Monday, September 26, 2016

Music & Politics in San Francisco

Leta E. Miller, a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, published Music and Politics in San Francisco in 2012. As the subtitle notes this book covers our City's musical history from the early part of the twentieth century into the 1940s.

This period of time is very important because it was time when three of our most important cultural institutions - The San Francisco Conservatory, The San Francisco Symphony and The San Francisco Opera - were established. These organization experienced financial difficulties and sometimes created political controversy during their formation and development which Miller documents in great detail.

Miller also devotes considerable space to music at the two large twentieth century fairs held in San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century, the Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915) and Golden Gate International Exposition (1939 and 1940). She shows how the former did a great deal to bolster the Symphony while the latter largely omitted it.

The Golden Gate International Exposition also overlapped with another important discussion in her book - the Federal Music Project that was a component of the New Deal. The Federal Music Project was deeply mired in politics and was never had a unified vision about its music.  Was it supposed to provide relief or make great music?

Some of the musicians in the 70-piece WPA Federal Music Project Symphony orchestra leaving for Stockton to give the first of a series of concerts in Northern California towns, 1936. From the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

But the book is not only about these more elite organizations. She discusses African American jazz bands on the Barbary Coast and their struggles against the mainly white musicians union. She also traces the history of Chinese opera and the impression it made upon western musicians. Finally there is a section about the contemporary music concerts and publications of Henry Cowell's New Music Society.

Music and Politics in San Francisco, while packed with detail, is very entertaining and readable.

Exterior of the War Memorial Opera House, 1934, from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War by Leta E. Miller (University of California Press, 2012).

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Facts Behind The Songs

Facts Behind the Songs by Marvin E. Paymer is an idiosyncratic reference book for popular music. Its scope is the music from the 1890s (the earliest days of Tin Pan Alley) to the early 1990s.  The books consists of alphabetical succession of articles by 11 contributors that are classified into 8 categories: 1) origin; 2) foreign influence; 3) domestic influence; 4) dissemination; 5) historical survey; 6) genre; 7) song subject; and 8) style of music and lyrics.

"Origin" brings together articles relating to the creators and the production of music. Some articles are about locales, others are about venues for creation.

"Foreign Influence" looks at the contribution of other cultures in American popular music.  Domestic Influence likewise considers how American genres (ranging from Bebop to Zydeco) entered the musical mainstream.

"Dissemination" looks at technology and the institutions that offer music.  The "Historical Survey" devotes a chapters to a variety of time periods; genre lists articles on a variety of styles of music.

Perhaps the most useful category is "Song Subject." There are articles about more than 100 categories ranging from "age" ("Forever Young," "My Generation") to "writing" ("Take a Letter, Maria," "Paperback Writer"). I have found this book to be helpful for the article "Classics" which includes a table called "The Classics and Popular Song." This provides a convenient listing of classical melodies that have become popular songs.

The book closes with a "Catalogue of Songs" that lists every song mentioned in the book giving the year it was written and the names of the songwriters. It also indexes every article where each song is mentioned.

The information in Facts Behind The Songs is mostly covered in other reference sources. The value of the book is the unique organization of this information.

Facts Behind the Songs: A Handbook of American Popular Music From the Nineties to the '90s, Marvin E. Paymer, general editor (Garland Pub., 1993).