Songs of San Francisco — May 2013
Life in San Francisco has been a subject for songwriters for as long as the city has been in existence. Each song by itself represents a different aspect of the place and its people. Taken together, however, the songs of San Francisco are more than a collection of musical and poetic gems that reflect the experiences, views, and concerns of its inhabitants; they are a rich, multi-faceted tapestry that document the city’s history.
From the time the sleepy Yerba Buena seaport began to swell with newcomers seeking riches or a new life (or both) during the Gold Rush, singers portrayed San Francisco with all the hyperbole and brutal honesty one would expect from a boomtown that was as prosperous for some as it was perilous for others. Later, as music publishing took off in New York and around the country, San Francisco joined the burgeoning industry with firms that specialized in songs about local people, places, and events, often by regional composers and lyricists. And while tragedy and triumph over adversity were common themes after the earthquake and fire of 1906, the reconstruction of the city coincided with the ragtime craze, and the music’s jaunty rhythms proved to be a healthy tonic well-suited to uplift the spirit of the people. By the time of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, songwriters were celebrating the rebirth of the city and imploring people to come to the fair to see it for themselves.
Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, officially ceding the California territory to the United States by Mexico, music in the region was Spanish and Mexican in origin. The elegant, triplet-inflected melodies of “Carmela” and “Yo no sé si me quieres,” collected by Eleanor Hague in 1917, suggested a habañera rhythm (“like a guitar”) to arranger Gertrude Ross in keeping with the traditional character of Spanish- American popular music of the 19th century. The events in the hills outside of Sacramento in 1848, though, brought new people to the region, and with them new music. “The California Gold Diggers” was written by Jesse Hutchinson Jr. and Nathan Barker, both members of East Coast singing families. This upbeat traveling song, full of shouts and hollers, was made “for a band of overland emigrants, who left Massachusetts in 1849.” While the passage around Cape Horn was generally preferable to crossing the country by land, the six-month journey on the ship Eliza depicted in “Oh, California” was also arduous. The prospect of walking the streets of San Francisco and finding “gold lumps” lying on the ground might have helped its two hundred or so passengers endure the poor quarters, bad weather, unappealing food, illness, and tedium that were unavoidable on these trips.
In 1855, San Francisco publisher D. E. Appleton and Co. on Montgomery Street printed a little pocket-sized book called Put’s Original California Songster. “Detailing the hopes, trials, and joys of a miner’s life,” this little volume contained as many colorful vignettes from the Gold Rush era as any literature on the subject. John A. Stone, who liked to be called “Old Put,” came to California in 1850 as a prospector and retired from the mines three years later when he discovered a 700-pound block of gold-bearing quartz worth $15,000. He went on to pursue a life in music, performing songs he had fashioned by clothing popular tunes in “humorous, though not irreverent verse.” “You Who Don’t Believe It” was typical of the ballyhoo that attracted so many to San Francisco in the early years. While in this song Stone parodies the advertisements that sought to draw customers to journey west, “Humbug Steamship Companies” reveals the truth about the harsh, at times miserable, conditions for the average traveler. Having known his own share of hardship, melancholy songs like “I’m Sad and Lonely Here” bear a mark of personal experience that make them especially poignant.
As the city grew and prospered, San Francisco sheet music publishing houses were a natural source for songs about regional events and interests. The ballad “I Don’t Want to Be Drowned” was written after the SS Golden Gate of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company ran aground and burned off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico, on July 27, 1862. Tragically, more than two hundred people died in the disaster, and the song dramatizes in music one incident related by a passenger who was unable to save the life of a young girl desperate to escape the sinking vessel only to find later that she had survived anyhow. In 1856, more than ten years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, songwriters Charles Mackay and Stephen Massett heralded the event with “Clear the Way!” A driving call to action urging that “our earnest must not slacken into play,” the song is emblematic of the importance of San Francisco in the fulfillment of American “manifest destiny.”
Songwriters responded in a variety of ways to the disastrous events of April 18, 1906, and its aftermath in San Francisco. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet and syndicated journalist for Hearst Newspapers, submitted her lyric for “The Stricken City” to the Sunday Boston American and later the San Francisco Examiner. Commissioned for the Hearst San Francisco Relief Fund, its verses are largely fraught with anguish, but in the end plead for the city to rise again. Conversely, San Francisco songwriter and arranger Edward Bergenholtz’s “San Francisco” is a spirited ragtime march, which signaled the pluck and resilience the city would show in the ensuing years of reconstruction. However, no songwriter would uplift the city musically as world-renowned prima donna Luisa Tetrazzini did on Christmas Eve, 1910, when she serenaded more than 200,000 people in the streets near Lotta’s Fountain. Author Samuel Dickson, who attended the performance, wrote that when she sang, “silence, save for her voice, spread over the city…Streetcars were stopped, horses and wagons and the few automobiles stood still. The clanging of the cable car bells was stilled. Not a sound came from that vast audience.” And then, when she sang “Auld Lang Syne,” they joined her in a chorus of thousands.
As San Francisco began preparing to host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the music industry on both coasts portrayed it as a city on the rise. Ragtime was, by then, the lingua franca of American popular music, and the song “San Francisco, the Paris of the U. S. A.” promoted the cosmopolitan flair of the recovering metropolis in a lively syncopated march. Tin Pan Alley joined the effort to attract visitors from around the nation and the world by publishing songs like “I’m Going to San Francisco,” and “The Ragtime Engineer,” which advertised travel to the city as the fair approached. After the fair had opened, Broadway songwriters Gene Buck and Louis A. Hirsch celebrated the first trans-continental telephone call (made by Alexander Graham Bell in New York to the fairgrounds) with the romantic ragtime duet “Hello, Frisco!” for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915.
San Francisco emerged once again as a thriving business and cultural center just as Los Angeles was beginning to assert itself as a city with great potential. The image of California as a land of hope and promise increasingly led songwriters in the 20th century to create anthems that envisioned the state and its picturesque beauty as a paradise where all things are possible. Accordingly, the image of returning to California by train is interwoven poetically with a return to love and romance in “California and You.” In “California, Here I Come,” coming back to the Golden State is simply equated with finding happiness. And when Hollywood memorialized San Francisco of the days before the earthquake of 1906, it did so memorably with a song that portrayed the city as welcome to all who come to its doorstep. There is no more fitting symbol for a place that has always been a beacon of real freedom and equality.
—© 2013 Eric Davis
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