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'Songs in the Key of Los Angeles' brings lost sheet music to life

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Southern California has served as inspiration to songwriters for centuries, as evidenced in the new book called "Songs in the Key of LA."

There's no shortage of songs about the city, from Randy Newman's classic tribute to a punk anthem by X. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Southern California has served as inspiration to songwriters for centuries, as evidenced in the new book called "Songs in the Key of LA." The anthology features sheet music found in the Southern California Sheet Music Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library

Author and USC professor Josh Kun, along with a team of students, combed through more than 50,000 individual pieces and songbooks of sheet music. They didn't quite know what they were looking for, but Kun says they quickly noticed an interesting and exciting pattern. 

"We started noticing right away that there was song after song after song that had something to do with Los Angeles or southern California," said Kun on Take Two. "I think that for all of us, what became exciting was realizing that assembling a collection was not going to be enough. We wanted to create this collection, but then figure out what stories could be told out of it. How could we bring these older pieces of music into the conversation, into the present, in ways that matter?"

Kun joins Take Two to tell us about the evolution of the project and how they chose which songs to include in the book. 

Interview Highlights:

Josh Kun on the song "Home In Pasadena":
"Home in Pasadena was written by the great Harry Warren in 1923. Warren was one of the first songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley era to really zero in on the motion picture industry as a market. That recording is from 1924 with Billy Murray and Ed Smalle. What's great about it is it's about right here, and on the first edition sheet music for it, Pasadena is illustrated as if it's on the beach. 

"It's very interesting the way Pasadena became folded into a larger southern California/LA mythic map. It's a song that actually starts with lyrics about taking the train west to Los Angeles. A lot of the sheet music in the collection has ties to the birth of the railroad and bringing people here as tourists or, hopefully, bringing them from the Midwest to live and stay in little beautiful, rose-covered cottages."

On "California, Here I Come" by Al Jolson
"This is a song that I always associated as a California state song. On the sheet music cover, it's got the oranges, there's a little hint of the missions and, of course, Jolson. Although he had spent some time in San Francisco, he became very much associated with LA, specifically Hollywood. The musical 'Bambo' that the song that the song had originally appeared in had a very successful Los Angeles run. This was actually written in 1921 and recorded by Jolson in 1924. As time went on, this song had really become 'Southern California, Here I Come.'"


On the imagery found in the California songs:
"In general, stylistically, you've got Art Nouveau pieces, there's pieces that flirt with modernism, there are pieces that remind me quite a bit of the arts and crafts movement, and a lot of them that look like sheet music versions of orange crate art."

On the realism of that imagery:
"A lot of these pieces, not all of them, but the majority speak to this mythic, touristic booster notion of anglo-California. A kind of tourist, arcadian dream of Los Angeles that's not unique to sheet music. This has been part of the advertising and boosting of California, specifically of Los Angeles from the very start.

"As time goes on, these images continue up through the 20's and 30's into the 1940's when the population of Los Angeles was actively changing, and the long histories of Mexican, African-American and Asian-American Los Angeles are not present on these covers. If you look at them all together, the covers become their own cover-up. They start to replace the reality of social and cultural life in Los Angeles with a profitable, mythic dream version of it."

RELATED: View the full collections of sheet music covers

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