Deep-Sea Matrimony: George Sterling’s Abalone Song Stretches Back More than a Century

By Geoffrey Dunn

The expanded version of this article can be found in:  Deep-Sea Matrimony: George Sterling and "The Abalone Song," by Geoffrey Dunn. Fall/Winter 2008 edition of Noticias published by the Monterey History and Art Association.

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The roots of one of California's most celebrated contributions to American folklore are currently on display at the Monterey Maritime & History Museum, though they reside in an unlikely pair of artifacts—a well-worn guest book from a fabled Monterey restaurant and a smoke-blackened, cast-iron pot.

"The Abalone Song," written primarily by Carmel's bohemian poet-in-residence George Sterling a century ago, was included by Carl Sandburg in his seminal musical history "The American Songbag" and was featured at the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco. It has been sung by abalone aficionados around the world ever since.

But for most of the past 100 years or so, its true origins have remained speculative. One current internet website, for instance, identifies Jack London as the sole author of the song, while another assigns that distinction to Sterling.

Still others attribute various verses to members of the so-called "Crowd" that descended on Carmel in the early 1900s, an ensemble of literati, artistes and musicians that would come to include Sterling, Mary Austin, James Hopper, Sinclair Lewis, Arnold Genthe, Xavier Martinez, Nora May French, Upton Sinclair, a host of other supporting players, and, on rare occasions, London himself.

Several scrawled passages of the song appear in the well-worn guest book of Café Ernest, which was then located in downtown Monterey and operated by legendary chef "Pop" Ernest Doelter. The guest book—along with a cast-iron pot owned by Carmel musician Mabel Lachmund that was used to cook many of the Crowd's abalone feeds—are presently featured in the Maritime Museum's exhibit on the local abalone industry curated by museum historian Tim Thomas.

Thomas, who has just returned from Tateyama, Japan, where the history of the Monterey Peninsula's abalone industry will be on exhibit next year at the Awa Museum, says that these two artifacts provide him the opportunity to "tell the whole story of the Monterey abalone industry."

The entries in the guest book of Pop Ernest's have long been thought to be the Rosetta Stone of the Abalone Song. On August 30, 1913, Sterling, his wife Carrie, humorist Harry Leon Wilson and his wife Helen, San Francisco violinist Sigmund Beel, writer C.W. Miles, and art patrons Charles and Marie Sutro all journeyed from Carmel to Monterey to dine at the popular restaurant, where local abalone was featured on the menu.

Sterling took the lead and entered what is generally considered to be the opening verse of the song into the restaurant's guest book:

Oh! some folks boast of quail on toast
Because they think it's tony,
But I'm content to owe my rent
And live on abalone.

Sterling was followed by Marie Sutro, Beel, Carrie Sterling, both Wilsons and Miles, all of whom contributed four lines of the song. There was also another verse—written in an open hand at the bottom of the page—that some speculated could have been written by London. The fact that the signature was torn off lent weight to the possibility that it had been purloined by someone seeking the autograph of the world famous author of "The Call of the Wild" and "John Barleycorn."

But Sterling's diary entries from that period, along with those of Charmian London, the author's wife, make it clear that London was nowhere near the Monterey Peninsula on the excursion to Café Ernest that evening. His dream home, Wolf House, had been destroyed by fire only a week before.

Contrary to widespread perception, these two diaries also confirm that London visited his best friend Sterling and the Carmel literary colony on only three occasions, once in November of 1906, another in February of 1907, and that his last trip to the peninsula was in late February and early March of 1910.

London, however, did make his own significant contribution to the lore of "The Abalone Song" at that time by including several verses of it in his novel "The Valley of the Moon," which was published in September of 1913, and which also was serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine from April through December of that year.

In the novel, a character based on Sterling (Mark Hall) teaches Billy and Saxon (based on the Londons) several verses of the song after gathering a trio of abalone in Carmel Bay. "You must never, never pound abalone without singing this song," Hall commands in the novel. "Nor must you sing this song at any other time. It would be the rankest sacrilege." "The Valley of the Moon" would mark the first time that "The Abalone Song" found its way into print. London had clearly learned the song on one his trio of journeys to Carmel. But he most certainly did not compose it. In her history of the Monterey Peninsula, "A Tribute to Yesterday," Sharron Lee Hale assigns several of the specific verses of the song to Sterling, and others to Sinclair Lewis, Michael Williams and Opal Heron Search. As it turns out, those attributions of authorship were originally made by Search to Jimmy Hopper's widow, Elayne Chanslor, in the 1950s, and later appeared in the Carmel Pine Cone.

Sterling, however, viewed himself as the keeper of "The Abalone Song" flame. Long after he left Carmel following his tumultuous divorce from his wife—a half-dozen years before he committed suicide in his San Francisco apartment—Sterling wrote out the song in longhand and had copies typed up by his friend Idwal Jones, a writer and food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

While Jones attributed verses of the song to Sterling, London, Ambrose Bierce, and Gelett Burgess, he concurred that Opal Heron Search, a talented musician in her own right and an actress in the early productions of Carmel's Forest Theatre, should be credited with authoring the opening verse jotted down by Sterling in Pop Ernest's guest book.

On June 21, 1920, according to Jones, Sterling made one final change to the song and sent Jones off to type several copies for Sterling to disperse. "That was the master's list," Jones concluded, "and the song has remained immutable ever since."

 

The Monterey Maritime & History Museum is located at 5 Custom House Plaza. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed Mondays). For more information call: 831-372-2608 or go to: www.montereyhistory.org. Geoffrey Dunn is an award-winning journalist, historian, and writer living in Santa Cruz. He is a member of Santa Cruz's historic Italian fishing family, the Stagnaros, and his roots in Monterey Bay go back to the 1870s.