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Music of American World's Fairs: Music, Protest and Politics at the 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition

  • Author(s): La Barre, Elisse Colleen
  • Advisor(s): Miller, Leta E
  • et al.

In 1939, the United States’ strained relations with countries in Asia and Europe echoed the challenges of war amidst a crippling depression. The city of San Francisco, known as the “Gateway to the West,” was the closest major continental American city to Asia. Selected in 1935 to host an American world’s exposition, fair organizers were quick to market the unique and long-term geographic and cultural relationship that San Francisco had with countries that bordered the Pacific Ocean. On February 18, 1939, San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), which eventually attracted more than 8 million visitors, adopted the “Pageant of the Pacific” as its theme. The exposition served as a platform that attempted to facilitate a multicultural dialogue that promoted peace and was the first occurrence where the fine arts of the Pacific Rim were assembled at an American massed event.

The GGIE is a Depression-era massed spectacle that allows for an insight into the rise of mass culture and issues of local, regional, civic, national, and global communities as well as an example standardization of music and entertainment at American fairs. Popular musical figures were in demand at expositions and wielded a great amount of power in creating uniquely “American” music as well as shaping the sonic representation of a nation. The focus will be to construct a context in order to contextualize the GGIE within previous American world’s fairs, especially the 1894 California Midwinter Exposition and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Corporate, academic, federal, and civic entities used music at the GGIE as a tool for marketing and propaganda as well as a form of protest. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers’ (ASCAP) staged a highly publicized musical protest during the last weeks of the GGIE. Using recordings and reviews, this examination will shed new light on the issues of music licensing, performance rights organization history, musical protest, and the reaffirmation of the American popular music canon on the West Coast in the final years before the United States’ involvement in WWII.

Geographically closer to the events in Japanese-occupied China than the concurrent New York World’s Fair, San Francisco hosted an exhibition that promoted peace in the Pacific with the focus on tourism and trade. The main purpose of the GGIE was twofold: to position the United States as a world power at the threshold of a world war and to aid the nation, and San Francisco in particular, during the Depression. The fair was not only an idealistic enterprise but also a practical one. Although this dissertation’s primary focus is musical, it also examines how issues of race and gender, copyright and technology, and Depression-era politics and Western identity underline the influence of world’s fairs on the modern cultural history of San Francisco, California and the United States.

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