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Songs in the Key of Los Angeles: Julia Holter

In partnership with The Library Foundation of Los Angeles The Library Foundation of Los Angeles supports and enriches the capabilities, resources, and services of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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.

By the time L.A. popabilly singer Donnie Brooks had a Top Ten hit with "Mission Bell" in 1960, the idea of turning an 18th century Spanish Colonial system of religious and military rule into the fluffy terrain of teen love songs was, oddly enough, old hat. The California Missions had long been secularized grist for the pop songwriting mill. Gabriel Hart penned "Missions Bells of the Camino Real" back in 1915 and missions made frequent appearances on California sheet music covers (most famously the Santa Barbara Mission that was paired with an Al Jolson head-shot on "California, Here I Come"). Local favorite Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was the star of 1927's "The Bells of San Gabriel's," which put the fourth Spanish mission on its cover and turned its six bells into a hook built on historical amnesia. "I hear the bells of San Gabriel's," wrote lyricist J. Keirn Brennan, "Those silv'ry chimes, singing a song that tells of sweeter times."

For the Mission Pop school, Spanish missions were not reminders of conversion, conquest and control, but of these imaginary "sweeter times," full of the intoxicating "sweet perfume" of a world that never existed. That intoxication is all over Roger Lewis and Ernie Erdman's 1915 "Where The Mission Bells Are Chiming (Down Beside the Sea)," a classic Mission tune loaned to the Library's sheet music collection by Los Angeles collector and historian Victoria Dailey. Erdman was a product of the early Chicago jazz scene and part of the songwriting team that gave Al Jolson "Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo' Bye!)." Lewis had "Old King Tut Was A Wise Old Nut" on his resume. Proof their Mission missive was just riding a wave: the year before they teamed up to take a swing at Mission Pop, they took a swing at ragtime, minstrelsy, and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" all in one song, "The Violin My Great Grand-Daddy Made."

The cover of the sheet music for "Where The Missions Bells Are Chiming (Down Beside the Sea)" is pulled right from the image bank of what historian Carey McWiliams famously dubbed the "Spanish Fantasy Heritage" of Southern California: a lone Franciscan friar in robe and sandals quietly looking out over the Pacific (no such seaside Mission ever existed). The friar never appears in the song, which uses the make-believe mission merely as a scenic backdrop for a relationship gone wrong. "We said goodbye while the mission chimes rang out their mellow tune," the forlorn lovers sing.

By the 1930s, missions had generally become staples of Southern California pop culture. Musicians, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights all invented and sold what historian Phoebe S. Kropp has called "a picturesque land of pious padres and placid Indians, of dashing caballeros and sultry señoritas." In one example of Mission Pop Gone Wild, L.A. songwriter and music publisher Worth W. Preston wrote "The Chimes of San Gabriel" so it could be used in one of the Mission Myth's more infamous literary fantasies "The Mission Play" and dedicated it to the play's author John Steven McGroarty (the sheet music came complete with a letter back to Worth from McGroarty). The first Hollywood film studio was William Selig's Mission Studio, a mission was part of the logo for the Spikes Brothers' Sunshine record label, and the songs "A Perfect Day" and "California's Calling Me" were both inspired by a stay at the Mission Revival's most spectacular tourist getaway, Riverside's Mission Inn.

And then there was the queen of the Mission Myth herself, Ramona, the half-Indian protagonist of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel of the same name that gained widespread popularity for its romantic visions of Spanish mission and Mexican rancho life. Along with its annual pageants and various film adaptations came a Ramona songbook of sorts. There was the "Indian intermezzo" of Lee Johnson's "Ramona," written for the 1903 stage musical Roly Poly, the set of "musical gems" written for the 1916 "Ramona" film, and the 1928 waltz sung in its re-make by Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. Penned by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne, the song turned the chime of mission bells into "our song of love." Del Rio's weepy recording spent eight weeks at the number 1 spot, sold over a million copies, and was soon taken up by Paul Whiteman and Louis Armstrong.

Spanish California's greatest booster and mythmaker (and former City Librarian) Charles Fletcher Lummis, had it right: "The missions are, next to our climate and its consequences, the best capital Southern California has."

For L.A. musician Julia Holter, it was this unexpected use of missions as a kind of musical capital that drew her to Lewis and Erdman's "Where The Mission Bells Are Chiming." As she told us after she finished recording her own version of the song at BedrockLA, "I liked this one because it was a little bit more mysterious. I didn't really understand it, but I thought the imagery was really nice. Some of them were more typical love songs about "come back to me" or something but this one had specific imagery like by the sea and I thought that was nice. And the mission, which is mysterious. Why is the mission there? I like that."

Julia Holter
Julia Holter.

An L.A. native (the first song on her Soundcloud page is about a palm tree at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado), Holter is no stranger to making songs that create entire climates of mystique. Her own albums "Tragedy" and "Ekstasis" (her latest, "Loud City Song," is due this August), revel in slow, careful arrangements of electronic and classical textures. The effect can be densely opaque, or luminously celestial, often in the space of a single composition.


At BedrockLA, Holter's approach to "Where The Mission Bells Are Chiming" was microscopic and precise, layering stacks of synth and vocal lines into ballooning clouds of reverb. Drummer Corey Fogel came by to shower the sheet music's lonely friar with a rumbling thunderstorm. The result is strange, unsettling, and achingly beautiful.

"People in L.A. are able to find their unique voice because there is so much space here," Holter said. "As opposed to a lot of other cities that really impress upon people in a direct way. Because you just have freedom, visually there is space. I feel I can be in my little nest and work on stuff really in my own way."

Like the song? Here's a free download of Julia Holter performing "Where The Mission Bells Are Chiming."

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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