Sheet music relics from old Frisco days 

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo

San Francisco’s age-old fondness for music is apparent in “Singing the Golden State,” a fun show of vintage sheet music covers at the Society of California Pioneers.

Most of the 150-piece exhibit comes from the collection of curator James M. Keller, a prominent music critic, with assistance from Tim Evans, the society’s exhibition and education coordinator.

A forerunner of today’s tweets, sheet music served as a major form of media in the 19th century. “If something happened, there’s a fair chance someone wrote a song about it,” Keller says.

“Publishers understood that potential sheet music buyers judged pieces of music — like books — by their covers, and so they accordingly lavished care on the creation of vivid, original art and design for the sheet music they issued.”

The exhibit is organized according to topics such as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, transportation and a tour of the Golden State.

In song titles, the name of The City appears as “Frisco” repeatedly. Before columnist Herb Caen’s war on the nickname with his first book “Don’t Call It Frisco” in 1953, the word was perfectly cool.

Among examples on view is “The Frisco Rag” by “Sweet Adeline” composer and prizefighter Harry Armstrong, who capitalized on the national passion for ragtime.

Another popular tune was “The Only Pal I Ever Had Came from Frisco Town,” with words by Earl C. Jones and music by Charles N. Daniels.

“Frisco” also pops up in lyrics of 1863’s “An Hour at the Cliff,” 1868’s “Montgomery Street March,” 1875’s “Hayes Valley Mazurka” and 1888’s “Sutro Height’s Waltzes.”

For several years around the turn of the 20th century, sheet music was distributed as a Sunday supplement to The S.F. Examiner. The song “Frisco Girl” (1896), published in the paper, proclaims The City a place “where flow’rs are blooming the year round.”

Singing the Golden State

Where: Society of California Pioneers, 300 Fourth St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and first Saturday of each month; closes Dec. 7
Tickets: $2.50 to $5
Contact: (415) 957-1849, ext. 32,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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