Songs of California in the spotlight

These days, if you turn on the radio, most of the music you hear will be about partying, love, sex, or just plain ego-stroking.

But there was a time when popular music still told stories, with subjects ranging from watermelons to beauty queens, the Gold Rush to politics.

In that pre-TV era, songs touched hearts in a way that nothing else could, telling stories about life in California through a beautiful, personal medium.

As Patricia Keats, a director of library and archives for the Society of California Pioneers, told the IJ:

“If something happened, someone wrote a song about it. We have a song about Flood Mazurka, which was about this horrible flood in Sacramento, but they wrote a song about it. It’s kind of crazy. They wrote about it if it was good, if it was bad, or if it was weird, or if it was one event.”

This musical tradition is now part of an exhibit at the Society of California Pioneers called “Singing the Golden State.” The exhibit is mainly comprised of music from 1890 to 1930 — all of about California — but also contains sound recordings, a Gramaphone, instruments, and memorabilia.

Exhibit curator James Keller notes that at that time, sheet music was itself a work of art:

“In the 19th and early-20th centuries, publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music — like books — by their covers. So, accordingly, they lavished care on the creation of vivid, original art and design for the sheet music they issued.”

Given the wide variety of subjects that were sung about, what surprised Keats most was that there weren’t more songs about natural places like Lake Tahoe. A large quantity of songs were, on the other hand, written about The City.