Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Singing California exhibit opens at the Courthouse Museum

“California, Here I Come,” written by Modesto native Joseph Meyer in 1921, was a signature tune of singer Al Jolson. This song is among the 55 framed vintage sheet music covers on display at the Courthouse Museum, starting June 28. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
“California, Here I Come,” written by Modesto native Joseph Meyer in 1921, was a signature tune of singer Al Jolson. This song is among the 55 framed vintage sheet music covers on display at the Courthouse Museum, starting June 28. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

What do George Lucas and Joseph Meyer have in common? They are both Modesto-born artists who made the San Joaquin Valley famous. While Lucas brought Modesto into the national spotlight with American Graffiti (1973), Meyer gave California an unofficial state song titled “California, Here I Come” (1921), which became singer Al Jolson’s signature tune.

Jolson, no doubt, was one of the most famous musicians and performers of the Tin Pan Alley era and his career epitomized American pop music in the early 20th century. By collaborating with Jolson and other composers like Buddy DeSylva, Meyer rose from being the son of a dry goods store owner to being a composer in great demand whose success was not measured by how many dry goods he sold but by the number of copies of songs to his credit. His story is one of the many being told in the Courthouse Museum’s newest exhibit, Singing California, which will open on Thursday, June 28.

Featuring 55 framed vintage sheet music covers, this exhibit explores the enchanting lyrics and melodies of songs that express our love for the Golden State. From “I Love You, California” to “She’s Waiting in the Valley of San Joaquin” to “On the Banks of the Old Merced,” these songs capture an often romantic and idyllic moment in California history and provide a glimpse of culture, fashion, politics, love, and sentiment.

With his hit “California, Here I Come,” Meyer may have been one of the best-known songwriters from the San Joaquin Valley, but he was not alone in showcasing our Valley’s talent. Andrew Schottky of Los Banos, in collaboration with John Bareilles, published “OH! I Love You San Francisco” in 1915 to express his love for the city and sadness for leaving. He writes, “’Tis the city of St. Francis and it’s very dear to me. I have left it far behind me. But the mem’ry lingers still.”

Schottky arrived in San Francisco for law school at Hastings College in 1907 and stayed there after passing the Bar in 1910. He practiced law in the Mills Building until 1913 when his brother, Theodore, died at the age of 16. Wishing to be near his parents who still lived in Los Banos and to have a fresh start in his career, Schottky relocated to Merced and opened a practice in the Shaffer Building.

It was with these sentiments that Schottky wrote the lyrics for “OH! I Love You San Francisco” when he took part in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition theme song contest. His childhood friend and classmate, John Bareilles, composed the music. Bareilles was the bandmaster of Merced Concert Band and was well regarded for his musical contributions to Merced County in the early 20th century. Although their entry was never chosen and the song never became popular, it makes history because it is one of the first known songs that was published in Merced County by Merced County residents.

Schottky went on to have a very successful legal career. With his work for the Anti-saloon League, both the City and County of Merced voted “dry” in 1914. He served as the city attorney of Los Banos from 1928 to 1933, represented the 24th Senatorial District in the state from 1930 to 1938, and presided over the Superior Court of Mariposa for 14 years before his elevation to the Third District Court of Appeal in 1953.

While Schottky and Bareilles’ song may have been the first song ever published in Merced, George Hatfield and Jack Tenney’s “On the Banks of the Old Merced” possibly is the first song about Merced County that was ever published. Both Hatfield and Tenney were state senators in the 1940s. Hatfield, representing Merced and Madera Counties, was married to Judith Barlow Hogan, the granddaughter of James J. Stevinson who founded the Stevinson Ranch. Tenney, representing Los Angeles County, was a talented composer whose “Mexicali Rose” became a hit in 1938 when Bing Crosby recorded it.

On the evening of April 7, 1945, Hatfield entertained Tenney at his ranch house in Stevinson and engaged in a lively discussion about music making. Hatfield who grew up in the Bay Area was really taken up with the tranquil and idyllic Valley life and was inspired to write this love song: “As we strolled beside the old Merced, it was there with spreading trees above that I told you my undying love. We’ll never say goodbye and it’s there we’ll live and die on the Banks of the old Merced.”

Interestingly enough, Hatfield’s song in no way reflects his personal love life since his wife also grew up in the Bay Area and they raised their family in San Francisco. However, the nature of the setting: his daughter Georgette’s 23rd birthday celebration, the historic Stevinson Ranch, the beautiful house, the peaceful Merced River, a gentle spring night, and the company of a great composer must have stirred the poetic muse in Hatfield. The senators worked deep into the night and “On the Banks of the Old Merced” was born. Subsequently, 5,000 copies of the sheet music were produced. This song will be performed by the Harmony Valley Chorus at the exhibit opening night on June 28 at 6 p.m.

In addition to Harmony Valley Chorus’ performance, Charlie Galatro will lead a sing-along of our state song followed by Rocco Bowman’s PowerPoint presentation on “Sheet Music in California History.” Singing California exhibit is a musical journey that you won’t want to miss. For more information about the exhibit, please contact the Courthouse Museum at 209-723-2401. The exhibit and opening program is free to the public.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum@sbcglobal.net.

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