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The long journey to recognize California’s State song

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Can you name California’s State Song? Are you even aware that California has a State Song? Well, it does, and it used to be sung widely at special events, such as the Inauguration of the Governor. If you know anyone who went to school in the Golden State before the 1960s, they can probably still sing part of it, because classes started each day with students reciting the Pledge to the Flag, along with the song, “I Love You California.”

The song was actually composed for a Shriners national convention. The California delegation wanted to remind the Texas hosts what a good time everyone had had in the Golden State the previous year.

According to James M. Keller, Program Annotator of both the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, that performance should have been the last anyone heard of it. But someone got a copy of the sheet music (this was about 1915, when sheet music was the popular way to discover songs) to opera star Mary Garden, and that changed everything.

You may not know Mary Garden today, but Keller says that from 1913 -15, she was “the Madonna of her day. Or the Lady Gaga of her day, even. She was very, very famous.”  Then, as now, people loved celebrities. And anyone with a product to sell wanted her endorsement. She somehow saw the sheet music for this song, and sang it in public. “And she made it famous,” Keller says. “In fact, ensuing editions of the song no longer have the pictures of the Shriners on it, but rather they have pictures of Mary Garden.”

The song may have been written in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t considered for the State Song until 1951. There were other candidates, so the State Legislature eventually declared it “an” official song, not “the” official song. This move left the option for others to be recognized, without having to rewrite the law.

It may seem surprising that the Legislature didn’t finalize this designation until 1988, though. The delay wasn’t because of politics; it was because of copyright law. “I Love You California” came into the public domain that year, and now no one has to keep track of permissions and royalties. Ironically, the song is seldom heard these days, even without that legal and financial requirement.  

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