“Trashy music” in the halls: A cultural-geographical history of music making in San Francisco during the Gold Rush years (1849-1869)
Verbeten, Jonathan E.
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The San Francisco Gold Rush yielded an unusually intense and fast-moving convergence, within a relatively small geographical space, of an immensely diverse population. Each new arrival brought new social, cultural, political, religious, and musical influences, which in turn yielded complex, rich, and multi-valent experiences and perceptions. Such immersions coalesced into a uniquely San Franciscan experience—a quintessentially local story, in a town within which experience was quintessentially transient. This project develops a geospatial picture of musical exchange in San Francisco in the 1850s, focusing on nodes of high activity within specific neighborhoods, especially an area near the waterfront known as Portsmouth Square, and within a particular type of venue, called a melodeon, which came to thrive in that space. Employing a multidisciplinary methodology for analyzing music making in an urban context, this dissertation argues for an understanding of popular amusements in San Francisco as representative of changing perceptions and presentations of whiteness and working-class expression. Such perceptions are contrasted to the efforts of so-called “legitimate” theatres, and in turn are demonstrated to represent the beginnings of an organically developed and localized tradition, as exemplified by the specifics of the variety shows on the melodeon stages. With the aid of theoretical models developed in urban studies, my work attempts to synthesize large-scale data, such as major historical, economic, and geographic events, and interweave these with more nuanced first-person accounts, much gathered through my own archival work. Thus, my emphasis has centered on the physical experiences of individuals moving through an urban environment—what might be understood as a “history of perceptions of the City.” Rather than isolating or merely chronicling the musical history of the City, my project situates musical life (specifically that of so-called “low” and working-class amusements), within a series of parallel transformations, as revealed through historical, cultural, economic, and geographic urban change.