Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition

San Francisco did not exist until 1847. The land had been home to the Costanoan Indians, and it became a base for Spanish adventurers in 1776, when Juan Bautista de Anza established a presidio and a Misión San Francisco de Asís, popularly known as Misión Dolores. In 1835 William Richardson, an Englishman, was appointed Captain of the Port, and a settlement grew around the homes he built for himself at a site that would today be on Grant Avenue between Clay and Washington Streets. He maintained the name attached to the locale since the end of the eighteenth century: Yerba Buena, meaning “good herb” in recognition of the wild mint that grew thereabouts. But in January 1847, the settlement’s name was changed, and San Francisco was officially created.

It was a town of fewer than 500 residents and probably would have stayed so but for the fact that gold was discovered a year later in the hills above Sacramento, in January 1848. Beginning in 1849, California was overrun by fortune-seekers. That year, some 75,000 people passed through San Francisco on their way to the gold fields. As the point of debarkation for travelers arriving by sea and the port through which supplies arrived, San Francisco emerged as the commercial hub of the Gold Rush. Practically overnight it transformed from a sleepy settlement into a bustling city with a permanent population that in 1850 exceeded 20,000.

The prospectors arrived with few possessions, but they carried songs with them. Many carried banjos. The five-string banjo tells the story of crossed and blurred barriers of class and race. San Francisco celebrity Lotta Crabtree played banjo for a rough and tumble Gold Rush audience, but opera diva Adelina Patti was also a banjo devotee and gave private recitals for friends.  The early banjo was a simple joining of vine, hide, and calabash. Its form and playing technique evolved from African prototypes. By the late nineteenth century, factory production employing skilled artisans produced an instrument that was at once a work of art and a precision tool for playing increasingly complex music, such as the tunes we hear tonight.

Philadelphian Paul Eno (1869-1924) was a celebrated composer who conducted several banjo orchestras. Although his composition “A Ragtime Episode” was published in 1903, earlier cylinder recordings suggest it was in circulation before it appeared officially in print. Stephen Foster (1826-64) composed for the parlor and for the minstrel stage. His “Hard Times” (1854) remains current and viable today. Parke Hunter (1876-1912) was a prolific composer and a virtuoso banjoist.  His “Pensacola” captures the banjo’s essential qualities.

The new Californians were eager to consume entertainment, and entrepreneurs lost no time meeting that demand. On June 22, 1849, a portly, red-headed British opportunist named Stephen Massett rented out the main hall of the Municipal Courthouse on Portsmouth Square and produced his own concert, the first professional cultural event ever given in San Francisco. Later that year San Franciscans were treated to further theatrical presentations by artists and troupes at a succession of makeshift gathering places.

While provincial audiences filled such ad hoc performance spaces, cosmopolitans far away crowded the Paris Opéra on April 16, 1848, for the premiere of Le Prophète, the fourteenth opera of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), a darling of the French cultural scene. A classic of the super-sized genre known as “French Grand Opera,” Le Prophète is set in the sixteenth century. In the fourth of the work’s five acts, John of Leyden, the prophet of the title, has himself crowned Emperor. This is the opera’s high point, and the Coronation March would remain one of the work’s enduring hits.

Before long, San Francisco would also enjoy exposure to the world of opera. For San Francisco was building an impressive cultural life. Itinerant actor-managers and dramatic troupes honed in on the city’s possibilities. Edwin Booth, one of the most acclaimed of nineteenth-century Shakespeareans, arrived in 1852 as part of a family troupe, along with his father and brother, Junius Brutus Booth Sr. and Jr. (Another thespian brother, John Wilkes Booth, remained back East.) Edwin stayed in California for four years, spending a stint in the Gold Country as an itinerant singer and banjo-player, but returning to San Francisco to blossom as a serious actor.

The city proved irresistible for touring musicians of international eminence. The first European star to hit pay dirt was Henri Herz, a suave Austrian pianist who had conquered Parisian salons, earned a fortune, and then spent the years 1845-51 touring the United States, West Indies, Mexico, and South America. On April 2, 1850, he gave what seems to have been the first strictly musical recital in San Francisco, at the National Theater. Not far behind was America’s own barnstorming pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69). A New Orleans-born musician, in 1849 Gottschalk unveiled the syncopated Caribbean- and Creole-influenced pieces that would earn him stardom. After that, he spent much of his remaining time touring North and South America. He reached California in April 1865, estimating that he had performed 1,100 recitals in America, in the course of which he had traveled 95,000 miles.

In San Francisco, Gottschalk was promoted by Tom Maguire, kingpin of the city’s impresarios. Gottschalk started punching up his performances, presenting three “monster concerts” in which up to ten pianos were played at once (not all by Gottschalk, as one newspaper ruefully complained). Things were going reasonably well until the pianist-composer became embroiled in scandal after a rendezvous and nocturnal carriage ride with a student from the Oakland Female College, a pious institution in the village across the bay. The press got wind of the outrage. On the morning of September 18 the Daily Dramatic Chronicle ran the headline “L.M. Gottschalk Tar and Feather? Eh?” Gottschalk didn’t stick around to find out. A “Mr. John Smith” booked last-minute passage on a ship bound for Panama at 2:00 that afternoon. Shortly before leaving for his California tour Gottschalk had apparently unveiled—in Philadelphia, on October 29, 1864—his Grande Tarantelle for piano and orchestra.

Pianists were not the only musicians to fill San Francisco’s theaters. Violinist Ole Bull (1810-80), the admired Norwegian virtuoso, had traveled to the United States in 1843 and returned in 1852, intent on founding a utopian “new Norway” in Pennsylvania, to be called Oleana. The venture collapsed, leaving Bull in dire financial straits, and he set out on a national musical tour to regain his stability. Bull’s recitals characteristically included a few classics and plenty of variations on familiar opera airs, and he could be relied upon to show off his virtuosity by playing an abundance of multiple stops.

Polish violinist Henryk (Henri) Wieniawski (1835-80) followed the route to America in 1872. By that time he was one of Europe’s leading virtuosos. He had spent more than a decade in Russia, where pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein had lured him in an effort to improve musical standards in that country. Wieniawski served as solo violinist to the Tsar, was concertmaster for the Russian Musical Society, and taught at the newly established Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He eventually gave in to wanderlust. During his first year in America, he and Rubinstein (his accompanist) gave 215 concerts in sixty cities throughout the eastern states; and the second year (with soprano Pauline Lucca as a guest artist) his calendar extended to 240 performances. The highlight of that second year was his time in California. He documented his time in the state by composing a Souvenir de San Francisco on American song motifs, which was published in 1874. He may have begun his Violin Concerto No. 2 as early as 1856, although it was not premiered until 1862, when he was soloist in Saint Petersburg with his friend Rubinstein conducting. It would have made a hit, and no movement more than the crackling finale, marked à la Zingara—“in Gypsy Style.

Famous performers of other stripes also arrived. San Franciscans proved especially susceptible to stage personalities who traded in the exotic. Lola Montez could scarcely be topped in that department. Rumors suggested she had been born in Cuba, Spain, or Constantinople, though in fact she was born in Ireland in 1818. A liberated woman, she had high-profile affairs with Franz Liszt, Ludwig I of Bavaria, and presumably the Tsar of Russia (among others). She made her New York stage debut in 1851, then found her way to San Francisco, where her temperamental antics and her erotic Spider Dance won a fascinated following. Her itinerary took her to the mining camps. In Sacramento she challenged a newspaper editor to a duel when he ran a negative review. While taking time off in a cabin in Grass Valley, she puffed on cigars, kept a grizzly bear as a pet, and served as mentor to little Lotta Crabtree, a San Francisco lass who went on to national acclaim. Crabtree would perform indefatigably for years in California, and even after she left for stages elsewhere, San Francisco remained close to her heart. To this day she is recalled through the fountain—“Lotta’s Fountain”—she financed at the intersection of Market, Geary, and Kearny Streets to repay the kindness the city had shown her.

A decade later, Montez’s role was filled by Adah Isaacs Menken, a New Orleans prostitute who converted to Judaism, married a prominent businessman, and became a magnet for forward-thinking artistic types, Walt Whitman among them. Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Artemus Ward fell in with her. Half the city’s population is said to have witnessed her signature stage-piece Mazeppa in the course of its two-week run in 1863—or its two-week ride, since the piece climaxed with Menken, clad in flesh-colored tights, riding bareback up a stage set designed to evoke a mountain path. The Mazeppa tale was hot just then. Lola Montez’s erstwhile boyfriend Liszt (1811-86) had recently composed two pieces on the subject, his Transcendental Étude No. 4 and his orchestral tone poem Mazeppa (1851-54).

Early San Francisco embraced singers enthusiastically. The Adelphi Theater provided the stage for the first complete opera given in town, in February 1851. The work was La sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), whose operas would remain immensely popular here, along with those of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). San Francisco became a destination for opera stars of international stature, including the renowned soprano Adelina Patti, who made her local debut in March 1884 as prima donna of Colonel Mapleson’s Opera Troupe. A riot broke out when tickets for her appearances went on sale.

Even if opera audiences were not always polite, they were more cultivated than the folks who patronized the Barbary Coast. That dodgy neighborhood, in an area that today overlaps the intersection of Chinatown, North Beach, Jackson Square, and the Financial District, acquired its name around 1860 in evocation of the pirate-infested waterfronts of the North African coast. In his book À la California. Sketch of Life in the Golden State, from around 1871, Colonel Albert S. Evans described the “wrecks of humanity” that populated the Barbary Coast, and establishments from which emerged “strange, discordant—to our ears—and not over-attractive music …. Hand-organs, flutes, pianos, bagpipes, banjos, guitars, violins, brass instruments and accordeons [sic] mingle their notes and help to swell the discord.” Popular airs were the stock in trade at such places, but one might imagine a bit of Parisian naughtiness undergoing a local transformation in Barbary Coast dives—perhaps the seductive 1874 boléro “Les filles de Cadix” (“The Girls of Cádiz”) by Léo Delibes (1836-91) or the overture to the high-kicking French operetta Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858) by Jacques Offenbach (1819-80).

By the time of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, the city had long enjoyed status as an international-level music center, with an infrastructure of theaters, performing groups, and music merchants. The earthquake shattered everything but the spirits of San Franciscans. It also inspired the composition of numerous musical works, including quite a few descriptive fantasies—essentially tone poems cast in a popularly accessible idiom. J.H. Stockman’s The Earthquake in San Francisco and the Destruction of the City of the Golden West on the 18th of April 1906, published in 1908, is an example. It depicts the disaster through several episodes: “The Slumber,” “The Earthquake,” “City of San Francisco in Ashes,” and “The Golden Dawn of New San Francisco.

In the earthquake’s aftermath the city expanded its performing-arts scene. The San Francisco City Directory of 1906 lists sixteen theaters; the 1910 Directory lists nineteen, all but one of which was newly built following the earthquake. Some of the world’s leading artists helped buoy the city’s spirits during the recovery. The soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, “The Florentine Nightingale,” turned the spotlight on the city when, in 1910, she got into a contract dispute with New York impresario Oscar Hammerstein. “When they told me I could not sing in America unless it was for Hammerstein,” she proclaimed, “I said I would sing in the streets of San Francisco, for I knew the streets of San Francisco were free.” She announced a free concert that Christmas Eve as a gift to the city that had so warmly embraced her—and she arranged for it to take place around Lotta’s Fountain. “I never thought I would be a street singer,” she said, “but I want to do this for San Francisco ... because I like San Francisco better than any other city in the world. San Francisco is my country.” Two years later, she volunteered as soloist for a benefit concert at the Cort Theater, the funds enabling the fledgling San Francisco Symphony to acquire a valuable collection of scores and orchestral parts being sold by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which was temporarily disbanding.

This was an essential step in cementing the San Francisco Symphony professional foundation during its inaugural year. The Orchestra had given its first concert on December 8, 1911, led by its founding conductor, Henry Hadley. The program comprised Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude, the Sixth Symphony of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), an orchestral transcription of the second movement of Haydn’s Emperor String Quartet, and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Even in the first season the roster of soloists was distinguished, including such figures as the violinist Efrem Zimbalist. A 1914 photograph of the orchestra shows the renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) standing before the ensemble as soloist.

The eyes of the world turned to San Francisco in 1915, when the Panama-Pacific International Exposition ran from February to December, demonstrating the city’s recovery. It was an impressive event, and it proved ear-opening for music-lovers. The Boston Symphony Orchestra settled in for thirteen concerts, offering a standard toward which the city’s own orchestra might strive. But orchestral concerts were just a small part of the musical offerings of this world’s fair. Performing groups from distant climes drew crowds to their nations’ pavilions. One result was a nationwide craze for Hawaiian music and the rise of the ukulele as a popular instrument, directly inspired by appearances of Hawaiian musicians at the fair.

Among the most admired musical events at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition were recitals on the new organ in the fair’s Festival Hall. The builder, the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut, shipped the disassembled instrument (6,546 pipes) in five railroad cars to San Francisco, where everything was installed by the local firm of Felix F. Schoenstein & Sons. It was said to be the world’s seventh-largest organ, and the public first heard it at the Exposition’s opening ceremony, on February 21, 1915, when it added its voice to that of a chorus and orchestra in Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus. When the Exposition ended, most of the buildings were taken down, including the Festival Hall. The organ was disassembled and moved to a new home at the Civic Auditorium, where it continued to be played for years. Damaged in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, the instrument was dismantled in 1994. Since then it has undergone restoration, but it currently lies in storage.

A number of other musical notables also made appearances at the fair, including Kreisler, cellist-and-composer Victor Herbert, and pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was one of the most keenly anticipated visitors. He spent a good deal of time with his fellow-composer John Philip Sousa, whose band was also in residence. Saint-Saëns brought with him a grand cantata titled Hail! California, which he had composed and would conduct as a tribute to Franco-American relations, entering a critical phase as World War I unfolded.  The work is scored for chorus, orchestra, organ, and military band (Sousa’s, at the two Exposition performances).

A freshet of popular songs were issued to coincide with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, but the vaudeville-era California song most widely remembered today dates from a few years later, in 1921 or 1922: “California, Here I Come,” with lyrics by Bud DeSylva (1895-1950) and music by Joseph Meyer (1894-1987). Both were Californians. Al Jolson introduced it in the Broadway revue extravaganza Bombo, which ran in New York for six months in 1921-22.

The song “San Francisco” by composers Bronisław Kaper (1902-83) and Walter Jurmann (1903-71), with lyrics by Gus Kahn (1886-1941), was created for Jeannette MacDonald to sing in the 1936 M-G-M disaster extravaganza San Francisco, the top-grossing film that year. In the movie, the song serves as an anthem of resilience following the 1906 earthquake.

James M. Keller


San Francisco Symphony Program Annotator James M. Keller is curator of the exhibition Singing the Golden State, in which some 200 sheet music covers and other musical memorabilia offer perspectives on California history from the Gold Rush to the Great Depression; on display through December 7 at the Society of California Pioneers, 300 Fourth Street at Folsom Street,

Thanks to Jody Stecher for commentary on the banjo.