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Traveling exhibit brings music of California to life at San Joaquin County Historical Museum

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Posted: Friday, May 23, 2014 9:13 am

Music, art and history lovers will delight in the vibrant artwork and musical context of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum’s current exhibit, “Singing the Golden State.”

The museum, at Micke Grove Park, is featuring an in-depth look at California’s musical history with a collection of sheet music cover art published from 1849 to the 1930s. The collection is a mix of original artwork and reproductions, plus it’s set to music. The display comes from two different archives: the Frederick Sherman Collection of The Society of California Pioneers and the private collection of James M. Keller.

Julie Blood, the museum’s collection and exhibits manager, says this exhibit focuses more on the cultural history of California than the more common agricultural exhibits.

Blood hopes everyone will be able to find a personal connection in the display. For her, it’s a framed photo of a sheet music cover from the song “San Francisco Fallen,” a song about the 1906 earthquake. Because her ancestors lived in San Francisco during the time of the 1906 earthquake and she grew up in the Bay Area, Blood feels connected to the song for both its content and its artwork.

However, as both a former musician and a history buff, Blood admits she likes the exhibit in its entirety.

San Joaquin residents may be particularly interested in the pieces that depict local history. The California rotary club designed one of the featured “I Love You, California” pieces (The state song, published in 1913). The song “In the Valley of the Sunny San Joaquin” and its corresponding artwork is also featured.

The museum owns a few of its own pieces of sheet music, including “Violets and You,” by Gertrude Thomas Hamilton, a Stockton woman who was California’s first black composer, that they included in the display.

The trend of creating eye-catching artwork for covers started after publishers realized an opportunity to sell sheet music.

“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music — like books — by their covers,” curator James M. Keller said. From there, the trend was born.

As a result, there now exists graphic artwork that symbolizes each song published during this time period – from the Gold Rush to the vaudeville era. Many of the framed photos feature very specific California themes, as well, including oranges, bears and poppies.

Blood believes the music and artwork could be purchased through mail order catalogs from places like Montgomery Ward in the early 1900s, as well as found in local grocery stores.

She points out that some of the pieces on display feature the names of local stores stamped into the photos leading her to believe that they were often used for promotional purposes or tourism efforts.

The complete exhibit features 40 pieces of framed artwork, many of which are sheet music covers. The museum punctuated the artwork with instruments and memorabilia from their own collection, relating to California and its early musical life.

“It kind of tells the story throughout history,” Blood said.

The traveling exhibit, by Keller, comes from Exhibit Envoy and is visiting the San Joaquin County Historical Museum for only a short time. Visitors can soak up some history while listening to tunes about the State of California until June 1, with a possible extension until August 10.

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