with those songs, singing them over and over, my father trying, and not being successful, to sing and play folk instruments.
As Pearl mentioned, he did play recorder for many decades. He was no good at it. He could function, and he kept up. He didn’t have anything on the recorder. That was his speed. I had the influence of that in my parent, my father and that aunt, vaguely. And, I had the same feeling I guess inside me that I grew up with, that I didn’t want to be an outsider. I wanted to relate. I wanted to be part of America. I was third generation. My father was born here, and my mother was too. Their parents spoke Yiddish, not all the time. They knew how. They could have if they wanted. So, that’s the famous story. That’s how I got into music. [I] was trying to do what my father was doing and seeing that I could do better in my own mind.
NORTON: By the time you guys got to college, were you involved in music in college either formally or informally?
PEARL: Not really. I played a little guitar. David Schwartz and I tried to play music together.
JOEL: Did not know that. Alum person.
PEARL: Good friend of ours. My college roommate, my first-year college roommate had a Staples Seniors Album [Mavis Staples], which was really eye opening for me. In Memphis, they just started celebrating the blues history of Memphis. So, when I went home, I got exposed to some of the really old heroes of the blues at concerts. Just a little touch of that. So, I started listening to more music, like recorded music. As far as playing music, I didn’t really do much.
NORTON: How about you Joel, when you got to school, were you playing music?
JOEL: Yeah. I was playing this folk music. I had a banjo. I don’t know where I got it. I’d sit out in our quad, which was called the Palm Court in New College. A desolate area that aimless students would wander around, being lost, on drugs, or looking for something. It wasn’t…
PEARL: Drugs were like our second year. First year was beer.
JOEL: Okay. I would play all by myself. No one was ever interested.
NORTON: What did you play?
JOEL: I would play banjo.
NORTON: How did you learn to play the banjo?
JOEL: I [was] self-taught. I taught myself everything. So, I played banjo and some fiddle. I could play guitar. I started out on guitar, but—oh right, I did have my small guitar, my Stella—small guitar. My parents wouldn’t buy me one for educational experience. I had to work doing odd jobs at home when I was 15 to afford the $12 to buy this Sears and Roebuck guitar. If you know your folk history, and you may not, all the famous people back in the day, a hundred years ago and less, would buy Sears and Roebuck guitars cheap, mail order. Anyway, I was in that tradition a little bit, though, a hundred years later.
At New College ... You may or may not understand in your own mind the attraction [of] women who can harmonize on these simple songs. Carter family, if you ever heard of them. A lot of those songs [are] simple gospel tunes and all that with choruses. A woman, like this woman here, who can harmonize and sing with you if you’re a man—like “heteroman” or whatever we called them, “the straights.” It’s this ideal to have this woman singing and playing, singing with you. She doesn’t even have to play. Just to sing harmony on your courses. That’s way up here in my estimation, what I wanted in life.
NORTON: Was that something for you that you found attractive, being able to harmonize with him?
PEARL: Sure. You bet.
JOEL: Pearl doesn’t have to agree with any of this. I’m jaundiced. I have a thing about performers and being bourgeois, which I am. There’s all these, [all these,] all these people who wish they could play music or want to play music, but they don’t step outside their American bourgeois. I had training, to be, like, out there. People are nervous about talking to anybody in front of people. The point is, Pearl, I believe, if we hadn’t gotten together, would be one of these women, maybe married to a doctor or something and enjoying music and being colorful. But as far as being the kick-ass, fucking harmonica player she is today, she wouldn’t be like that growing up, hanging out with regular people. I was hands-on, and I did the opposite—adventurous. I didn’t care. Playing my stupid instruments. Everyone’s listening to rock music.
NORTON: I’m just guessing that perhaps Pearl might have made a little something interesting of herself, notwithstanding that. I think there is something about the symbiosis of whatever, the good luck, the good fortune of getting together. You were doing all this stuff. Playing while you were at school, right?
JOEL: Yes, totally.
PEARL: Don’t forget about learning to play the piano.
JOEL: Oh, right. Pearl, luckily for her—well maybe not. She grew up with a piano. Lots of people grow up with pianos. I did not. I didn’t know you could have a piano, meaning that when we bought our first piano in this house years later, I was sort of afraid that Pearl ... We’re starting out. Didn’t have a lot of money. The piano was $1,100 or something. I took out a loan from my wonderful credit union. I was afraid she would object to it. We’d only been married for 11 years, but we were doing this house. I thought she’d object. But no. That was wonderful. She grew up with a piano, so, of course, you could have a piano in your house! I didn’t know that.
NORTON: Did you learn piano while you were at school?
JOEL: At college, they had pianos there. So, I would haunt those pianos. The musical director was a serious musician, long hair––but he didn’t have long hair, but a long-hair musician. Serious stuff. He yelled at me at least once, maybe more, but not very often, for banging on the piano. I wasn’t going to hurt his goddamned piano, but I practiced a lot, and I didn’t know how to play. He didn’t like that. It wasn’t an obstacle. But he did confront me.
So I played piano. It’s still going on today. I’ve been playing for 56 years or something. For decades, wherever there was a piano, I would always go and try to play. I didn’t grow up with a piano. I didn’t have a piano available until we moved here, as I’ve just described. It took me a year to separate my two hands and be able to do different things. Just self-taught. So, I played them together like beep, beep, beep, beep. I had these two fingers and one finger, two fingers playing like the same sort of notes together. Eventually, I branched out. I don’t know if you know music at all, but I ridiculously played in one key for like 30 years—just the key of F—and didn’t even try other keys.
NORTON: Were you all still in school when you got engaged?
JOEL: We were married in school. The last…
NORTON: You were married in school?
JOEL: Yeah.
NORTON: How did you get engaged? Just briefly.
JOEL: About your father, going to Ireland…
PEARL: I guess we got together…third year of college.
JOEL: I think second year.
NORTON: Remember, you were in Ireland, wasn’t that right?
JOEL: I went there, I was gone for half a year
PEARL: Our third year was the year we were living in the co-op.
JOEL: We were married that year.
PEARL: Well, we got together, and we were living together off campus. Joel wanted to go to Ireland.
JOEL: Because of the draft and all that. That’s a big deal.
PEARL: I didn’t want to leave the country with somebody I wasn’t engaged or married to. I was okay with traveling in the country but, somehow, there was this psychological block.  
JOEL: You said it was very much your father.
PEARL: Yeah. My parents, particularly my father, would be really upset.
JOEL: I think you said we could go to Canada.
PEARL: I don’t remember.
JOEL: Maybe not. I’m not sure.
PEARL: It’s a long time ago
NORTON: In any event, you wanted to leave because you’re concerned about the draft at that point.
JOEL: Yeah. I wanted to be a draft resister and burn my draft card.
NORTON: You were still in school though. You still had a deferment for a little bit longer.
JOEL: Those deferments ended about that time, I think.
PEARL: Yeah, there was that. Remember the lottery?
NORTON: There was the lottery. But the lottery…you still were good as long as you were in school.
JOEL: I think he’s right because, wonderfully, New College, which has fallen on such sad times currently, was quite the opposite. The registrar, Nancy Ferraro—up in heaven I believe, and she deserves to be there—she decided, maybe on her own, as the registrar of all 300 names or whatever, that in reference to the government leaning on her to know what the grades were of everybody…
PEARL: Because you had to be in the top half of your class [at one point, students of high class rank were deferred].
NORTON: Yeah, whatever. You had to have a certain …
JOEL: So, there were no grades [at New College], and it didn’t fit the government’s idea. So, she ranked all the girls down below, and all the boys up above.
NORTON: Half and half?
JOEL: That’s what she told the government. That was one thing that was protective.
PEARL: But then it started—I can’t remember the details anymore—but it started to be not as protective, even then.
NORTON: Once you got out of school there was no protection. That’s when they had the lottery though which was…
PEARL: Joe had a pretty low number.
JOEL: On the lottery? No.
PEARL: It was 100, right?
JOEL: I don’t remember, but it wasn’t protective from the draft.
PEARL: No. That’s what I’m saying, it was low.
NORTON: Low is bad.
JOEL: I didn’t remember. I went and took a physical. They put us on a bus, an Army bus, well some sort of bus—I forget, it wasn’t a Trailways—like a school bus, and they drove us to Miami, Florida, which was, from Sarasota, like 200 miles.
NORTON: All the way across the state.
JOEL: As I recall, for our physical. Maybe it took four hours or something. I’m vague. It’s a long time ago. I did have a physical which—your time is of some essence. There was an interesting experience. I can go into what happened, but it’s not too relevant to anything we’re talking about.
NORTON: Eventually, I have to get us up to Capitol Hill. [Laughter.] As I understand it, you did get married before.
JOEL:  ’69
NORTON: ’69, okay. You were still in school.
JOEL: Yeah.
NORTON: You got out of school, and unlike kids today, you weren’t rushing to DC, ambitious and all that sort of thing.
JOEL: Not me.
NORTON: Where did you go?
PEARL: First, we got married and before we finished school, we went to Ireland for, how many months?
JOEL: Three-month honeymoon.
PEARL: We were going to go there and stay.
JOEL: We looked, tried to buy land there… Looked for land. Talked to landowners, talked to the AG [agriculture] agent locally about growing berries and things. So, I pursued it. My heart it turned out really wasn’t in it. I didn’t know myself perfectly. I was, [with] what I thought was a lot of stress about the draft, beside myself. Becoming illegal and all that stuff. I knew that the jig was up for me in Ireland. Pearl was like, great. She was fine. You were going to go back to school and finish up, but I had done everything in advance. I planned this and the school was fine with giving me a degree for what I’d done so far. But not Pearl.
I knew the jig was up sitting with Pearl in Sligo in the west where we were, Yeats country. Sitting there in a little restaurant-y place reading Newsweek magazine. I didn’t care for Newsweek. It might as well have been Time magazine for me. I didn’t think it was cool, but I was so desperate each week to get my hands on Newsweek. I didn’t know myself that well, but I did understand, “Okay, what’s wrong with this picture? Guy wants to settle in Ireland, and here he is like desperate to read Newsweek every week.”
NORTON: News from home.
JOEL: Yeah. I knew something was wrong then. I didn’t have the heart to stay over there. We did come back.
NORTON: So, when did you come back?
JOEL: September of 1971.
PEARL: When we finished up, we had like one more term.
JOEL: They gave us terms off. It was a three-year school all year round, but, because of the draft, wonderful Nancy, or someone up above her, lengthened it to four years like others. We had three terms, they were trimesters. Three terms to do whatever we wanted with under protection.
NORTON: So, you came back to Sarasota and finished up.
PEARL: We finished school. Then we moved to the country.
JOEL: I was desperate ecologically. We had a little garden, ten by ten feet.
NORTON: First in Sarasota?
JOEL: Yeah, first garden. I had been reading all these books. I was young. We got married. She was 20, I was 21 for one month. My head was full of ecological disaster. I, just…[felt] the food was not edible, poisonous, whatever, within like several years. We needed subsistence farming, which is what we went and did. Raise your own food. This back-to-the-land movement in 1970, that was—I believe, I’m not a historian—I think that was the most crucial, the biggest year forward. [I’m] guessing more people our age went back to the land in 1970 than did in ’75 or ’65 or anything like that.
NORTON: How did you get back to the land?
PEARL: We ended up with…the short answer is a family friend had some connection to this sort of recreational area outside of Winchester, Virginia. We ended up buying some land from the guy who ran this.
NORTON: This was like a weekend resort kind of place?
JOEL: He owned it. He was an idiot. He’d been a scout master. A very determined scout master with his scouts, who would all have been teenagers. They went and did all the wonderful things that scouts do, climbing mountains out west and all this stuff. His dream was to have his scouts live with him on the land. Each of them could have three acres or whatever. The whole place was maybe 180 acres.
He built a lake, day and night, so to speak. Contradiction. “Expect Paradox,” my motto. He had a bulldozer. Day after day he ran his bulldozer, while we were the only people living on it really except for him. He had a real house that he built himself. Big flat roof. It was like a suburban house out there near his lake, which we got to use. Nine-acre lake or something.
We were living in the barn. We’d been living in a house, [which] he burned down because he didn’t like the house. He burned it down on purpose for a ballfield. [So] we moved into the barn, which we bought and owned and lived there. Later, we had two friends live with us that I knew from high school.
This man wanted his scouts to come live with him. He [had] also sold three acres to this older friend that Pearl mentioned, whose son was my high school friend. That man thought he’d move out there, like in retirement type thing. His wife wasn’t interested, so he never did. But he’s the one who [first] put us in touch with the man who owned that land, who wanted his boy scouts to settle. Virtually no boy scouts settled. Maybe zero.
PEARL: Well, [some people think] nobody really wanted to live there full time. But [some] people, a number of them, had vacation places.
JOEL: Maybe two of them. He had a bunch of boys, so that didn’t work out for him. He did have this land. We got attached to it. Very, very simply, I did not have the confidence or inner resources or anything in my early 20s. Felt too insecure to somehow go out, talk to farmers and people and like try to locate a place for us. This fell into our lap because of this intermediary man and this other guy who was selling lots to boy scouts, but he didn’t object to selling us the barn. No boy scouts could live in the barn. Barn was stupid.
NORTON: Did you try to grow crops?
PEARL: We had a garden, and we had goats.
JOEL: Chickens.
PEARL: Milked goats.
NORTON: Were you really able to sustain yourselves with the garden?
JOEL: We lived on practically nothing. I put in the electricity. I did stuff myself. I was handy. Our bill for electricity was $6 or $7 a month. Now I know, it’s many years ago. That was nothing, six or seven dollars. A regular bill could have been what, $60, $30? We didn’t have plumbing. We had an indoor outhouse. I read up on all this stuff. We composted our shit. Had a lot of sawdust around we got from in town. So we lived really, really cheaply.
PEARL: But we also had jobs. During that time, I started going to graduate school in Harrisonburg. I drove down 81 [I-81].
NORTON: Which school did you go to, Madison?
PEARL: Yeah. I got a master’s there over a number of years.
NORTON: That was a master’s in…
PEARL: Education.
NORTON: Education, okay.
PEARL: Then I started teaching school in Winchester, the city public schools. Meanwhile, our two friends, Joel’s childhood friend…
JOEL: High school best friend.
PEARL: High school friend and his girlfriend and then later wife…
JOEL: …Who we didn’t know…
PEARL: Moved in with us. There was a lot of ins and outs. We first all worked together at a school for children with learning disabilities, a boarding school.
NORTON: When you say all together. Who’s “we”?
JOEL: The four of us.
NORTON: All four of you. Okay.
PEARL: And in various positions at that school. Then the woman in the other couple started working for a lawyer in town and got really interested in law.
JOEL: A maverick lawyer that everyone hated.
NORTON: Was this a lawyer in Winchester?
PEARL: In Winchester. Got really interested. Eventually she went to law school, and by the time she was thinking about going to law school, Joel’s friend Richard had started working for this fine furniture maker who made furniture by hand. He was really into that. When Susan went to law school, he followed her. She went to UVA [University of Virginia].
NORTON: Richard followed her?
PEARL: Yes, and got a job working in a furniture manufacturer or craftsman in Charlottesville, but it wasn’t the quality that he was used to in Winchester, so he eventually went to law school too. So, they ended up being lawyers.
NORTON: How long did you stay in the Winchester area?
PEARL: We were there seven years in all.
JOEL: They were with us for four years.
PEARL: I went to graduate school, and partway through I got a job teaching in the public schools. I taught there for three years.
NORTON: What did you teach?
PEARL: I taught…let’s see….the first year, I taught fourth and fifth grade. The second year, I taught first grade. The third year, I taught kindergarten. I was aiming for kindergarten. Finally got there. Then, our friends moved down to Charlottesville, and Joel decided he wanted to go to graduate school in Hebrew. So, we ended up in the Philadelphia area. We had this sort of dream of continuing our farm existence while he was in graduate school. We looked around the area for a place that would work for us, where we could bring our goats. We finally ended up renting a room in this giant sort of estate.
JOEL: 1700s.
PEARL: Beautiful old house.
JOEL: Stone.
PEARL: We never brought our goats because it just wasn’t…
JOEL: Wasn’t practical.
PEARL: Joel went to graduate school, and I got this fabulous job teaching in a federally supported research project, early childhood. I taught four-year-olds. I did that for three years. It was on the campus of Westchester State College. It was a very wonderful job. Meanwhile, Joel was in graduate school.
JOEL: After three years, we wanted to reunite with these two people. Terminology issue here. I thought we lived in a commune. I read later in Library of Congress books about it, and this definition of three people that were not all related sharing expenses and all that. And I think these two people were our communards. But I lost rock, paper, scissors to her, and I can’t say that. It’s a group house, and they were, I guess, inmates of this group house. But just letting you know in case that slips or something.
PEARL: Nobody cares.
NORTON: In case anybody cares, that’s right.
JOEL: We wanted to live with them again.
NORTON: This was the same folks that had gone down to Charlottesville?
JOEL: Yes.
PEARL: Actually, they came to visit us and said…
NORTON: …In Pennsylvania?
PEARL: …In Pennsylvania, and said, “We are going to be in Washington,” because our friend Susan had gotten a Supreme Court clerkship. “We want to live…we think we should all live together again. Let’s get together in Washington.” We were, like, not quite sure what was going on.
JOEL: I had finished three years of graduate school. We were ready to be gone.
PEARL: Yeah, you’re right. You had got a doctorate.
JOEL: I never would. I had 99 credits, but…
PEARL: I thought you were—whatever. We were kind of at loose ends. They said, “Move, we’ll live together for a couple years in DC, and then we’ll all go back to the country.” Meanwhile, Richard, the guy in the couple, he had a circuit court clerkship because he was a year behind in school.
JOEL: Alexandria.
NORTON: His circuit judge was over in Alexandria.
PEARL: Was in Alexandria.
JOEL: It’s a famous, influential one. I forget which one it was called.
NORTON: Fourth Circuit, the “Rocket Docket.”
PEARL: Fourth Circuit, yeah.
JOEL: Yes.
PEARL: We thought of ourselves as, “Well, if we’re going to be in DC we should be in Takoma Park.”
JOEL: With the folkies.
PEARL: But, Susan said, “No.” She was clerking for Blackmun [Harry Blackmun]. “He’s like this taskmaster. I’m going to be working 70 hours a week. I got to be near my work.” We were going to be here for just a few years, and we found a house, and we moved into the house together.
JOEL: For a year.
NORTON: Where was that?
PEARL: It was on A Street.
JOEL: 509. It’s two blocks away.
NORTON: On A Street SE?
JOEL: Yeah. I said hello to the lady who moved in there after us just yesterday.
PEARL: Oh really?
JOEL: Yeah. I know who they are. Two ladies, a couple.
PEARL: They’re still there?
JOEL: Yeah, they’re old.
NORTON: You moved in. Then what did you all do when you came to DC? So, that’s why Capitol Hill.
JOEL: Yes. Because of the Supreme Court. Blackmun told her and his other clerks that they would have all Christmas off and half of Thanksgiving. But, other than that, he gave them a little speech. I wasn’t there. “Chance of a lifetime, you only do this once.”  It’s a year. Put your nose to the grindstone. He didn’t say that. Man up to this experience and you can write your ticket. They understood they could write their ticket afterward, which is true. Go to any law firm and all that. Susan did go to a high-class law firm here in DC and hated it.
NORTON: So, you all said, “Okay. I’ll move down there.”
PEARL: Said okay.
NORTON: What were you going to do?
PEARL: By this time...Alana was born when we were in Pennsylvania.
NORTON: Which would be what year?
PEARL: ’78. So, we moved here in ’80. The first year, I got a job—fairly quickly I think—at Capitol East Children’s Center, which was a daycare center in Giddings [school at 315 G Street SE]. It’s hard to have a cognitive map of where I taught—the gym that’s there now…was at Giddings. You worked for the…was that when you were working for the court reporter job?
JOEL: Court reporting firm, Ace. I was a proofreader for the court reporters who, as you may know from your experience, could either talk or use the [shorthand machine]. I learned…in one weekend I taught myself—clever he said—taught myself stenotype, to read it.
NORTON: The machine essentially, the shorthand machine, yes.
JOEL: I could read it in one weekend and went to work proofreading stenotype. The people talking, I never did that. Never transcribed [or] any of that. Just read stenotype.
PEARL: You did that for a while. Then our friends, after they finished their clerkships, they both got jobs in firms.
NORTON: Here in DC?
PEARL: Here in DC. They were suddenly making so much money that they wanted…they felt like they had to buy a house. We ‘d sort of given up the country thing.
JOEL: Yup.
PEARL: Because we had become so attached to Capitol Hill.
JOEL: We love, love Capitol Hill.
JOEL: Oh my god.
PEARL: For me a big part of it was the supportive community around child rearing. The babysitting co-op. One- and two-year-olds everywhere and moms around. It was just a wonderful place to be for that. We loved being close enough to walk to the museums. We’d been out in the country, and we were kind of culture starved in some ways. So, we went to the museums all the time. We went to concerts all the time. The Library, the National Gallery.
JOEL: Folger.
PEARL: We loved the people we met. People like us. We could ride our bikes everywhere. We never had to get in a car.
NORTON: Actually, this is probably a faulty memory, but I remember you guys bringing one or more of your kids riding a bike with the little trailer or something behind it. That was way before there were any bike lanes or any of that stuff. We all thought, “My god they’re crazy.”
PEARL: We still have…
JOEL: We’re still using that trailer. The Whole Earth Catalog was the bible for us hippies and [it] was advertised in there, back, almost 50 years ago…more than 40. We still have it. The Bike Buddy it was called. It’s open so you can put logs in it, many cases…
NORTON: Or kids.
JOEL: Yes. Two children.
PEARL: [And the] infirm. My father rode in it. Remember you took my father somewhere in it.
JOEL: Yes. Took him to Gonzaga when I was wrestling there, extramural or whatever it’s called.
PEARL: Anyway…
NORTON: Did you have a car when you first moved here?
PEARL: We did. We had a pickup truck.
JOEL: I’ve never owned a car.
NORTON: A truck. Okay.
PEARL: It was a little, you know ... remember those little toy-like…
JOEL: I didn’t want to maintain it or pay for it, so Pearl has always owned her truck and her cars. I used to drive her vehicles back in the day, decades ago… she doesn’t let me use it [now], and I don’t want to use it. It’s like strangling someone slowly. As the years have gone by…20 years [ago,] maybe… I’ve used it four times a year. But as the years have gone by, I haven’t driven her car for years. Five years, ten years. But I ride with her when we go places if she wants, if I’m not taking my bike or something or we’re not on the tandem. You have the floor.
PEARL: Remember those little half-ton pickup trucks that look like toys?
NORTON: Uh huh. I had one.
PEARL: Did you?
NORTON: It was great.
PEARL: A Datsun.
NORTON: I had a little Mazda, but it was…
PEARL: Very cute.
NORTON: So, you’re here and your friends are going to buy their house, and at that point, he’s working for the court reporter and you’re working…
PEARL: For the Capitol East Children’s Center.
NORTON: Right, for the Capitol East.
PEARL: And they decided that they needed to move off the Hill. But we were too attached, so we stayed on the Hill. They ended up moving to Takoma Park which is where we thought we should have been in the first place.
NORTON: Where did you go? You stay in the same place?
PEARL: For a little while we stayed in 509 A Street. Then that house was sold, and we lived on Independence, 616 Independence Avenue [SE].
JOEL: Two blocks that way as supposed to two blocks that way.
PEARL: We have only moved two blocks…
NORTON: …In any given time, right.
PEARL: We were there for a while. Then Joel got a job at the Library [of Congress].
JOEL: For 40 years then.
PEARL: Pretty soon, I got a job at Capitol Day School. Brendan was born while we were still living in that Independence Avenue house.
NORTON: What year would that be, just for reference?
PEARL: He was born in 1980. Wait, that’s wrong. He was born in 1982. I guess he was four and a half or five when I started working at the Day School.
NORTON: But you had been working at Capitol East up until then?
PEARL: No. I stopped working—when he was born, I stopped working at Capitol East. Then for a while, I was just home. Then, do you remember Nancy..
JOEL: Nancy Lazeaar?
NORTON: Nancy Martin?
PEARL: Nancy ... her husband was the attorney when you were a…
NORTON: Well, it’s all right.
PEARL: She decided ... She was this very strong-willed person.
JOEL: Yes.
PEARL: And she decided—I was very happy being a stay-at-home mom—she decided that I needed to be Robert Weinstein and Judith Capen's babysitter. Kaufman, Nancy Kaufman. Because I was a teacher, and I was home, and they needed a babysitter. I had no desire to be anybody’s babysitter, but she just made it happen anyway.
JOEL: You know they run the architecture firm.
PEARL: Architrave.
JOEL: Architrave.
NORTON: I’m familiar with them, yes.
PEARL: They would be good people for this project. [Capitol Hill History.]
NORTON: They probably would.
PEARL: So, she was very persuasive, and so I ended up starting to babysit for Kirby, their daughter who was several months younger than Brendan.
JOEL: Every day.
PEARL: Also, there were some other kids. The Whitaker kids [Henry and Hannah]. I started babysitting for them after school.  So, there’s a little gang of children that I took care of.
JOEL: Tracy and Cathy Whitaker…
PEARL: For a few years, and then when Brendan was ready to go to kindergarten, I started working at Capitol Hill Day School.
NORTON: Did he start in kindergarten at Capitol Hill Day?
NORTON: How about Elana, where was she going?
PEARL: So, Elana by that time, she was at Peabody. She just went to Peabody, when…
NORTON: …it became the Cluster and went over to Watkins.
PEARL: Yeah. So, her fourth-grade year was at Watkins. She had pre-K through Three at Peabody, and then fourth grade at Watkins. Then she went across town—but still public school—Hardy Middle School. She was there until high school.
NORTON: Where did she go to high school?
PEARL: To Field. Meanwhile, Brendan was at the Day School through eighth grade, then he went to Field. I started working at the Day School, and Joel started working at the Library of Congress.
NORTON: How long did you stay at …was it a rental house on Independence?
PEARL: It was a rental house on Independence. I think they were going to sell.
JOEL: Her husband was a lawyer.
PEARL: She worked at the Day; she was the arts teacher at the Day School. I think they decided they were going to sell that house. So yet again we had to move because the house was being sold.
NORTON: Did you rent here first?
PEARL: Nope. Bought it thanks to …
JOEL: Her father was rich from being a doctor, and he paid in cash for the whole thing. We never had a mortgage, and it’s [been] like life in heaven.
NORTON: Yes, I can imagine. It sounds good. So that’s great.
JOEL: It’s been amazing, and we’re thankful.
PEARL: Every day.
JOEL: Every day or every other day, yes. It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable to go through life without a mortgage.
NORTON: So, Pearl, you’ve been with the Day School ever since, right?
PEARL: Well, I retired.
NORTON: When did you retire?
PEARL: Retired in 2018.
NORTON: Right before the COVID, yes.
PEARL: Just missed it.
NORTON: Good for you. Describe…what you did over there.
PEARL: When I first got the job, I decided that I needed to go back to work, and I thought of myself as an early childhood teacher. Four-year-olds, five-year-olds. So, I went over to talk to Cemmy Peterson. I think I brought her some documents of my work as a teacher. We got along very well, and she wanted to hire me, but the only jobs available were third grade or fourth grade. Elana, our daughter, had just been in fourth grade, and I really liked the cohort of her friends and what fourth graders are like. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do fourth grade, and as soon as there’s a job in kindergarten, I’ll just move down there.” Because there are always jobs opening up. I started teaching fourth grade, and I never felt like it was perfect. I was never ready to leave fourth grade. There was always more to do. So, I ended up teaching it for 30 years.
NORTON: The whole time you were there. Joel, you started with the Library of Congress in…
PEARL: Brendan was a baby. That would have been…
JOEL: 1980. I should remember that. I can remember. It’s coming back to me. It was in 1982, I believe.
PEARL: It might have been ’82—’82 or ’83.
JOEL: ’82 or ’83, but, yeah, not later. I have two things to tell you if I can remember. You asked what’s so great about the Hill. There’re wonderful, wonderful things, but rather than tell you those right this minute unless you want to pursue that later, maybe you want to pursue it later. I have a theory. I invented this theory of what is so wonderful about the Hill, which is a concise enough theory, which is this: I grew up in a hateful, in my term, hateful suburb. Judith Capen, the person we were talking about, the mother of Kirby that Pearl raised, has this wonderful bon mot about us all being buried in the Congressional Cemetery because she wouldn’t be caught dead in the suburbs. That’s what she feels as an architect.
NORTON: I think I’ve seen her spot over there actually. She already has a stone or something up.
JOEL: The thing about it is, when you’re in the suburbs, like I grew up in Wheaton, Maryland, you’re in a hub. The center of the hub, for my sake of the argument, is Capitol Hill. If someone thinks the center is Georgetown it wouldn’t make any difference in my topology here, my idea. I grew up in the hub and didn’t know anybody in general. You’ll see what I mean in a second, the way I do down here. As opposed to that hub business, down in the center.
PEARL: You mean the opposite?
JOEL: The outer hub. Oh, I’m sorry.
PEARL: The hub is the middle.
JOEL: I’m sorry. Think of a bicycle wheel with a rim and a hub. The hub’s the center, Capitol Hill for me. The rim is Wheaton, Maryland, and all the surrounding area. That’s the ring. I realized here on the Hill that the people I knew and liked, I knew them different ways. So, it wasn’t just like in the outer ring [where] you belonged to temple—maybe if you’re Jewish––or church, whatever—and maybe you know one or two people, but they live a mile or two away, or maybe there’s one person that’s close. But the people you work with, [those] people are all broken up in discrete communities—as opposed to when you’re in the hub. DC’s huge, so who’s going to work at your agency in the government or whatever it is? I realize that my best friend, Charlie Bean, who I played music with, and still do all the time, he also worked where I worked at the Library of Congress.
PEARL: And I taught his child.
NORTON: Small world, right?
JOEL: I could go through that small world business with the architects who are our good friends, Capen- Weinsteins. They belong—I don’t go because I’m bored—but they belong to Pearl’s temple, which I would belong to if I cared. They built it, they constructed it because they’re architects. They had that job. We know them from the temple. We know them from being neighbors. Pearl raised their child for a few years daily here at the house. I could go on with all this meeting people and knowing them several ways from work, from religion, from music, from anything. Dancing, whatever, gardening. That makes a rich experience.
That’s one reason I love the Hill, because the technical term is a literary term and maybe you know it from elsewhere, closure. In literature, closure is where something comes back in the story. There’s a dove flying. Doesn’t mean so much [at first], but by the time the dove comes back later on in the story attached to certain things that have been happening, the meaning becomes richer and becomes symbolic in literature. That’s what the Hill’s like for me where it’s really rich because of the overlapping inner spokes, or whatever, as opposed to the rim.
NORTON: That’s a very highfalutin theory about why you like Capitol Hill. [Laughter.] I like it too but I’ve never gone to that much…
JOEL: Then you’re not given to speculation ...  
NORTON: Oh yes I am. [More laughter.]
JOEL: Hill is wonderful. I can roll my piano two blocks away and play music. Where in the suburbs am I going to do that? You could, but it’s not the same. We have the foot traffic at Eastern Market. Eastern Market, as you probably know, has been written up nationally as one of the greatest places to be. I read an article about it. There was California—San Francisco–and Eastern Market, and about eight other places they singled out as like these top spots for community interaction, whatever, color.
Yeah, and, oh my god I cannot express the wonder, the joy, the thrill of not having to commute. My father commuted from Wheaton down to the Department of Justice every day. He would leave in the morning at 8:30. I took the carpool with him when I was already in college and [got studying] [needed to study] at the Library of Congress for a paper or something. I took that trip a number of times and visited him at work. He’d come back at 6:30 in the evening. Those two hours of commuting in traffic that he had to make  ... Maybe you’ve thought about it, maybe you haven’t, but in regular American lives, those two hours are a big deal if you had them for free time as opposed to sitting in a car. It’s been just dear in life to be so close to the Library of Congress. I can come home even for breaks, 20-minute breaks on my bike. Lunch, everything. If I forget something, I can come right back and get it.
NORTON: I know Pearl mentioned, the babysitting co-op. What do you remember about the babysitting co-op because I’m not sure they still have it?
PEARL: I think they—maybe they do. I remember the scrips, the little…
NORTON: I still have one or two of those little scrips.
PEARL: Do you really?
NORTON: Yes, yes.
PEARL: What was wonderful about the babysitting co-op was that not only was your child being taken care of but you tended to make friends with the people you were babysitting for.
JOEL: Yes. Closure again.
PEARL: For your kid, sometimes people would bring their child. If it was a daytime thing, they would bring their child over, so it was like a playdate as well as babysitting. It was the best.
NORTON: Of course, then there was when you had to be the secretary and that was before email and before even answering machines. You had to try to fill these doggone…
PEARL: Yeah.
JOEL: But if you had a wife ... [laughter].
PEARL: But even that was kind of …
NORTON: I still had to do some of that.
PEARL: Even that was another sort of community contact. You called people. If they couldn’t do it, at least you had a conversation with them.
JOEL: The very best thing, this will appeal to you, were the three pages of bylaws written by the lawyers [laughter] that were in the group. Do you remember those?
NORTON: Yeah. Oh, yeah. There were bylaws. You may not know this, there was back in the mid to late 70s, there was an economic treatise written about it. It was called “The Monetary Theory in the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-op.”[Sweeney, Joan and Sweeney Richard James, 1977. Monetary Theory and the Great Capitol Hill Baby Sitting Co-op Crisis.] It started off saying that there are two major institutions in Washington that are having problems right now, the Federal Reserve and the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-op. It was, and then—what’s the guy’s name? I forget. Later won the Nobel Prize for economics. [Note from Editor: Joan Sweeney and Richard James Sweeney first presented the co-op as an economic allegory, but it became well known from Paul Krugman’s book Peddling Prosperity. Paul Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade theory in 2008.] He said that he learned everything about monetary theory from that. How money was scarce, and you had to sort of tighten up. And of course, we tried—this is not my interview—but we tried to tighten it up and make all rules that would work. Basically, what it was is that either the money was worth too much, the scrip was worth too much, or it was not worth enough, and you had to encourage people to either go out or sit, and all that stuff. If you Google the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-op you will see this article.
PEARL: I will have to do that.
JOEL: There’s Nordhaus, who wasn’t on the Hill. His brother was. Robert Nordhaus who died a few years ago. Jean Nordhaus’ husband had a brother. He’s dead. The brother’s alive, who won the Nobel Prize for economics.
NORTON: But it’s not him. It will come to me one of these days. [Paul Krugman.] I got to get to music here. When did you start playing music or busking?
JOEL: When I was 15, I bought that guitar from Sears and Roebuck. When I was 14, [I earned enough to buy the guitar for $15 by working for] a neighbor lady who I did yard work for. Money was worth more then than it is now of course. [It was worth more.] She let me use a violin. Fiddle and violin are identical, same thing, just terminology. Isaac Stern talked about his fiddle. I would play her fiddle. I played her fiddle for about a year. I got a book to show me where to put my fingers on the note key, the fingerboard. It doesn’t have frets. I learned a scale or two from this book—note, note, note, note. Then I put the book away, and I played for a year. I guess I was 15 and not 14. That was the beginnings of music. Playing the fiddle and the guitar. Guitar I could chord, three chords. Four, five it’s called in music theory. I played those chords because folk songs, hundreds and hundreds, or thousands of folk songs, have just three chords in them. That’s not a lot. Burl Ives’ songs had often three chords. I played by ear. I can hear when the chords change. I don’t know if this is Greek to you or not, it’s pretty simple what I’m talking about. Just self-taught. Pearl played, she didn’t mention it, she played ukulele with her best friend when they were 14 on the bridge, some bridge in Memphis.
PEARL: Mostly on our garage roof, our shed roof.
JOEL: They sang together, like camp songs. Girl Scout type songs.
PEARL: More folk songs.
JOEL: Okay, folk songs then. I wasn’t there then. So, yes, that’s how I started, and I would have played piano but there weren’t any around until I went to college when I was 18. Was thrilled to see those big old pianos around.
NORTON: When you’re out here, what happened in terms of music?
JOEL: Charlie and I. Charlie Bean.
PEARL: When we lived on A Street…
JOEL: That first house.
PEARL: There was a neighborhood watch. Remember the neighborhood watch? Somehow, we hosted a neighborhood watch meeting at our house.
JOEL: The cops asked me to.
PEARL: The person across the street—it was for the block—the person across the street came over and saw these instruments on the wall. And he goes, “Oh, I play music too.” It was Charlie Bean. So, Joel and Charlie living right across…
JOEL: There was more to it than that.
PEARL: Oh, go ahead.
JOEL: Because, when we weren’t living on the Hill, when I was in town to visit my parents in Wheaton, I’d come and busk with my fiddle. Busking of course means playing for money on the street. Put out a hat or fiddle case, salted with a dollar bill or something, or a quarter, and people put money in it, typically. I’d come and play. I did that for a few years. Oh, because the Washington Post had an article, maybe as early as 1970 or ’74, about people who became good friends. Steve Hickman the fiddler in town. His then wife and maybe sister and one other person busking in Alexandria, Virginia. The Post made it sound really nice and romantic and fun. I got the idea from that.
So, I took my fiddle to Georgetown and would play there and did it for, off and on, for some years. Pearl would come and take a fistful of money out of my fiddle case and go off and have coffee and stuff like that. Was very bold. So, Charlie Bean, for a master’s thesis from England, where he had gone to graduate school ... We don’t need to say why. I don’t know if the draft had anything to do with it or not. He plays what he calls Stop the Fiddler. In 1979 he saw me in Georgetown, and I remember him, a very friendly man. He’s the merriest man I know. [And this] friendly man my age came up to me, and I liked him. He had something winning about him. He asked me to play tune after tune that he’d heard in West Virginia to stop me. He wasn’t malicious, he has his academic knowledge now. He recorded these people playing fiddle in West Virginia. I knew all the tunes and he couldn’t stump me. That tickled him. He was impressed by that. Then he turned out to be living across the street from us in 1980.
NORTON: On A Street?
JOEL: Yeah. He came over, and … Many, many people passed me on the street in Georgetown and spoke with me and wanted to be part of the music, whatever. Asked me to play Orange Blossom Special, the most famous fiddle tune maybe, which I don’t play. Too fancy for me. So, Charlie came to this meeting, and he saw the instruments, and he put two and two together and we realized that he’d played Stump the Fiddler back within that past year. We moved here in ’80 and this was ’79, could have been ’78, but who cares. So, we started to play music together. In 1983, Charlie and I formed the Capitol Hillbillies.
PEARL: Well, no. Was it called Capitol Hill..
JOEL: I invented that name. Back then it was fiddle and guitar. We held a dance for three years at North Hall, which you know what that is. North Hall in Eastern Market. We dealt with John Harrod, a famous figure from those days. Every week for three years we had a dance as the Capitol Hillbillies. We had hardly anybody coming, but we danced every week. In order to do that, we had [dance] callers that I paid for. Sometimes … for square dancing you need four couples. When we had only three couples, we could do a thing called triplets, which is a type of dance. It’s not a square dance because there aren’t four couples to make the corners. Charlie, typically, had to leave me, by my order, and dance, because we didn’t have enough people. He was a man that could fill in, typically, crucially, for some woman who’d come, so we don’t turn people away and everyone gets to dance. It worked like a shoestring of people dancing.
But he did end up marrying this woman who would come, maybe for him. He had to dance with her week after week. He often didn’t play guitar, but I would just play solo fiddle which is fine. People could dance to it. In the mountains, they used to just have a fiddler coming by. That was every week. We stopped it after three years. It never took off. Capitol Hill, my only disappointment on the Hill so far, is that people, at least under my aegis, don’t want to dance. Don’t want to do contradancing or square dancing. I tried. Parker Jane and I had a thing where we tried to get something going. It didn’t work. We were collaborating.
NORTON: When was that?
JOEL: Fifteen years ago, twelve years ago, something like that. I got a grant from the Capitol Hill [Community] Foundation of $3,000 for dances. I applied. The grant was really generous. I still [have] $1,900, or $1,600 left. It’s in my bank account now. Parker Jane held it for decades. For I don’t know why, exactly. I have it now in the last year. I still need some money to hold some dancing. I’m thinking and thinking about Capitol Hill Center [the Hill Center], community center. During COVID I didn’t want to have any dancing. I still want to use that money for paying for musicians and expenses at that place. It’s not cheap in my opinion.
NORTON: What days of the week were you having these dances?
JOEL: It was Wednesday. Every Wednesday.
NORTON: Wednesday night?
JOEL: Yeah, in the evening. Yes, at like 7:00 or 7:30. We got some local ... There’s a crowd of musicians in DC that I know from back in the 70s before we moved here when we were in Virginia. I’d come into DC and play music with people. Dance, contradances, and things. Rhetorically speaking, like I used to, maybe still, know all the musicians in town. I mean, people like us. Some of those people would come to our group on the Hill on Wednesday night. You have anything? Yes, I’m done, I guess, right now.
NORTON: [Laughs.] That lasted about three years you say?
JOEL: Three years, you know. 1983 to 1986.
NORTON: What else were you doing at that time or what did you do after that, I guess?
JOEL: Capitol Hillbillies has never died to this day. I went on…oh, actually, I started another band called Barrelhouse Brawl. But I went back…
NORTON: Bearhouse Brawl?
JOEL: Barrelhouse Brawl. Like having a fight in the barrelhouse down in turpentine district in North Carolina and all. Barrelhouse. They just had a lot of barrels there, and people sit on them. They’d get an old piano and move it in. This is all black people, typically. Could be anybody.
NORTON: So, that’s why you named it?
JOEL: Yeah, and the brawl is my own idea. It’s alliterative. I was an English major. Barrelhouse Brawl. I had that band, but we also got jobs. We played a lot of places, Kenton…
PEARL: We started getting jobs. I guess I wasn’t in the Barrelhouse Brawl, was I?
JOEL: Yes, we played Baltimore.
PEARL: That’s right. You’re right. We started getting a little, you know, a few jobs here and there.
NORTON: So, Pearl, now I have to ask because so far, basically, the only credit given you was taking money out of his violin case. So, how did you get involved with all this?
PEARL: I had tried several instruments. None of them really took. Then, I guess it was Doc Harp.
JOEL: It was. Michael Licht on the Hill.
PEARL: Mike Licht gave me a harmonica as a birthday present. Harmonica’s a really easy instrument to play. As my mentor Joe Filisko says, “It’s an easy instrument to play, but a difficult instrument to master.” I’m still working on that part. Anyway, I could just…it was intuitive for me. I could figure out how to play melody on it. So, I just started playing the harmonica.
NORTON: When was that, roughly, when you started playing the harmonica?
PEARL: That was maybe in the…probably the late 90s.  I played for a while. It took me a little while to figure out how hard it is to play the harmonica. It’s not really all that easy. It’s easy to sound okay, but if you want to sound good, then you have to … [I guess this was probably in the very late 90s,] we started going to this music camp.
NORTON: Where is that?
PEARL: Elkins, West Virginia. Augusta Heritage it was called.
JOEL: Workshop.
PEARL: It’s on the campus of Elkins College. There’s a series of genre weeks. Over the years, they’d had Irish Week and Sweden Week, Blues Week and Cajun Week and Vocal Week. We started going to Blues Week. This would have been, as I said, probably the very end of the 1990s or the beginning of the 2000s. We’d just gone every year for a number of years ’til COVID. There’s instruction and also jamming and concerts and…
JOEL: Dancing.
PEARL: It’s like going to grownup camp. That’s where I learned a bunch of stuff …from that. I also met somebody there who I took lessons from.
NORTON: Harmonica lessons?
PEARL: Harmonica lessons for a little while. Yeah, a bunch of years.
NORTON: When did you start playing with the Hillbillies? Were you always playing in some fashion or how much?
PEARL: Pretty much, I guess.
JOEL: I don’t know specifically, because it’s been so many years. I do know I’ve always been afraid to exclude her, and I virtually never have. So, she’s always been welcome in whatever jazz. She is a good musician. She’s a superb musician in whatever formation. We play a little jazz. We play Irish music. We play Cajun music. We play mountain music, the fiddle. She’s always been able to play harmonica, sometimes after a lot of practice. I don’t tell her to practice. She’s assiduous. Her goal is two hours a day. She doesn’t always make that.
PEARL: You made that up.
JOEL: You told me, years ago.
PEARL: Maybe.
JOEL: Anyway, I’ve never excluded her. She hasn’t played literally with everything I’ve ever done. She’s always been welcome. As an official thing, I would have wanted to exclude her sometimes. Money is an issue and all that. Because we’re married, it just seems like a poor decision [Pearl laughs] to exclude her.
NORTON: I can remember, I saw you all at one point down at the Folklife Festival down at the Mall. You were doing something. Was it the blues or…
JOEL: We weren’t allowed to do anything there. Ralph Rinzler, you may know who that is, he ran it. He lived on the Hill on Ninth Street for decades. We were friends. I was playing with some person I met down there…having the time of our lives fiddling and all that. We had a little crowd around us. He came, not like a bully, but he was the director and he made us stop playing.
NORTON: So, you were not one of the official acts?
JOEL: No. He didn’t want any competition there. “There’s a whole big country, whole big city. Go play wherever you want to. This is our festival, my festival.” He didn’t say that. “This is for the performers we go to great trouble and great expense to bring here, and the public comes to see them. We don’t want this thing.” I was at the very first one they ever had in 1966. [Actually 1967.] I was old enough. I was interested in blues. Sleepy John Estes was there who was really famous, if you’re a blues aficionado, old blues. The point is, they did have, for a few years—I don’t think it’s still going—at that festival you just mentioned, they had a lot, a place, an area for people to jam, and you could play. It was like a romper room. It’s supervised, it’s like ringed—you got to do there. I don’t think they still have it. For years they did.
NORTON: Maybe I mis-remember as they say. But I remember it may have been the year DC was somehow the focus of it or something. You guys were somehow involved with the blues, and there was topic called the barbershop that was…
PEARL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, that’s right.
JOEL: That’s the DC Folk Festival. I thought you meant the Folklife Festival on the Mall.
NORTON: Yeah, this was the Folklife Festival on the Mall.
PEARL: It was. Yeah.
NORTON: Because I remember, you guys were in it, and DC was part of it.
PEARL: Yes, the barbershop. So, there’s the barbershop.
NORTON: Where is that, and how’d you get involved with it?
PEARL: That’s a whole story too. The barbershop. There was a barber named Archie Edwards. He had this shop in Brookland. Every Saturday at about one o’clock, he’d put down his scissors and pick up his guitar. He had a bit of an international career as a guitarist and blues man.
JOEL: He did. A record in Germany.
PEARL: Really famous people came like Mississippi John Hurt came and played there. Other people…
JOEL: At the barbershop?
JOEL: I did not know that. Mississippi John Hurt is more famous than famous for us.
NORTON: I know of Mississippi John Hurt. That’s okay. You can explain it because not everyone who is going to read this is going to know.
PEARL: That went on for a while. In fact, he played on the Hill at…
JOEL: Eleventh Street. [13th Street.]
PEARL: It used to be McGuire’s.
NORTON: Right.
PEARL: It’s now a Mexican restaurant  [La Lomita]. While it was McGuire’s, he would play there. I actually heard him once.
NORTON: Who was it when you say he?
PEARL: This was Archie Edwards.
NORTON: Okay, all right. The barber.
PEARL: The barber.
JOEL: He was a black blues man who played guitar.
PEARL: I was too shy to go to the barbershop, but you actually went.
JOEL: I went. He was a difficult individual for me. He didn’t give a shit about me. He was older than I was. He had plenty of standing musically. He had his cronies he liked and played with. He was not interested  in young Jewish guys who wanted to play music.
PEARL: Anyway. He played for a number of years. After he died, people who came to these jams on Saturdays wanted to continue the jams. They were trying to figure out how to do it, and it just happened that somebody walked in, a harmonica player, who was a lawyer and knew about 401ks or whatever those are. He helped this organization get started, the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation. So, for a number of years the jams continued with this charitable organization supporting it. We started going— I went more that you did, I guess. Made a bunch of friends like that, like our bass player. That’s where we met our bass player.
JOEL: It’s a real nice pool of recognized musicians.
PEARL: I became friends with this really wonderful blues singer woman, Eleanor Ellis. We had a little duet together. So, we made a lot of wonderful, wonderful music connections. It is still going today. That building was eventually sold, and they moved around a bit. Now they’re in Hyattsville. We were just there last night at the concert. It’s still going strong. Anyway, the Barbershop, when DC was one of the focuses of the Folklife Festival, the Barbershop had a little thing.
JOEL: But you don’t think we played there, do you?
PEARL: Yeah. I did. It was just like, it was like a barbershop jam.
NORTON: I remember seeing you there, so that’s the only reason I even raised it.
PEARL: I have pictures. Elana was around. I had pictures of it.
JOEL: It’s really easy for me to tell you that after 55 years, whatever, or longer, I don’t remember who I played with, or where and when. I do have a list of our set lists going from 2008. It’s voluminous. Lots and lots of set lists. Where I played, and what date, or the band did. I don’t really have much memory for, in my head, where and when and who.
PEARL: Yeah, it was just so. We were just…
JOEL: I’m not sad about this. It’s all been wonderful. It’s like all colors around me, but I don’t have it discretely.
NORTON: Let me just ask sort of a big general question. Before COVID, how often during the week would you perform?
JOEL: Good question.
PEARL: Would we perform?
NORTON: Yeah. Would you go out…
JOEL: We didn’t have a lot of gigs, but I can tell you—and Pearl can follow up on this—at our house since 1980 on the Hill and 1984 here… We had music here. Pearl doesn’t remember this, she says. We had music here sometimes five nights a week, maybe four nights a week. Following that, yes, three nights a week, two nights a week. It declined after a few years because Charlie Bean used to come over that often to play music from a few blocks away, near Turtle Park. He had a child the same age as another musician on the Hill, who doesn’t want to play with me. He’s a jazz musician. I’m too clunky for him. Charlie felt obligated, because of his wife and their only child. That child was the same age as the other two children that Pearl taught. Oh, she taught the Beans’ child too. She taught all three of those children. Those two families [were interested in getting] together so their children could go downstairs and play, leaving the adults up there with the two male adults playing guitars with each other, and the two women, I guess, talking about their hair or whatever women talk about. Anyway, they weren’t musicians.
NORTON: It’s okay. [Laughter.]
JOEL: They were what I would term—my own invention—they were music widows. So, Charlie started going over there every Friday, which took one of our days away.
NORTON: Going over to where?
JOEL: To Jeff’s house. Jeff Claire. Another legal person who retired two years ago. So, that left us less days. It diminished as we aged in the last 20 years or whatever it is, less. We still get together in the evenings once or twice a week. Not during COVID, we didn’t at all, so to speak.
PEARL: But we did during COVID. We played in our front yard.
JOEL: Ya. The neighbors really liked that. They seemed to like it very much.
NORTON: I bet they did.
PEARL: We would do that. Whenever the weather was decent, we would play.
JOEL: We went to the park sometimes, Stanton Park.
PEARL: Yeah. After we played in front, after there was more information about how you could actually be in a park and not be worried, we started rolling the piano to Stanton Park and playing there.
JOEL: During COVID times.
PEARL: So to answer your long-ago question, when the weather is nice, we play on the street on Saturday or Sunday, or at least the Hillbillies do. Sometimes it’s the regular Hillbillies, sometimes it’s just us.
NORTON: Was it usually down by Eastern Market?
JOEL: Pretty much unless someone’s there, then I move down half a block. Yes, North Carolina and Seventh, SE across from North Hall. On the corner by that sign, they made a mistake on the sign. Maybe you’ve noticed it, maybe you haven’t. The Seventh Street…
PEARL: Well, they had to add in “Street.”
JOEL: Yes, they left it out by mistake. The Seventh Street Coffee, something like that, on the corner. [7th St Hill Cafe.]
NORTON: That’s been a lot of different businesses there, yes. Antiques on the Hill.
PEARL: Yes, it has. It has.
JOEL: I remember that. And that lady is still living there. The daughter of the old woman who ran the Antiques. [See interview with Gina Sangster on this website.]
PEARL: But we also, you know—if somebody wants to hire us—we play for weddings.
JOEL: We have several gigs coming up, but it’s not exactly even once a month.
PEARL: Maybe if we averaged it out, maybe once a month.
JOEL: Sometimes it’s more than that, but if you average, yeah.
PEARL: So, like, we just played for a wedding, and we’re going to play for …
JOEL: …Brent School’s fundraiser in October…
PEARL: …Yeah, and we’re going to play for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo.
JOEL Topher Cushman in a couple of weeks, in June.
NORTON: What’s Topher Cushman?
JOEL: Topher is a man, Cushman is the last name. He’s hired us about four or five times. A bunch of guys his age who…
PEARL: …Concerned fathers. It’s a St. Peter’s organization. They have a party.
JOEL: It’s for drinking beer and raising money for something or other. I don’t know what.
PEARL: So, here and there we get…
JOEL: Block parties. Typically, I’ve refused a lot of jobs. In my old age I’m not going to refuse them as much, but I read, not a stupid article, it was a great article, but I took it to heart and whatever. On the West Coast some musician said the musicians like us sitting here, Pearl and me, should stop working for free and all that. It makes it hard for all the other musicians who want to support themselves. We should demand to get paid something meaningful. For years, I took that to heart, and I refused a lot of jobs on the Hill from people who wanted me to play for husband’s birthday party, and all that. Hearing us on the street they think we don’t charge anything, basically. For years I’ve been charging $100 a person when the five of us play, that’s $500. It can vary if people want to negotiate with less people in this event, but basically, [that’s] what [it] is. The regular people on the Hill who were having a party outside on their patio don’t really want to pay a few hundred dollars for musicians. It seems to be my experience. So, I refused a lot of jobs [and I’m not sure COVID’s over sort of a little bit].
PEARL: We also play at sort of dive bars. Dive bars are a good venue for us.
NORTON: Like, which ones?
PEARL: Dew Drop Inn.
JOEL: Right Proper, Public Option. This is out in Brookland. And also, on, what’s that road called that we just were on, where the Public Option…
PEARL: It’s Rhode Island Avenue.
JOEL: Rhode Island Avenue.
NORTON: This is also one of my recollections, which may be faulty, there was a time when both of you, but particularly Joel, were the dance crazed people. He would dance at anything. He would lead the dance, swing dances…
JOEL: Totally correct. Pearl made me take lessons at Capitol Hill…
PEARL: At CHAW[Capitol Hill Arts Workshop].
JOEL: At CHAW, forty years ago, thirty years ago, whatever it was.
PEARL: I created a monster.
JOEL: And I never looked back. Men don’t want to dance. They would rather sit with their fat guts on the couch watching the game, that’s what they all do, and they don’t think. Pearl’s heard me say this.
NORTON: You were talking when we broke, the idea about dancing.
JOEL: The idea about dancing. This is polemical and has foul language in it.
NORTON: It doesn’t have to.
JOEL: It doesn’t have to, but it’s going to. It’s that men think that Jesus loves them and the president loves them if they just bring the money home, don’t fuck other women, they’re not addicted to drugs, they’re not alcoholics…and that’s all in America they have to do and all. But men should dance. Women love to dance. I’ve danced with hundreds of women, literally. Everywhere I go, I try—just like music—I try to dance. I’m often the only person dancing. Or, typically, if Pearl’s with me, we start dancing and other people will dance—no one would dance otherwise. They’re all afraid.
NORTON: Afraid once you get out there and start dancing.
JOEL: Touché. I love dancing.  Pearl made me take those lessons. I wanted to keep our marriage together. I didn’t know about dancing, and I didn’t want to dance because men are afraid to dance. Their sexual politics, perhaps that’s that word, “Dare I push this woman around? Dare I?” You need a leader. I don’t mind if women lead me. But no one ever wants to because I’m a strong leader, and they see me dancing. Women want to dance. They like a person who leads well. Yes, so I love dancing. I was dancing last night at this concert. I was the only one. I mean I danced with a woman. Couple women liked dancing with me at the Blues Barbershop.  Pearl didn’t want to dance. She’s from Memphis and doesn’t like…Believe me from 40 years, or 35, I’ve had experience with people being afraid. They don’t want to be seen. It’s [your true] [the same] situation when no one wants to walk right up through the church and sit in the front row. They hang back. They don’t want to be seen. People are so afraid of the male gaze, the human gaze. So, yeah, I love dancing, and I dance whenever I can. It’s just been wonderful. Or what made me do it. But she dances with me a lot, but not all the time.
NORTON: The kind of music that you play, do you have a name for the various styles? What do you call it?
PEARL: I think the general term for all the different genres would be Americana.
JOEL: Currently. When I started back in the 60s with this music, it was called ethnic music. Ethnic music now is Balkan music or Polish music or something.
PEARL: Or folk music.
JOEL: Then, 20 years ago, it was called roots music. Now the young people who are 20, 25, 30, they seem to be calling it Americana. That’s what I’ve heard. That seems to be the current term.
PEARL: It’s a general term that encompasses any kind of folk.
JOEL: It could be blues or folk or Cajun, Irish, mountain music. Old-time is the real term; everyone calls it that, old-time music.
PEARL: Part of the need for a new term is the understanding that particularly African American and white music was divided by the juke box categories of rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Current thinking is that music really wasn’t really different. Wasn’t two different musics. It was a marketing tool that separated the two musics. That’s sort of off topic here.
JOEL: In our history books, we read that when New York for the first time in the 20s started coming south and recording music, they had famously” race records,” which is for black blues musicians. They don’t want to hear the black string bands playing hillbilly tunes and stuff.
PEARL: Or playing the American Song Book. All the… the black guys that we love as blues musicians played all different kinds of music. They played the music that people wanted to hear. But they only got recorded playing this one kind of music.
JOEL: Delta blues, whatever.
PEARL: Somebody else could play the pop tunes. We’re off topic.
JOEL: It has roots with what Pearl said about rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. That’d be like the 50s. The syndrome goes back to the 20s with record executives, if you want to use a fancy term, Columbia Records and other labels in New York City sending their scouts down to record people as either race records or hillbilly. Hillbilly was invented by them as well, that term I believe.
NORTON: Right, and that became country music. Didn’t the Library of Congress do a lot of that, preserving the ethnic music, or whatever you call it, the americana.
JOEL: Yes, they did . I don’t know what your question is. They certainly did. Is that, you’re just asking? Yes?
JOEL: They did. When I was 15, I walked into the Library of Congress from Wheaton, Maryland. Joe Hickerson, who’s long gone from there, was sitting with his headphones on at his desk listening to someone like John Hurt, black blues man. I forget who it was. Maybe I didn’t know then. I was new to this. It seemed like the most wonderful job in the world. To walk in on a guy at his desk. I said he had head phones on. I think he had…a tape was playing, and I could hear it. So, forget the headphones. The music I was beginning to love, and he’s there at work, like doing this. Amazing. The Library of Congress puts out records, LPs [Long Playing or vinyl], or they used to. I don’t know if they still do. They had available for the public in the folk archives—with the photographs and all that and earphones to listen through—they had a bunch, files of records, LPs, that the Library of Congress put out from their field recordings that you could listen to. So, yes.
NORTON: What did you end up doing for the Library of Congress all those years?
JOEL: It’s menial work. I’m not a professional. I am a GS-8 which is really lowly, and for many years I was just a GS-7. I was step and fetch it, a go for. I moved things. I shelved books and un-shelved books that are from the records collection that are passé now. Put out the new ones, take off the old ones, do some preliminary computer entry into the database of our reference collection of about 66,000 books showing [what it tells us] for the public’s benefit, what books are on reference. What we hold, as we call it, in our reference collection, and what’s gone back to the general collections. What’s come out of the general collections to be in our reference collection. [The] reference collection is what anyone can access…
Our college library, New College, had 30,000 volumes. It was a fairly normal-sized small college library. So, this is twice, over twice that. The public can access it. It’s all sorts of reference works, and books that look like regular books except some librarian has decided it is worthy of reference because it’s some classic tome on some subject that people will want to consult.
PEARL: Don’t forget, you used to be in charge of all phone books.
JOEL: Yes. As lawyers say, I was de facto, not de jure, in charge of the telephone books. Thousands of them, domestic and foreign. I’d bring over tubs, yellow laundry tubs, from Copywrite, where they would enter the library. Process them and put out the new ones, take away the old ones, stamp them, mark them and this and that. That has dried up for years. There hasn’t been any…
PEARL: There aren’t phone books anymore.
JOEL: No phone books have been coming in.
NORTON: Phone books are kind of fascinating because they do show what’s going on in any given time.
PEARL: They’re an excellent source of historical records, and we don’t have them anymore.
JOEL: If Pearl hadn’t earned so much money at her school, and if she was pestering me for costliest frillies, as James Joyce calls them, I could have gone to the quiz shows when they ask people about little towns all over the country, and stuff like that, because these phone books familiarized me with little towns in every state of the Union.
PEARL: It would have to be a very narrow quiz show. [Laughter.]
JOEL: My whole life—well, every few years—when I used to watch TV, that would be one of the things people would be quizzed on—little cities, little towns.
NORTON: We’ve alluded to it at various times, but your famous rolling piano. When did you start rolling the piano, and how did that happen?
JOEL: I want to quote Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, now he’s dead. At the beginning of his book, Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade as it’s called, the first sentence is, “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” And, I’ve become unstuck in time. My memory is like bubblegum about that rolling piano and how many years I’ve had it and how many years we played at the late Steve Cymrot’s place. Nicky [Cymrot owns it,] the bookstore across the street, two blocks down from us. I can tell you, it’s vague in my mind, and if Pearl knows, that would be wonderful. You think I’ve been rolling that piano around for 15 years, 17 years?
PEARL: Not 17.
JOEL: Well, we don’t know. If you think of something, let me know.
NORTON: Time flies when you get to be our age.
JOEL: Tell me about it. The deal is, I had this dream for this rolling piano—oh, I know where I got it from. It’s San Francisco. Ooh, that helps date it. I was out there… I was out there a couple of times. Brendan was like 16 or something the first time, and now he’s 44. That’s a long time ago.
PEARL: No, Elana’s 44.
JOEL: He’s 40, sorry. Okay, that’s 20, maybe 20 years ago, roughly.
PEARL: But also, you had the bicycle philanthropy.
JOEL: I did, but that’s not connected.
PEARL: You gave up the bicycle philanthropy, and then you started the rolling piano.
JOEL: I’m not aware of that.
NORTON: What was the bicycle philanthropy?
JOEL: Knowing from my studies and Kurt Vonnegut in his book, Breakfast of Champions, which he wrote after Slaughterhouse-Five, where he talks about how Americans feel unworthy. They’re regionally closed-mouth in the Mid-West where he grew up in Indianapolis, and don’t talk. I mentioned that to you earlier about that issue, whether people talk or not to their children. He blames it on reading Ivanhoe in high school, and no one could understand the language, so the teachers would lord it over the poor students and, like, tell them they were stupid. That’s what Kurt Vonnegut says in the 30s because he’s going back to the 30s. Because they couldn’t understand the difficult language of Walter Scott.
PEARL: Where’s this going?
NORTON: I remember, what was my question? What’s the bicycle philanthropy?
JOEL: So, here’s what. Vonnegut feels that Americans don’t have reason to feel worthy, and they are afraid of speaking. I started the bicycle philanthropy that I ran for 20 years. It was… there’s no cash nexus. No money ever changed hands of any sort. I wasn’t out-of-pocket either. People brought me bicycles that they didn’t know what to do with, and I fixed them up and gave [them] to anyone who lived on the Hill. I didn’t keep track of how many, but I think over 100. Maybe doesn’t sound like a lot. I don’t know how many it was. I did it so I could have something to feel worthy about. I’m an American, and I wanted to feel good about myself. I think people go do Christian charity in their churches and all, partly so they feel good about themselves. This gave me a reason to feel good. The young people especially who rode the bicycles, who were here as interns, typically young, and a lot of beautiful women. They were always so grateful for these free bicycles, I’d give them. I did value my time. It was conscious. I stopped when I got old, when I was 58. I did it from 38 to 58. I had plenty of time. Didn’t watch the games ever. Church of no TV here. So, I’d work on these bicycles and fix them up at no cost to anyone or even me because I would use old parts from bicycles that didn’t work, and I could take them apart and use them for parts. That was the bicycle philanthropy.
PEARL: The idea was if your bicycle got stolen, you could come to Joel and get a bicycle.
JOEL: Oh, yes. There was a lot of crime.
NORTON: There still is, at least in bicycles.
PEARL: Now that there are the red bikes, you don’t need a bicycle.
JOEL: [I would get numerous cases of someone with their too-beautiful bike, their] too-expensive, nice, beautiful bike [getting] stolen, and they’d come to me, and I’d give them this crappy old bike—but [one] that works nicely and they can get around—and they’re really grateful. That was the bike philanthropy. Pearl’s connection with stopping that and then starting the rolling piano, I’m not aware of.
I think maybe roughly 20 years ago. I was in San Francisco, maybe a few years before that, someone had a piano outdoors. It was on the street, so they obviously rolled it around. I don’t remember what the wheels were like—I wasn’t paying attention in those days to that. But that gave me the idea for a rolling piano.
As you may or may not know, if you try to roll a regular piano around, as I have done, without a special dolly for it––more about that in a second. I’ve rolled a piano for someone helping them move, for free, in the suburb on macadam, on black macadam in the summertime in Alexandria. The wheels, from the friction, melted. These black wheels, they melted from the friction. Hard something, they were, whatever they were made of. I spent three years trying to get a rolling piano going. I consulted welders. I had dreams of a rig for it, and nothing clicked, and everything was maybe too expensive, and no one was that interested in it. I was at a loss. I searched the Web plenty. That’s going to come into the story in a minute. In the meantime, after three years, after talking to piano movers, they gave me a tip and said, “Oh, try this place in Annandale.” I had searched the website of that place in Annandale extensively.
PEARL: It must have been the 2000s because the Web wasn’t around.
JOEL: Okay. I’m not saying it was before that. This place in Annandale—I took the Metro to get there, to get this heavy-duty, all terrain dolly with 50-pound pressure, rubber wheels like a car, like a small… yeah. This is God’s own truth or as my late grandfather would say, “So help me God.” If I’d know the term “all terrain dolly,” I could have had that the first week, the first day of those three years and [those three years of] my life would [have been] different. No, I didn’t know that term. When I searched the website of the same place that had it, it wasn’t on their website. There were all sorts of moving things, but nothing that would work for my piano, an upright piano that came from Bruce Brennan’s wife. I bought their piano. They had it for their children. People stopped using it after some years. It sat there for years. She said, “I’ll sell it to you for what I paid for it, which is $700.”
NORTON: That was fairly shortly after you moved here.
JOEL: No, no, no. This rolling piano thing is much later.
NORTON: Well, no, but I’m talking about did you have a piano before then?
JOEL: Oh yeah. It’s the one that I mentioned earlier.
PEARL: When we moved into this house. Moving was peculiar, because we were living on Independence, and we were only moving two blocks. When we decided—when Father made this  generous offer to help us buy a house—I immediately started looking at houses. Was that when you started looking for wheels or something because you were going to build a cart?
JOEL: I did.
PEARL: To move all our furniture. So, instead of hiring movers like a smart person would do, Joel builds this cart, and we bought this house, and then we moved all our stuff by loading it onto this cart and wheeling it over. It was like 100 trips. For years after we moved here, walking down Seventh Street I would find little toys that had been our children’s that had fallen into the gutter and stuff. We find our house is full of boxes. This had been a group house, and there were some people who were living here [who] couldn’t move into their house for a while, so they asked if they could move their boxes here. We said sure, so we had like two households worth of boxes. I’m trying to deal with two little kids and all the boxes, and Joel is out looking for a piano, the piano that was going to be right here. That was kind of our….
JOEL: This is maybe our fourth one. This one is the last one, I think. It’s called a piano case, is what the wood is called. The first piano [we had] was a fabulous case. It matched the sideboard which cost us about $7 from when we lived on our little farm out near Winchester. Auction sales, farm auction sales. The Piano Shop, where I get all my pianos from, except the first one, I guess…That was called The Piano Shop too, but I think they moved out to the Beltway area… anyway, I’d moved up the scale, trading my piano in…
PEARL: They have this deal that you could return the piano for whatever you paid for it if you buy another one.
JOEL: For a new piano.
PEARL: Like a more expensive one.
JOEL: So, I’d moved up. This one was $5,000 but I started with $1,100. That’s this piano. But the rolling piano which I got from the Brennans…
PEARL: That was many years later.
JOEL: It was. These movers told me to try that place in Annandale. Getting that all-terrain dolly with the heavy wheels—It supports 1,200 pounds and my piano, loaded up with metal chairs and other things…I put all sorts of hooks on it and all. I can carry everything all at once, Pearl’s  big speaker, this big amplifier, all sorts of things. It’s not more than 550 pounds with all that stuff on it, I [don’t] think. When I got that dolly, it was the happiest day of my life after maybe my son being born, that second child of ours. That was a pretty special day. That’s typical enough. This rivaled it…getting that dolly. I had had dreams of pushing a piano around and playing it. Part of it, you might understand—this is a bourgeois thing—when I would play my fiddle on the street, no one in Georgetown, rhetorically speaking, could decide if I was a bum or a musician or what. Having a piano on the street is like, that’s cred, that’s validation. No bum is like rolling a piano all over town.
PEARL: Well, especially when we get the string bass to play with us. [Laughter.]
JOEL: Now, I got our bass player a tuba and he plays that, a sousaphone. The piano is instant respectability. The admiring crowds love it for what it is, and I have the top open and they can see the piano hammers––term of art––working, hitting the strings. Really different than standing out in Georgetown with my fiddle case open, fiddling and fiddling and fiddling, and having people walk by. That’s part of why it was such a great thing to get this dolly which enables me to move the piano all over. I’ve rolled ...
NORTON: Where have you rolled it?
JOEL: I’ve rolled it to and fro, across, back and forth. I had a third piano which was a little bit lighter, maybe 100 pounds lighter, an upright. No Pearl, maybe a console…term of art. I’ve rolled that one, on this dolly, back and forth to 14th Street.
NORTON: Fourteen Street NW?
JOEL: Yeah. It’s about two miles I think, roughly. About four times. This one has been down to the Mall for Sanity Day [Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear], if you remember that, with John Stewart and Colbert, as he calls himself. They had a big rally. We weren’t part of that. We were at the edge of it and made $250 in one-dollar bills playing. There were big crowds, and people were interested in our music. Charlie was there and…
PEARL: But you also, you played for that—a couple of years in a row ––was it an anti-tobacco thing? Phil Wiggins played with you.
JOEL: That was on the Mall. It was a guy interested in—I forget now. He had a project going on. I can’t remember if it was environmental?
PEARL: It was something environmental.
JOEL: Electricity, like electric cars or something.
PEARL: Yeah, maybe.
JOEL: He hired me. But that’s just incidental. For the 30 years that Pearl worked at her school, we played for their picnic. That’s over Garfield Park, right? That’s not so close. That’s a mile and a half, I think, from this house. We played there for twenty years or more, every year. I’m not afraid to roll it two or three…
PEARL: I don’t think it was twenty years.
JOEL: What?
PEARL: I don’t think we played a handful of times for that.
JOEL: I disagree, but anyway. I don’t mind rolling it far. We’ve rolled it all over the Hill. Up to 11th Street. Down to the Mall and Garfield Park. Oh, and out this way to H Street [NE]. I took it down to H Street once…twice…there’s that big hill.
NORTON: You’re pointing north.
JOEL: Came up that big hill. And I think we had gigs somewhere in that area. Organizing that rolling piano’s been a big deal and just wonderful. I tune it myself. It doesn’t need much tuning. The big thing that makes pianos need tuning is living in a house like this, without water in the air. They shrink, and they expand. But if you keep them damp, like our garage out there where the rolling piano is, it just keeps its tune year after year after year. It’s fabulous.
NORTON: Let’s see. Let me go through my list here a little bit. Oh, one thing. You all have been here on the Hill since ...
JOEL: 1980.
NORTON: 1980. So, how’s it changed in your opinion? Or in your observations.
PEARL: Well, when we were first here, it felt less safe. Then it felt more safe. It’s starting to feel maybe a little less safe in some ways again. That’s sort of been an up-and-down kind of thing—the safety issue.
NORTON: Yeah, so how did the safety issue affect your lives? How did you change the way you…
JOEL: I can answer that, and then you can say something.
PEARL: Okay. Why don’t you go, then I’ll go.
JOEL: [During the 1980s, if I recall right, four times.] Let me start again. Our bedroom upstairs by the windows...back in my salad days, I carried out the radiator. Detached it. I have a beef with radiators being by the windows where everyone puts them because they block access to the window. It makes it awkward for me. Took out the radiator—we have an unheated bedroom technically—and built a built-in bed with parts I got from the Folger [Shakespeare Theater]. Folger used to put their play materials in the dumpster when they were done. Wonderful plywood. Wonderful, huge ropes I still use. Ladders—oh, you might not have noticed, there’s a ladder up when you went to the bathroom, there’s a ladder right by the bathroom door, which goes up to the skylight. That’s a Folger ladder that I attached up there that they put together for a scene in a loft in a play. Someone was calling down from the loft. Sleeping up there in our bedroom right near the window, we can hear stuff.

Talking about how things have changed, there were four times during the 1980s that there would be this—it became typical—typically a scream and footsteps. Big pounding footsteps where someone had snatched someone’s purse outside our house. After the 80s, maybe after ’88, I never heard that again in all the remaining years. Not once has anyone been screaming. Not sustained screaming, going on and on and on, just this wild, hysterical, you know, aaaah [screams]. That’s a change because that happened several times. Also, incidentally, there were murders during the 80s. At Acker Lane [Acker Place NE]. I think, sorry the number sounds repetitious. I think about four murders is what I recall within a few blocks. I don’t follow this closely. There was some murder over near Eastern Market a while ago, I think, but mostly it doesn’t seem like, for my money, there aren’t the mug murders that there were in the 80s that I, at least, heard about. That’s a change.
Oh, there was also famously on Seventh Street—I’m not close to this—there was a crack house. There were the so-called pioneers, people who moved here in the 70s, as they used to be called, pioneers. These people always told us, reported a fairly mixed living situation. But in the 80s, the gentrification was really underway, and there were still pockets of indigent folk living, a house here and there. The crack house on Seventh Street, halfway down the block was one of those places, I think. I set eyes on it from the outside, I guess. I don’t have any image, clear image. Don’t know of anything going on there. Just heard about it. So, that was gone by the end of the 80s.
As far as changes, what we’ve noticed—maybe not now as much for ten or twenty years—but for three decades or so, it seemed like businesses would have a hard time staying on the Hill, making ends meet. Restaurants opening and closing; and other service industries, tailors, or whoever would be, coming and going; and lots of stores. Frager’s stayed. That was wonderful. But, lots of movement with stores. People opening stores and then having to close them. That’s a change—seeing all these stores coming and going, I think there’s other places in town where it’s more stable, is my ignorant impression.
PEARL: I think there’s been a steady gentrification. Really, pretty steady in terms of looking at what Eastern Market is like now compared to what it was like.
JOEL: Oh, my god. That’s huge.
PEARL: There were a few little ... There was the Cat and the Fiddle and a few little stores and then Hine [multi-use redevelopment of Hine Junior High School site]. All that is just totally the same.
JOEL: The Safeway
PEARL: I noticed in terms of the families who came to Capitol Hill Day School, the sort of economic situation of those families changed over the 30 years.
NORTON: Didn’t the Day School become a fair amount more expensive too over the years?
PEARL: Yes. The Day School got more expensive, and as it got more expensive it started attracting a wealthier base, family base. That was a pretty dramatic change in terms of families and students. I felt that. It was so gradual, but really continual. You look around now and nobody like us, the way we were when we first moved here, could have possibly afforded a house around here.
JOEL: A big political change, but you might remember Nadine Winter. So she had her voter base, which disappeared very soon, in a few years, two or three years. I remember us types, Pearl and me, and that man who was on the school board, that wild, funny man who said, “You were the reason he got elected.”
NORTON: Bob Boyd?
JOEL: Is that?
PEARL: Bob Boyd.
JOEL: Yeah. Thank you.
NORTON: Landslide Bob who won by 20 votes or something.
JOEL: Yes. He said Pearl was what elected him.
NORTON: May have been.
JOEL: I remember our gang.
PEARL: I never knew he was called Landslide Bob. I love it.
NORTON: I called it Landslide. Other people have said that too.
JOEL: I wasn’t friendly toward Nadine Winter’s type of politics. It seemed too conservative and too whatever. Not progressive and not,“Let’s h ave a colorful, vibrant neighborhood.” We vote always. A bunch of us, people like the Cymrots, whoever, wanted change, and the change came just after 1980, within just a couple of years. We got people who reflected our values more. That’s been a change. Along with that, our council members—some ups and downs as far as I’m concerned—there’s been this wonderful progression. What’s the man who lives on the Hill, who was the health person who came to Shabbat?
PEARL: Health person?
NORTON: Tommy Wells?
JOEL: Yes, Tommy. I can’t remember. I’m too old to remember stuff very well. Tommy Wells. He was very congenial to me. I’m the one who told him for the first time back when he was elected about WABA, the Washington Area Bicycle Association. He’d never heard of it. His heart was in the right place, but Charles, who used to work for him…
PEARL: Charles Allen?…
JOEL: Charles Allen who’s taken over now, I adore him. He, to me…you don’t like him? [Laughter.]
NORTON: It’s alright [laughter]. I’m not going to get into politics here…it’s an interview.
JOEL:  I love his politics. I love what he has done. Unless I’m being duped. He knows who I am.
NORTON: I’ll bet he does.
JOEL: For me, a change is increasingly progressive politics. Stuff for the people, whoever they are. Low-income people and everybody. I just think, I love those changes of public services. Things that have been done to Eastern Market—Eastern Market Plaza, having the music there—that’s been a big change. How responsive I experience the DC government. Oh right, God, in the old days, the 80s, we used to make fun of the DC government all the time as if the people had cobwebs all around them and couldn’t get anything done. There’s that number now you call, three…
NORTON: 311.
JOEL: Yeah. That’s worked really well for me. Just a couple of times that I’ve used it. Other stuff seems so much more responsive than back in the day when the DC government—under Marion Barry. Right. Trees for Capitol Hill. I dug, because I wanted to, dug up stumps because I do that sort of thing, by hand, for Trees on Capitol Hill. Planted trees. That was because there wasn’t the money anymore for trees.
PEARL: Now there’s some.
JOEL: No one’s called on me for anything like that for ever so long. I love what I experience as progressive politics. Across from the Plaza [Metro Plaza], that wonderful playground for the children there on Pennsylvania Avenue.
NORTON: Near the Metro. Cattycorner across from the Metro.
JOEL:  Yeah. That sort of thing. Not to mention the…
NORTON: Yeah, that’s nice. We didn’t have that when our kids were growing up.
JOEL: Exactly. I like all this stuff. The waterfront. Pearl and I brought our bikes down there sometimes. That’s amazing down there on the water and the boardwalk. Then what Pearl already referred to, the changes in all that housing they built for people who are roughly 30-years old and younger and older down—straight south on the way to the stadium. I don’t know, 30, 40 thousand units. Maybe I’m exaggerating.
NORTON: There may be. There’s a lot.
JOEL: And all those restaurants down there. We don’t have much to do with it. We’re old people in this, but scads and scads and gobs of young people hanging out there. That’s a change. That’s not the Hill, but it’s close to the Hill.
NORTON: That’s fine. This is not like a schoolroom test. Just asked you for your all’s impression.
JOEL: So. the Hill’s really gotten spiffy and toney and all that. Colorful. Hill’s Kitchen is a change. Having a glorious store like that. I don’t use it very much but been in there a few times. Going back to closure…
PEARL: She was a student, Leah.
JOEL: Getting back to closure, Pearl, maybe this is a different topic, but Pearl and I can’t step out to walk the way old people do for their health, walking around the Hill without her meeting gobs of her, well, some of her old students and their parents. Every time. There’s roughly 600 of them we think out there.
NORTON: Six hundred fourth graders over time…
PEARL: Over 30 years. If there are 25 kids in a class.
JOEL: Twenty-five times twenty-five is 625. Parents too. She keeps getting stopped, and tries to remember who they are.
NORTON: That’s the hard part. Nobody has a name tag.
JOEL: Some of these people are over 40 now.
NORTON: Well, Brendan she taught. He’s 40.
JOEL: Oh no, he’s not.
PEARL: He’s 40.
JOEL: Yeah, I was going to say 44 but no, he’s only 40.
PEARL: My first class, they must be 43.
JOEL: I don’t know if that’s a change but since she’s retired…
PEARL: Watching, watching people grow up, it’s been delightful.
NORTON: I pretty much covered everything I could think of.
JOEL: Okay.
NORTON: Anything else you want to throw in?
PEARL: This is probably all; we’ve talked for a long time.
NORTON: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
JOEL: Is this going to help? You have to sell a certain number of subscriptions or box tops?
NORTON: No, this is fine. This is a service to the Hill. It’s a historic recollection.
PEARL: See now, don’t you want to be the person being interviewed. Wouldn’t that be…
JOEL: It’s really fun if you have a sensitive interviewer.

Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Pearl and Joel Bailes Interview, 05/20/2023

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