Long before the film industry took root as the cultural and financial epicenter of Hollywood, music paved the way for the growth and development of the Los Angeles we know today. Deep in the archives of the Los Angeles Public Library, there’s a vast sheet music collection from the 1840s through the 1950s, which provides historical insight into the music of Southern California. You probably weren’t aware of such a treasure, and that’s why this summer, the Library Foundation and the Los Angeles Public Library are kicking off “Songs in the Key of L.A.,” the first in a series of collaborations to mine the Library’s vast collections. The project unveils for the first time the world’s only collection of Southern California sheet music and offers a never-before-seen look at the integral role music has played in defining the voice of our city.
Through a comprehensive anthology, new recordings, a special exhibition, a free concert with Grand Performances, and more, the Library Foundation and Library will bring the collection to light for contemporary reflection. “The Los Angeles Public Library is the place for Angelenos to explore, reimagine, and celebrate their history,” said City Librarian John F. Szabo. “We are pleased to bring this incredible collection to light, as it demonstrates this important fact: Public libraries are every-person institutions, where everyone, from scholars to middle schoolers, can unearth treasures that can teach, inspire, and even change their lives.”
“The idea of examining Los Angeles history through the lens of music came from a series of conversations I had with USC Professor Josh Kun, director of The Popular Music Project at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center,” explains Ken Brecher, the president of the Library Foundation. “We talked about ‘mining’ the collections of the Library for forgotten stories and imagined creating a book to showcase the power of music and its imagery in shaping both our sense of history and of home.” Agreeing to lead the research, Josh Kun and a group of his students, working with librarians from the Central Library, combed the Library’s roughly 50,000-piece sheet music collection. The stories Kun discovered—visually breathtaking cover art; a diverse mix of unrecorded jazz, pop, Mexican folks, and blues songs; an empire of unknown music publishers and songwriters—formed a singular portrait of the artistic, cultural, social, and political currents that influenced Los Angeles in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kicking off the project, on June 1, Angel City Press will publish Songs in the Key of Los Angeles: Sheet Music from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. Written by Kun and with special contributions from musical legends Van Dyke Parks, Stew, and a host of California historians, the anthology showcases more than 100 vintage sheet music covers from the collection, from California lullabies and Los Angeles waltzes, sunshine rags and sunset serenades, to emerging West Coast jazz and the legacy of Mexican folk traditions. Available at bookstores throughout Southern California, the book will also be carried at The Library Store.
That same week, through the Library’s website, the Foundation will release five new recordings of music from the collection by beloved local artists Aloe Blacc, I See Hawks in L.A., Julia Holter, Petrojvic Blasting Company, and La Santa Cecilia. The recording sessions will be showcased online every two weeks in five short documentaries produced by KCET’s transmedia award-winning arts and culture series, Artbound. The first session with I See Hawks will also be featured during the Artbound television series on May 30 at 9 p.m.
On July 1, the exhibition, Songs in the Key of L.A., will open on the first floor of the historic Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles. Featuring a rotating selection of pieces from the collection, the exhibition will use sheet music to explore the early history of Los Angeles’ music industry, civic music culture, and the role of music in shaping key stories central to the making of the city.
On July 13, the Foundation will host Kun, Los Angeles musical icon Van Dyke Parks, and surprise guests for a special evening of song and story specifically for Library Foundation Members. And on July 18, the Foundation’s award-winning ALOUD at the Central Library series gets in on the fun, hosting Kun and musical guest Quetzal (pictured below) for a rare evening of L.A. music history.
On July 25, Grand Performances hosts City Librarian John Szabo and Library Foundation President Ken Brecher for “Off the Shelf: Creating L.A.’s 21st Century Library,” a lively discussion about the future of the Los Angeles Public Library, starting with the “Songs in the Key of L.A.” project.
And finally, on August 2, Grand Performances, in collaboration with the Library Foundation, presents “Songs in the Key of L.A.” the concert. With selections hand-picked by Kun, hometown heroes Ozomatli and special guests will bring songs from the collection to life in a free concert for the people of Los Angeles.
For more information about this and other special collections, visit www.lapl.org.