Pop Culture In Yosemite

Recently, I was interviewed for a Los Angeles area journal regarding my perspective on pop-culture in Yosemite; the following is an unedited transcript of my comments. 

Choosing What To Play at the Wawona Hotel: 

I've got this melange of musical rubble in my head--much of it influenced by the habit I had of checking out all kinds of recordings from the Torrance Public Library when I was a kid.  The trick is to listen to music you think you won't like until it grows on you--or doesn't.  What I brought with me in 1983 to Wawona was a mix of classical vestiges from my piano-lessons days, ragtime (and related styles), depression-era popular songs, Celtic folk, and turn-of-the-century parlor tunes (what are we going to call the turn-of-the-century after the next one passes?), and some jazz. 

At first, I just played whatever I thought the audience might like to hear.  Later, I started thinking that my ragtime might be causing the founders of the hotel to flip in their graves--when one looks at 19th century photos of the Wawona Hotel, it's pretty plain that they were trying to hack out some semblance of elegance here in the wilderness, and ragtime would have been considered far too lowbrow.  But I realized that the hotel didn't freeze in time in 1879--it changed with the times, so I can play anything I want.  Around 1919, when Wawona was a dowdy 40 years old, Clarence Washburn spruced it up, redid the paint and decor, added rooms, a pool, a golf-course, and hired a dance band.  By  1980, the lobby was done in gray and cream, and ragtime and folk-musicians often played for tips in the bar.  In 1986 the interior color-scheme reflected '80s tastes, with pink, mauve, and teal.  Somehow the Wawona is able to change with the times, but still retain its original premise of Victorian, homey elegance, without becoming a sterile "Old Hotel Museum." 

So, I still play to the audience, or to the mood of the moment (in the summertime, the audience is often out of my sight on the front porch), with the recent addition of "interpretive performances" that use old Yosemite related music to examine Yosemite history. 

Interpreting Vintage Yosemite Songs: 

Well, I wouldn't exactly call it "research."  All that listening I did courtesy the Torrance Public Library was just for the pleasure of it, but it gave me a well-informed feel for just what style each Yosemite song composer might have had in mind.  It took some thought, though.  There's this song, "Yosemite" (by Alfa B. Hardy, published 1947), that I just couldn't get a grip on.  Then I saw some movie with Nelson Eddy singing on horseback with 1000 Mounties parading behind him, and I got it--"grandiose."  Another tune, "Yosemite" (by Harry C. Mabry, published 1954) just said "Roy Rogers" to me; I've recently discovered that the publisher specialized in Country & Western music.  A few years after my first recording of the song, Mabry's grandson wrote to me.  I learned that Mabry was a Los Angeles attorney who liked to write songs about the places he'd visited, and though my treatment was a bit snappier than his, he would have liked it. 

"The Bridge By Yosemite Falls" (by Harry "Mac" McMillen, written 1945) is a special case.  Mac was the only composer who'd registered and later renewed his copyright, so I was able to find him through the Library of Congress.  He said he liked my 1990 recording of "Bridge" (I'd given it a shameless Bing Crosby treatment), and sent me a 1949 rehearsal recording of the song played by Dick Jurgens' Orchestra (well known and oft recorded in the '30s and '40s).  How sweet to hear the song as it was played fifty years ago at the outdoor dances at Camp Curry.  With Mac's help, I restored a missing section of the music, plus missing instrumental parts (not everybody had shown up to the rehearsal), to the original 78 r.p.m. recording, and released it on the current "Vintage Songs" recording (1995). 

There are four other period recordings I was able to include, the most interesting being a 1915 recording issued by David Curry (1860-1916).  Side "A" of the 78 r.p.m. record features composer Walter De Leon (Cal Berkeley, class of '06) singing "I'm Strong For Camp Curry," a then popular campfire song that doubled as a commercial ditty.  Curry, founder of Camp Curry in 1899, was nicknamed "The Stentor," which is also the name of the march on side "B" of the record.  At one point, the band stops and Curry's foghorn-like voice is heard, yelling "HELLO, GLACIER," "ALL'S WELL," and "FAREWELL."  The last call is what travelers would hear as they departed by stage; the first is the initial call heard before the once nightly ritual known as the firefall. 

There are two pieces called "The Yosemite March & Two-Step."  The 1896 one I gave the full marching band treatment, but for the 1903 one, I imagined a little thrown-together ensemble that might have occurred back then.  "Yosemite, God's Wonderland" (Phil Patterson, published 1921) I performed "straight," followed by something a mid-twenties jazz band might have done to it (and probably against the composer's intentions--gotta have a little fun). 

The Firefall (re. a T.V. documentary for a P.B.S. series called "California's Gold"): 

I learned a lot from the taping of that program.  Ranger Dick Ewart gave a perfect, succinct explanation of why they stopped doing the firefall (the most obvious problem was the impact on meadows where, every night at 9 p.m., people would tromp out to watch the event).  Bill Lane actually got a little misty when he described the "spiritual" experience of the firefall, how all activity would cease and a hush would fall over the entire valley, followed by the exchange of greetings between Camp Curry and Glacier Point,  followed by (as a 1927 writer described it) "...the rain of fire that seemed the tears of a mourning divinity." 

(Bill Lane started at the stables in Yosemite Valley in 1938 as a packer guide.  Among other jobs, he worked at Camp Curry as a porter, and used to give the "firefall calls" from time to time.  More recently Mr. Lane has received two awards for his work with the National Parks: 1994 at the White House President Clinton presented him with the National Park Foundation's Theodore and Conrad Wirth Environmental Award, and in 1995 the NPCA's William Penn Mott, Jr., Conservationist of the Year Award, in Washington, D.C.  He is the former owner of Sunset Magazine, and the new Glacier Point Amphitheater bears his name). 

Practically every time I ask my audience at Wawona if anyone remembers the firefall, a few hands go up.  I get the impression that, far from being a piece of period kitsch, the firefall fulfilled some human need for a ritual when visiting such a deeply spiritual place.  People often ask me why they stopped it, often in an angry tone of voice, as if they'd been robbed.  When I describe the impact that spectators had on the meadows, they seem sad, but satisfied with the explanation. 

Pop-culture And Yosemite Management: 

Sometimes there is the appearance of a paradox when none really exists; other times the paradox is right in your face.  [There are] two separate paradoxes: "preservation vs. sharing" and "preservation vs. pop-culture."  The first one I like to characterize by the two boardwalks leading visitors across a meadow toward Yosemite Falls and the Merced River.  Previously, the meadow was a maze of footpaths of the multitudes drawn toward the river and falls from the road.  Acknowledging that, perhaps, the multitudes need to be able to fulfill this impulse, we "deface" the meadow with boardwalks in order to protect it.  That happens to be this decade's answer to that paradox; as styles and values change, there may be other answers. 

The latter paradox isn't always a paradox, unless one regards the presence of humans as non-indigenous, in which case there would be some explaining to do to the descendants of the Ahwahneechee and other tribes that once lived in Yosemite.  We know that they sang and danced around campfires, probably for thousands of years; I like to think of this  as the oldest ongoing cultural activity in Yosemite, along with picture-making.  It may be argued that the early peoples were singing and making images for different reasons than current visitors, but I think that if you stand back and observe from just a short distance, the activities of these groups are strikingly similar and indeed ancient. 

Having recently observed the mingling of lightness and frivolity with ritual and devotion in Buddhist temples in Japan, I see a like atmosphere in Yosemite.  Only perhaps the most deeply disciplined (and peculiarly motivated) are able to leave their pop-culture behind when they enter Yosemite.  John Muir wrote, referring to the songs of his favorite, Robert Burns, "In the Sierra I sang and whistled to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me."  Late Ranger/Naturalist Carl Sharsmith said that he couldn't hear the old dance song, "Smiles," without thinking of Yosemite and John Muir.  Making a painting or photo or snowdome souvenir doesn't diminish Yosemite.  Creating an externalization of Yosemite in this way allows people to reinforce their memories, experience, and love of the place through something they can hold, or recreate as a video or song.  These things are innately human and, I think, actually important in the uniquely human activity of interpreting Yosemite. 

Due perhaps to its often frivolous appearance, it is easy to underestimate the role of pop-culture in providing a vehicle for the expression of love of nature.  Not all nature lovers spend their Yosemite time in silent contemplation, and the measure of one's value of pop-culture may not be a measure of one's sensitivity to nature. 

Letting go of the firefall was, to some, a "no-brainer," but to others it was a heart-wrenching acknowledgment of changing times.  Now, we're looking at the removal of beloved old stone bridges that impede the natural flooding of the Merced.  Since our attachment to Yosemite is made possible only by our contact with Yosemite, I don't think we'll actually be vacating the place anytime soon.  It could be that providing amenities such as the Ahwahnee Hotel creates a portal through which much of humanity would otherwise never get to know and love Yosemite.  Since we are not preaching only to the converts, I think it is important not to dismiss such cultural icons in Yosemite without estimating their value as welcoming environments in which people may rediscover and deepen their attachment to nature. 

Being among the "harmless scum," as Muir described those who would collect in the hotel lobbies of Yosemite, I see the role of these places as "base camps" in which visitors may deepen their connection to Yosemite through interpretive programs and simple, positive human interaction (not to mention food and rest), rejuvenating themselves for the next day's recreation. 

I feel I can help park visitors to become sensitive to how pop-culture may cross the line to become an imposition on the environment, or on others' ability to experience Yosemite, as did the firefall and the bear-feedings.  On some nights, I take time out from my usual piano-playing and singing to give a presentation, with a slide show and Yosemite songs, that shows how the interpretation of Yosemite changes exactly as pop-culture changes.  Through it one sees that love for Yosemite doesn't change--only the style by which it is expressed.  I find this comforting, along with the observation that this love continues to motivate people to honestly reexamine their own impact on Yosemite. 

When And Where I Perform: 

I'm usually there, playing piano and singing, Tuesday through Saturday evenings (5:30 - 9:30 p.m.).  I usually do two to four interpretive programs per week during those hours--normally I just ask the audience if they're in the mood, though I've taken to giving the "Vintage Songs" slide show on Saturday nights, and Wawona History shows on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  I've also developed a presentation on Yosemite campfire songs--if any readers out there remember any songs with Yosemite lyrics, I would love to hear from them and help share the music with others.  In Southern California, I perform about twice per year at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo (310) 322-2592.  It's a great place to see old silent movies (with Wurlitzer Theater Organ accompaniment), and they've got a Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano that's worth about $100K and sounds like it. 

Where To Find "Vintage Songs Of Yosemite": 

It's available in CD and cassette.  In Yosemite valley, the only store that carries them is at the Visitor Center (run by the Yosemite Association); in Wawona, they're at the Pioneer Gift Store and the Wawona Hotel front desk.  For mail-order, drop me a note and I'll send you an order-form:  Box 701, Oakhurst CA 93644. 
Internet users can print up an order form from my page, "Yosemite Music & Art" at http://sieratel.com/wawonamoon 
Among other things, the Web page contains a detailed article about Yosemite music with sheet-music covers and sound clips.