Striking a Chord: The “California Quick Step,” 1849

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Once the news of the January 1848 discovery of gold in northern California by James Marshall got out, it was later that year and afterward when hordes of gold-seekers and others headed to the new American possession, seized from Mexico in 1846-47.   Within several years, roughly a quarter million migrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, China, and elsewhere in the United States came to California.

Meanwhile, popular culture quickly latched onto the Gold Rush as a source of material and inspiration for short stories, novels, plays and pieces of music.  An early example of the latter was the composition and publication of “California Quick Step,” which appeared in early 1849 (the Library of Congress entered it into its collection on 20 March.)  A popular New York magazine, The Knickerbocker, briefly noted, in its July 1849 issue, the tune was among several it received from music publishers.

The composer was Edward Little White (1809-1851), a Boston-based writer of a number of religious song books as well as popular pieces and music for the piano.  White, who also taught piano and organ, wrote several quick step songs, but was best known in his time for his arranging for pieces with themes based on native indigenous Indians, including “The Sachem’s Daughter” and “The Blue Juniata.”

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One of several Gold Rush inspired sheet music pieces from the Homestead collection, “California Quick Step,” by Edward L. White, a Boston composer and teacher, was published by Oliver Ditson, also of Boston, and entered in the Library of Congress in March 1849.

The melody of “California Quick Step” was based on “Uncle Ned” or “Old Uncle Ned,” a well-known song in what is generally now termed as African American Vernacular English from famed composer Stephen C. Foster that appeared in 1848.  As a quick step, however, it was in a much faster tempo than the ballad of Foster’s piece.

Oliver Ditson (1811-1888) was the publisher of “California Quick Step” and, like White, was from Boston.  From just before his teens he worked in a bookstore in the city, but, by 1835, opened up a music publishing house with his former employer.  From 1840, he was on his own, though he took on a partner in the late 1850s and the firm became known as Oliver Ditson and Company.  In the Civil War years, Ditson expanded into instrument making with a subsidiary.  After his death in 1888, the two companies merged into one and remained in operation, including by Ditson’s son for the last twenty or so years, until it was purchased in 1931 by Theodore Presser Co. of Philadelphia.

In his will, Ditson left $25,000 to be invested and the proceeds used to provide financial assistance to poor and needy musicians and the Oliver Ditson Society for the Relief of Needy Musicians was created in 1889.  In 1968, the Society dissolved and the endowment eventually morphed into the Oliver Ditson Scholarship Fund for Needy Musicians, which is administered by the prestigious New England Conservatory.

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The second page of the score to “California Quick Step,” the melody of which was based on a popular Stephen Foster tune from 1848 called “Uncle Ned” or “Old Uncle Ned,”

It is tempting to think that the Temple brothers, Jonathan and F.P.F., the former being the second “Anglo” to live in Los Angeles and the latter, a much younger half-brother who married into the Workman family, might have received a copy from their relatives back home in Reading, Massachusetts, a short distance from Boston, where the writer and publisher were based.  Maybe one or both of them had a piano in their homes and even had the piece played for a lively dance.  Well, we obviously have no evidence that they did, but, then again, we don’t have evidence that they didn’t either!

The Homestead has several other 1849 Gold Rush related pieces of sheet music in its collection, including “The California Gold Diggers,” “Gold Fever Galop [sic]”, “California As It Is,” “California Quadrilles,” “California Polka”, and “La Californienne,” written by an Austrian composer who lived in Paris.  So, look for these to be featured in future posts in the “Striking a Chord” series.

Meantime, there is a modern recording of “California Quick Step” that can be heard on this link.

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