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Meredith Eliassen

The music and songs of the (California) Gold Rush in San Francisco reflected the sorrows and hard luck of residents who failed to find fortunes in California’s gold fields and faced mortality far from loved ones. The newspaper Alta California observed in 1851, “Birds of a feather flock together,” describing San Francisco as a miniature world where music reflected nearly “every country on the face of the earth.” A few short blocks from the Latin Quarter lay the heart of Chinatown. Streets reverberated with the bustling rhythms of landfill machinery used to reshape the geography of San Francisco’s waterfront and the transient movement of boardinghouse dwellers dodging firestorms, shanghaiers, and outbreaks of cholera.

Musical influences from Californios, New York’s Bowery district, and the Appalachian Mountains region, along with sea shanties from the Pacific Rim trade routes, rhythms of freeborn African Americans, and traditional musics of Europeans fleeing famines, economic depressions, and violent unrest reverberated through San Francisco’s vibrant street culture. Regular steamship service made minstrel shows and bawdy burlesque featuring all-male casts profitable in the absence of women performers. Local minstrel shows parodied popular music by adapting songs with new lyrics to entertain miners. The Philadelphia Minstrels started a long engagement at the Bella Union Hall on ...