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Vol. 1 No. 2 (2020): Soundscapes, Sonic Cultures, and American Studies

American Studies, Sound Studies, and Cultural Memory: Woody Van Dyke's San Francisco as Sonic Contact Zone

May 2, 2019


Each year on April 18, the city of San Francisco commemorates the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire with a series of elaborate and tightly scripted ceremonies. As one of the key events, the ceremony at Lotta's Fountain features, among others, commemorative speeches, the hanging of a memorial wreath, and the ceremonial wailing of fire sirens, followed by a minute of silence for the victims. The acoustic tension building up between the sirens' piercing warning sounds and the ensuing collective gesture of mournful quietude is subsequently resolved by the communal sing-along of the upbeat theme song "San Francisco" from the eponymous Academy Award-winning 1936 musical film. This performance seems to stand in stark contrast to the other events at the ceremony, which are painstakingly staged to appear historically accurate. Nonetheless, the anachronistic inclusion of the triumphant "San Francisco," written three decades after the earthquake and released in the context of a purely fictional narrative, fits the purpose of memorializing the 1906 earthquake, since it sonically embodies the "new" city's founding myth. San Francisco, especially its theme song, this article argues, memorializes the 1906 disaster as a social equalizer and a patriotic affirmation of American resilience by portraying the pre-earthquake city as a loud, decadent, and disorderly soundscape that only the earthquake could unite, refine, and ultimately Americanize.


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