Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, by Josh Kun (Angel City Press)
Last year the L.A. band Best Coast appropriated an image from “I Love You California,” a song published in 1913, for their album “The Only Place.” A grizzly bear stands on its hind legs warmly cuddling the state on the cover of Best Coast’s CD as well as the sheet music published a century ago. History doesn’t repeat, it turns out, but it does rhyme. Best Coast’s song “The Only Place” is a catchy burst of boosterism worthy of joining the great catalog of music that has been asking essentially the same question — “Why would you live anywhere else?” — for a very long time.
Josh Kun — an editorial board member and contributor here at Boom — has mined the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for a multiplatform project called “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” that explores this musical love affair. One product of the project is this lavish book featuring colorful evocative covers of dozens of songs spanning just over a century from 1849 to 1959. Six songs are featured in their entirety, including lyrics and musical notation.
But it is not the music that grabs you here. The covers steal the show. Kun writes that images of southern California on sheet music covers are “nearly indistinguishable” from historical images found on orange crates, tourism pamphlets published by the Southern Pacific railroad, and the brochures of real estate boosters. The product for sale on sheet music covers was not just a song, but Los Angeles itself, Kun writes, a product made up “of Mission myths, Spanish romance, endless orange groves, and the promise of a healing Mediterranean climate.” Oranges abound, of course, along with flowers, beaches, cozy cottages, lots of sun, and, naturally, plenty of pretty girls. “Summer ever lingers on the air” in one song — “Glorious Southern California” — from 1907. “This is now the only place for me,” the song says. Was Best Coast listening? “This is the only place for me,” they sing more than a century later.
Despite the vivacious art of the sheet music covers, however, the songs in this book seem sadly inert simply sitting on the page in an age when we mostly consume music directly through our ears, often without any text or artwork at all, the album cover having now become a historical artifact, like the sheet music cover before it, with CD covers likely to suffer the same fate. What do these “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” sound like, then? With the help of arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, who has an essay in this book too, Kun will be bringing some of these songs to life in a series of events this summer in Los Angeles, including a concert July 18 with the band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and a free concert with the band Ozomatli in Grand Park on August 2. Tune in to Kun’s Tumblr blog — http://songsinthekeyofla.com/ — for news of other events and regular postings of additional archival musical finds from the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music collection and elsewhere.