Friday, April 18, 2008

Sounds of 1906

In the course of compiling that playlist of earthquake-related songs I mentioned a few entries ago, I came across a handful of songs written in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. It makes absolute sense that with this, like so many other tragedies, reactionary songs popped up within days (if not hours) of the quake. These songs give an interesting snapshot of reactions and how they changed with time, as well as into musical idiom for addressing the public about significant events. I was able to find only sheet music for two of them, two with only recordings, and one with both recording and sheet music.

Interestingly, all five songs are in a major key, despite their images of flames, collapsed buildings, and dead bodies. As someone who has grown up playing music in the Western Art idiom, I was very surprised by this, since it's encoded in music from the beginning of tonality that, generally, major is happy and minor is sad. I would have expected a dirge or a lament. Instead, the songs are not only major, but have an upbeat/dancey piano accompaniment. It occurred to me, though, that the classical idiom is the wrong one from which to look at these. They are, decidedly, the popular music of 1906, and therefore express their feelings in a familiar and accessible - if not overdone - manner for the sake of the audience. It's not any different from that Columbine song written by two students of that school, or many post 9-11/pro-America songs - major key, moderate to fast tempo, nothing compositional (as opposed to lyrical) to distinguish them from any of the popular love songs with which they cohabit the airwaves. I don't know why popular music fell into the habit of major key songs about depressing topics - I'm sure ethnomusicological work has been done on it, or if it hasn't, perhaps it should be.

Four of the songs have words. The fifth, "Firemen's March," is for solo piano. Without the image of San Francisco in flames on the cover of the sheet music, the sound alone could be taken as any perky military (or civil, I suppose) march. The interesting thing about this one is that the cover of the sheet music also declares that the piece was actually composed on 18 April 1906, while the composer was sitting on a hill and watching the subjects of his piece attempt to save the city. To be frank, I think this guy is completely insane. Though the event surely would have inspired me musically (I actually am planning a piece based on it), I would have been sure to get my butt out of the line of fire before I started actually writing anything. I personally get very absorbed in the creative process when composing, and I wouldn't want to be lost to the world scribbling notes while sitting on a hill, only to not notice fire creeping up the back of that hill, or to have an aftershock drop something on me. The composer lived to have his work published, lucky that he was, but I don't think it makes him any less crazy.

The other four songs, for voice and piano, show how the public emphasis of the tragedy shifted away from the earthquake and toward the fire in very little time. The copyright dates on the ones with printed music ("The Stricken City" and "The Burning of Frisco Town") put them in April and May of 1906; judging by the title, I would place "Death Comes at Dawn" closer to the tragedy, and judging from the descriptions of aid in "San Francisco, Our Beloved, Arise," I'd place that one a little later on. The emphasis in the first three songs is on the fire, as was the government-pushed-for goal ("Earthquake? What earthquake? Our ground is safe! Any city can have a fire!") - the mention of the earthquake goes from one verse to one sentence to nothing at all between "Death Comes at Dawn," "The Burning of Frisco Town," and "The Stricken City." "San Francisco, Our Beloved" mentions both earthquake and fire in one sentence, then turning its attention to the important healing process - though hopefully not too soon to heal without learning from what did the breaking to begin with.

"The Burning of Frisco Town," "San Francisco, Our Beloved," and "Death Comes at Dawn" can be heard on this page, toward the bottom. Some lyrics have been modified to mention the date 18 April more specifically, and "Death Comes at Dawn" has been changed to "The Earthquake Came at Dawn," purportedly to "soften the image of the destruction." To me, that's a modern keeping with the revisionism that started in 1906 - if we say "earthquake," but say it as a way to cover the effects, how does that stand for how anyone will cope with the next big one? The San Francisco earthquake and fire were horrific things, both for what they did do, and for how much future is still in them. They should stand up and be retold as a cautionary tale. The old songs, with their denial and coverups, deserve to be played, along with the statement of, "This is how they coped. How will we?"


Silver Fox said...

Interesting - a real overlap of geology and music. I don't think I've heard any of these songs before - after growing up in CA, that seems strange. Are the lyrics published anywhere?

Julian said...

I haven't seen the lyrics published anywhere on the internet, though I was able to find some pictures of the sheet music for "The Burning of Frisco Town" and "The Stricken City" online. I'm still looking for lyrics to "Death Comes at Dawn" that aren't altered, like on the recording I found. I think I have a pretty good idea of what was or wasn't changed, based on the meter of the speech compared to the meter of the music, but I'm not completely certain.

I get the impression that, since it took a fair amount of digging to find information on these songs that wasn't just links to recordings from the 1906 Centennial site, they're probably not well known to most native Californians, though I also certainly can't speak for native Californians!