UW News

March 5, 2009

The sounds of 1909: Student group performs songs from Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition

The pianist begins the song with a rousing introduction. Then the singer comes in:

Way out west in Washington, down on Puget Sound,
There’s a port, the best on earth, that’s known the world around.
Five big railroads at its doors, and nature has supplied
The spot for the largest city west of the great divide.

You think you know the place she’s talking about, but then comes the chorus:

You’ll like Tacoma.

Tacoma? Yes, the song is, in fact, called You’ll Like Tacoma, and it’s one of those that members of the UW’s Collegium Musicum will sing on March 14 during the Museum of History and Industry’s Souvenirs and Stories: A Salute to 1909. The event is part of the centennial celebration of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which was held on the UW campus in 1909.

What has a song about Tacoma got to do with the AYPE? Well, the second verse goes like this:

Everyone that comes out west to see the AYP
Will not go back when once they see the city of destiny.

JoAnn Taricani, an associate professor of music history who directs the Collegium Musicum, discovered the song 20 years ago in the sheet music collection held by the Music Library. At the time, she was looking for songs to illustrate the history of Washington, which was celebrating its centennial, and You’ll Like Tacoma was among the songs that her group wound up performing that year.

Noticing then that there were a number of songs in the collection about the AYPE, Taricani tucked that fact away for future reference. And last summer she was back in the sheet music collection, pulling out those songs. Among the 20 to 25 about the exposition, she chose 10 or 12 for her group to perform.

“Some of them are very well written, memorable songs,” she said. “Audiences seem to enjoy listening to them and the students certainly enjoy singing them.”

Cecile Farmer, an undergraduate voice major who will perform several solos in the group’s concert, called the songs “a hoot. I would describe the music as parloresque; the piano accompaniment has ragtime oom-pahs, while the vocal lines really build up to a climax and seem to be endlessly dreaming about the joys of the city. They are catchy with a lot of momentum, some of them even narrate a story and they definitely draw people in. I catch myself humming the tunes long after I have put the music away.”

Farmer isn’t the only one who’s found the music memorable. Taricani said that when she tells colleagues her group will be performing music from the AYPE, they ask whether You’ll Like Tacoma will be part of the program. “They remember it from 1989, when we performed it for the state centennial,” she said. “Of course, the current students were not even born then, so that is distant history to them.”

Songs like You’ll Like Tacoma can be classified as booster songs, written largely to promote the area to outsiders, and really are early versions of commercial jingles, Taricani said. They’re meant to be enjoyable enough to take home and keep singing, to promote the product. And some songs were pretty direct imitations of earlier hits. There are, for example, several AYPE songs that start with “Meet me in Seattle,” echoing the very successful song of the 1904 World’s Fair, Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis was a huge hit in its time,” Taricani said. “What you see in the 1909 songs are attempts to write the next national hit song that would sell over a million copies and make a composer’s fortune.”

Those composers were disappointed. The music has remained obscure, performed only by groups like Collegium Musicum, which specializes in early music. Usually that means music written before 1600 (the same singers are performing a concert of medieval music at 7:30 p.m. March 7 in Mary Gates Commons), but Taricani makes exceptions for special occasions. Her idea is always to immerse the students in the time period of the music they’re singing.

“Knowing what music people liked makes me feel connected to that time in history in my favorite city of Seattle,” Farmer said of the AYPE songs.

Singing the songs has been a new experience for her. “I am studying classical voice at UW,” she said. “The songs in the classical vocal art repertoire are often in a foreign language, and even when they are in English, you might sing a single vowel for several beats on a very high note, making the words hard to understand. The AYP songs are completely different!”

“These songs are written in a music hall style,” Taricani said. “They’re sprightly and very lighthearted, in the style of entertainment songs heard in theaters in New York and London around 1900. I said to the students, ‘I can almost see you twirling your parasols as you’re singing.'”

The group will sing the AYPE songs twice — at noon and at 2 p.m. — during the March 14 event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Also on hand will be collectors with AYPE memorabilia, 1909-era costumes from Goodwill’s vintage fashion collection and, of course, refreshments. Visitors can attend a collection care workshop, and prizes will be given to collectors in several categories. For further information, go to http://www.seattlehistory.org/.