John Malcolm Penn has several memories of “the Hills,” as he likes to refer to the city where he spent his childhood. He’s written about numerous landmarks in Los Angeles County, however the nature of Signal Hill always intrigued him as a kid. He remembers taking rides on his bike, trying to survive the trip downhill, and in later years would find solace in playing his guitar atop the hill.
In the ‘80s, Penn decided to collect these memories and incorporate them into a song about the city, but the original version sat for a long time before being rewritten in 2009. Lyrics were changed, and so was the melody, giving the song its proper place in a compilation album about Los Angeles County that is close to reaching completion.
Through the help of his longtime pal Tim Grobaty, the City of Signal Hill got wind of the song through Penn’s blog and emblazoned it in a plaque, and it now lies in the City’s council chambers.
“I thought, the…hill is a Signal Hill landmark, and I got this great old 1954 photograph that my dad took of the landmark back when it was very different-looking then,” Penn said. “We used to take cars up there in the dirt and hit those roads at amazing speeds. So with that it mind, I rewrote it two summers ago.”
Penn’s song is a way of reliving the discovery of oil and Signal Hill’s oil boom. With lyrics that read, “Many feet it rises, three hundred sixty-five and see the land for miles around when the oil men arrived,” the song has historical significance, as no other song of its kind exists. In writing the song, Penn made sure to include educational history much like his other history-minded works.
“Most of the songs I’d written had been about something anyway, so I figured that’s a strength, and I would just write about these historical places,” Penn said. “They’re really fun to write up.”
The song will be a part of the County of Angels album, which is a 14-song compilation. It includes songs about the discovery of oil in 1923 and about Liberty Hill in San Pedro, among others places.
Penn’s grandfather, who moved to Signal Hill in 1917, worked under Guy F. Atkinson, a contractor. Penn’s father worked for Shell Oil at the Dominguez Plant. He’s saved old photos with his grandpa with oil barracks in the background, and he said it was pretty easy to write about the city because it’s a part of his life.
“When my grandfather retired, he returned. He would go down and help and tear down barracks because he said, ‘Well I helped put them up, and I’m going to help tear them down,’” Penn said. “That stuck with me.”
Penn’s previous albums include Folk Songs of The Coachella Valley, Southern California Mines: State Historical Landmarks, Songs of the Landmarks: Imperial County and several others. Most of his gigs are played in country clubs around La Quinta, where he lives, and in the coming months he will be returning to Death Valley to visit six other landmarks.
“I’m going to keep moving along as I can,” Penn said. “It was quite an honor for them to do that plaque, and what they’ve done is kind of cool.”
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“(Chorus) Signal Hill, Signal Hill
Black gold we’re gonna drill
Long before the white man, long before the drill
Indians sent smoke signals up on Signal Hill
Up on Signal Hill
Many feet it rises, three hundred sixty-five
And see the land for miles around when the oil men arrived
The oil men arrived
But early wells were dusters, oil they had none
Till Frank Hayes was heard to say in nineteen twenty-one
“There’s oil in the soil” for Shell Oil he begun
To drill a little deeper, with Well number one
Alamitos number one
On the 23 rd of June, 9:30 in the night
Alamitos one erupted, it was an awesome sight
What an awesome sight
A hundred feet the oil rose to the California sky
“I’m Signal Hill’s oil boom, to peaceful times good-bye”
Peaceful times good-bye
The hill looked like a porcupine, three hundred wells or more
Quarter million barrels a day, by nineteen twenty-four
Though now the hill is going dry, it had a mighty run
Here’s to the men from Wilmington, and Alamitos one
Alamitos number one
Signal Hill, Signal Hill
Black gold we’re gonna drill”