I was tickled, earlier this year, to hear a favorite voice on the radio reveal that she grew up in Arlington.
Mary Cliff for more than three decades has hosted Washington-area public radio’s “Traditions,” a two-plus-hour serenade of folk music, blues, ballads and ethnic offerings you’d be hard-pressed to encounter among the screaming ads of trendy commercial stations.
You can catch her Saturday nights at 88.5 on WAMU-FM at from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., or a longer version (but a fainter signal) on Saturday afternoons on that station’s sister HD location (105.5 FM), or on worldwide streaming via www.bluegrasscountry.org.
You may also bump into Cliff at live concerts of “folk music or things you can see from there.” She is revered by area musicians for giving over precious airtime to announcements of who’s playing where and when. (She’s a bit shy around fans.)
When I heard her on-air mention of her Arlington connection, I e-mailed her and received a cool set of particulars about my own neck of the woods.
“I grew up near Lee Highway and Lexington Street when that part of 26th Street was virtually rural,” she wrote. “I remember a donkey in the field behind us; we awoke to the roosters on at least two working chicken farms nearby (one now a park, the other McMansions), and fields of flowers being grown for Johnson’s Florist. By high school, I didn’t want to go with everybody else, so I bussed to Washington Circle in D.C. to Immaculate Conception Academy — since replaced by a hotel. But I do have one of the bricks from the old school.”
Cliff’s official WAMU bio tells you her next phase. In what music snobs called the “folk scare” of the early ‘60s, she sang in hootenannies and worked at Georgetown’s nationally famous Cellar Door nightclub. She broke into radio in 1966, beginning as a typist but eventually landing a shot at programming. Her mellifluous voice was first broadcast in 1968, when she spun progressive rock for the long-since transmogrified stations WAVA and WHFS.
In 1970, she joined the public WETA, having already spent years, she told me, singing live and deejaying under the mentorship of folk impresario Dick Cerri. She took over his show in 1973, by which time her engineering, editing and producing skills would qualify her as a utility player for the Arlington-based station (doing classical music, news, public affairs and the arts).
Despite her versatility, soothing voice and repeated WAMMIE awards for boosting local troubadours, Cliff saw her career upended by WETA’s sudden move in 2007 to an all-classical format. (After an ill-advised lurch into talk radio, the station took over the genre from dying commercial station WGMS.) Cliff was quickly picked up by WAMU, though with less-desirable hours for “Traditions.”
I asked Cliff if she recalled the presence of one of my childhood idols, country singer-TV star-sausage salesman Jimmy Dean, in our neighborhood in the 1950s. “My brother, when he was in high school, worked at the Lee-Lexington drugstore, across the parking lot from the Gulf station and would tell us when Jimmy Dean stopped in,” she said, adding that her first home as an Arlington wife was a couple of blocks from Dean’s.
“That little mile of Lee Highway has been very important in my life,” Cliff said. “Thanks for the memories.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]