Songs in the Key of L.A. is a multi-platform collaboration between the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun that brings to life the Library's extraordinary Southern California Sheet Music Collection. Five L.A. artists were invited to pick some sheet music, study it, and then interpret it in any style of their choosing. The finished products are now available for free download from the website of the Los Angeles Public Library, and Artbound produced short documentaries on the process.
This is the California moon according to Philip Marlowe.
"I got home late and tired and depressed," he tells us in Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel "The Long Goodbye." "It was one of those nights when the air is heavy and the night noises seem muffled and far away. There was a high misty indifferent moon. I walked the floor, played a few records, and hardly heard them. I seemed to hear a steady ticking somewhere, but there wasn't anything in the house to tick. The ticking was in my head. I was a one-man death watch."
If the L.A. sun was famously "treacherous" for William Faulkner, for Chandler the L.A. moon was even worse: it didn't even care enough about you to be treacherous. Its indifference was violent.
The moon wasn't always part of L.A.'s noir sky. In early pop songs published in the decades before "The Long Goodbye," it played a co-starring role alongside the sun in bringing California mythologies of a seaside Garden of Eden -- cottages, roses, and poppies galore -- to national audiences who were eager to buy the fantasy. The moon appears a few times in the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, most directly in 1922's "California Moon" and most suggestively in 1926's "New Moon," a fox trot that if we believe it's own hype was a staple of Rube Wolff and His Greater Band Loew's State Theatre Los Angeles. And there would be others to come of course. Dennis Day looked for love under a "California Moon" (with the Civil War as his muse in 1951's "Golden Girl") and Woody Guthrie dreamed about it after a long day's work in the lyrics he wrote in the 1940s for "California Stars." He combined all the love, fruit, sky, and flora metaphors that by then had become signposts of the L.A. songbook. "Underneath my California stars," he wrote. "They hang like grapes on vines that shine, and warm the lovers glass like friendly wine."
The Library's earliest Cali moon homage though is "Strolling Neath The California Moon," a 1920 waltz penned by Norman Herbert with Moe and Elsie Thompson (the latter duo were frequent contributors to the early Okeh catalog). Here it's not the sun that's shining bright on the Golden West, but the light of the silvery moon which reveals a California of soft winds, sweet breezes, and yes, sylvan dells. The moon's dark shadows are not menacing as they will be soon in Chandler's novels, but serene and comforting. They give love a place to be safe and grow.
"Strolling" is a nearly archetypal example of how nostalgic California naturalism -- Oh climate! Oh weather!-- became a pop song commodity, not just "landscapes of consumption" (as John Ott has dubbed them) but moonscapes as well. The song was so often the same: the land and the sky and falling in love.
California had been promoted as a "terrestrial paradise" as early as 1500, but early songwriters and sheet music publishers elevated the idea to new musical heights that fit right in with the booster campaigns of the Chamber of Commerce, the citrus industry, the railroads, and the Automobile Club of Southern California. In "Beautiful Songs Sentimental and Humorous and Valuable Information," an 1857 Los Angeles investment "souvenir" that offered song lyrics alongside real estate pitches, one local developer put it this way: "California is the Mecca of many a pilgrim, and Southern California is a synonym for sunshine and beauty and brightness, and means health and happiness to many who would have been suffering invalids in colder climes." How better to prove what Southern California means than to sing about it?
By 1920, of course, the moonbeam romance of an Arcadia for Young Lovers was more fiction than fact. Nine years later, terrestrial paradise would already be on its way to being automotive paradise, and on the brink of the Great Depression, there were two cars for every three people in Los Angeles. Soon enough, the romantics of "Strolling" would be staring up at the moon from the back seat of a Ford.
The song's swooning dream was partly what caught the attention of L.A.'s top time-traveling street buskers, Petrojvic Blasting Company. Its 1920 copyright didn't hurt either. Their repertoire is carefully loaded with songs from the 20s and 30s that live across a musical map that connects old-time America to old-time Balkans, California and New Orleans to the musical traditions of Serbia, Moldova, and Clejani. With roots in Tennessee, the band now calls Northeast L.A. home and they've become fixtures on L.A sidewalks, street corners, and farmer's markets. Their approach to impromptu public music making has grown into its own urban philosophy of grassroots cultural communion.
"It helps a lot to play music you like out in public," pianist and vocalist Josh Petrojvic told me after the band's recording session. "The people who like it find you, and then you find them, and their friends and their families. So if you play Serbian music for instance, you might play a Serbian wedding and then you meet all the Serbs in LA at this one wedding and then you know lots of people in Serbia when you go there. It kind of works like this -- you find this rabbit hole of the population of the music you are trying to play out."
If communities in L.A. can be, as Petrojvic put it, "sequestered," music just might be the answer: it can creep through the gates and show us all the bridges we didn't even know were there.
Like the song? Here's a free download of Petrojvic Blasting Company performing "Strolling Neath The California Moon."
Purchase the book, "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles" by Josh Kun.
Watch the Los Angeles Public Library's sheet music archive come alive in story and song when Josh Kun is joined by beloved, GRAMMY-winning Los Angeles band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library, Thursday, July 18, 2013 7:15 PM.
The Bedrock Sessions were made possible by the generous support of Bedrock.LA, The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, & The Norman Lear Center.
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