The Courthouse Museum’s “Singing California” exhibit is now on display at the UC Merced Library and its digital content will soon be added to Calisphere. Our UC Merced students will have a chance to view the beautiful vintage sheet music covers and enjoy the “sound” of the past. Growing up with female artists like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, the students will be surprised to find out that women songwriters are largely absent from this exhibit and they may ask this question, “Where are the women songwriters?”
California women were enfranchised by 1911. As a very critical political force in both the suffrage and temperance movements, women marched on the streets with signs, chanting and singing campaign songs. According to the common view of that time, women were great at performing songs like “Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson” to advocate their cause, but not creative enough to write songs and compose music. “Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson” was written by two men, Andrew B. Sterling and Robert A. Keiser, in 1916.
“Be good to California, Mr. Wilson, California was good to you. And don’t forget ’twas votes for women helped to make the vict’ry too.”
As this song suggests, California was a pivotal swing state in the 1916 presidential election. More importantly, California women helped to put Woodrow Wilson over the top as he defeated Republican Charles E. Hughes in the Golden State by close to 3,800 votes.
Likewise, “We’ll Make California Dry” was written by Reverend R. A. M. Browne and arranged by Homer Tourjee in 1914. Although the song deals with many aspects of the evilness of alcoholism, its main purpose was to make California “clean” for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to be held in San Francisco the following year.
The promoters of the song stated that “the United States of America will have as her guests the peoples of the world, the ‘drying’ of the state of California, as far as the Christian people of this country is concerned, is a national problem.” It is no surprise that the official California’s “Dry” campaign song was written by a reverend. Although Prohibition was primarily a women’s movement, this campaign song was not the voice of women.
Even though women were considered not good enough to do a man’s work like making music, they often did anyway. Using gender-neutral pen names to hide their identities, women songwriters not only published their works, but also profited from them. For example, “Believe Me” was written and composed by Barney McCray of Merced in 1938. This sheet music had me fooled as I fell in the trap of thinking this love song was the work of a man with lyrics like, “I’ll always love you just the same. And count you greatest of life’s treasures if you’ll let me change your name.”
Since the song was published by C. H. McCray and Sons, presumably it was written by one of McCray’s sons. Kevin Barney McCray was the closest match since the other two sons were James G. and Lorenzo P.; however, Kevin Barney was not the author of the song because he was just three years old when the song was published.
So who was Barney McCray? It turns out to be McCray’s wife, Mayme R. Barney McCray. Further research shows that the song was copyrighted under Mayme Barney McCray on December 30, 1938. Hiding her gender may have been the reason that Barney McCray instead of Mayme McCray was listed on the sheet music. Mayme was the daughter of Charles Barney who had a ranch between today’s Barney Street and Yosemite Parkway. Her brother, Floyd E. Barney, was the owner of The Wardrobe, a men’s clothing store in the Mondo Building. Her privileged upbringing may have played a role in her ability to produce music.
It was common for women songwriters to use gender-neutral names to be financially successful in the music industry. With few exceptions, songwriters like Nettie Metcalf, the author of “My California Home,” would put their actual names on their work. But like McCray and many women songwriters of this era whose subject matters were often limited to love and family, Metcalf chose to write a song about her home life instead of her accomplished life.
Nettie Metcalf was a very successful businesswoman from Ohio who is credited with breeding and developing Buckeye chicken and for founding The American Buckeye Club. Because of her health, Metcalf moved to California in 1906 or 1907 and settled in Inglewood where she wrote “My California Home” in 1910. The song states that although she misses the “old neighbors’ faces” and dreams of her “childhood’s home” in the cold Ohio, she loves California “where the sunkissed flowers bloom, Rose and Royal red poinsettia Turn December Days to June, Fruitful valleys, Snow-crowned mountains, Gem-strewn beach and ocean’s foam.”
Songs, like Metcalf’s, romanticizing California are very typical of the era, and such sentiment is explored in the “Singing California” exhibit. Now UC Merced students, you know why women songwriters were largely omitted from American music heritage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One more thing, millennials, don’t forget to vote Tuesday!
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.