The current exhibition at the Society of California Pioneers documents the state's history, but does so through a surprising medium: sheet music. Drawing from the personal collection of curator James M. Keller and the Society's own Sherman Music Collection, Singing the Golden State offers an unexpectedly deep history lesson. The methods by which information and entertainment reach us have changed drastically since the focus of this exhibit (1850-1930). This disconnect makes it hard to believe printed music once occupied pages in the newspaper, songs were written about each and every notable event, and entire stores were devoted to the printing and selling of beautifully designed books of popular tunes.
Visiting the Society of California Pioneers is in itself an odd experience. Established in 1850, the Society is now housed in a nondescript modern building on the south corner of 4th and Folsom. It is supported entirely by its dues-paying members, all of whom can (and must) trace their ancestors back to pre-1850 California. The Society operates a public gallery and research library, housing their entire collection of artwork, photographs, manuscripts, and other artifacts on site. Much of their ephemera and biographical files are catalogued through the California Ephemera Project, but they do very little else to draw audiences to their thoroughly-researched and often exhaustive exhibitions, preferring, it seems, to sit and wait for the casual passer-by or avid history buff to stop in.
For this two-floor exhibition, Keller and the Society staff pooled their resources to mount an enormous showing of around 200 pieces of sheet music accompanied by instruments, artifacts, and ephemera. Emphasizing both the unique historical standpoint of the material and the intricate designs that graced the sheet music covers, the exhibition gracefully balances between chunks of informative text and spans of pure visual displays.
The ground floor houses the bulk of the show. Framed song sheets hang salon-style around three walls and two vitrines contain a plethora of additional odds and ends. Punctuating the downstairs display are audio stations playing one or two songs at a time through headphones.
The sheet music documents a period of California history I, for one, know too little about. From the song "Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson (California Was Good to You)," I learned of the influential role women voters in California had in electing our 28th president. The lyrics chide Mr. Wilson for not acting quickly enough to fulfill his campaign promise of national suffrage: "...and don't forget 'twas votes for women helped to win the vic'try, too, for when the tide was turning fast against you, she made your dream come true."
From a fantasia about the 1906 earthquake and fire to a tune about an eventful day in the East Bay, Singing the Golden State demonstrates there simply was no topic unworthy of a song. Upstairs, the exhibition shifts from the thematic focus of the lower gallery to a musical tour of the state. In this more open space, a compiled soundtrack plays continuously over speakers. The cadence of music from this era is so completely and unflaggingly upbeat that I found myself moving quickly through the display. Such tunes are foreign (and jarring) to my modern ear. This is unfortunate, since some of the most entrancing specimens of illustration and typography were featured in this space.
Singing the Golden State impresses upon the viewer the amount of careful attention and artful detail that went into producing each piece of sheet music. Graphic designers, typographers, and anyone who appreciates the beauty of old things, beware: this exhibition will leave you drooling on your shoes. And likely suffering from visual overload.
For those interested in this rich store of rarely-seen historical material, I suggest return visits (the show is on display for nearly a full year). We cannot fully immerse ourselves in history, but exhibitions like these allow us to consider facets of life that are lost to us now. In this case, we learn what role songs played in the lives of early Californians, adding a soundtrack to our understanding of history.
Singing the Golden State is on view at the Society of California Pioneers through December 7, 2012. For more information visit californiapioneers.org.
All images courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers.