Monday, January 16, 2017

Pop Backstory: A Hawaiian Prelude

There's a Hawaiian honky-tonk image, but...
Welcome to this first post in a personal history of American popular music. Decided to stick with a simple title for the series (e.g., “Pop History”) because all the other titles I came up ranged between hokey to stupid. As noted in the introductory post to Pop History, I want to begin the project by reading and relating what I learn by reading America’s Musical Life: A History, by Richard Crawford. After that, I’ll dig through Wikipedia’s sprawling, cross-referenced pages until I get to some satisfactory end. That’s months, if not years away. Thought it appropriate to start with something of a cautionary tale.

When I read Wikipedia’s history, it felt like the author(s) kept bringing up Hawaiian music often enough, and specifically, to make me wonder whether the editors lived in Honolulu. As it turns out, he/they made only six references – and one of them just as a category label – but that still seemed outsized given a personal belief that Hawaiian music sounded like “Aloha ‘Oe” (go to the top right for audio) and, when it came to mainstream pop, the borrowings came out sounding like some sappy Andy Williams bastardization (example).

Oh, and fun detail, the last queen of Hawaii wrote “Aloha ‘Oe.” That’s kinda cool.

Wikipedia’s entry ("Music of Hawaii") disabused that blinkered view within the first paragraph. (And it only now just occurred to me that surf might have originated in Hawaii (no? No. Huh. Seemed like a natural fit)). The actual story packs a still bigger “wow/weird” factor, in that the Hawaiians invented not just the steel/slide guitar technique, but the popularity of the Hawaiian sound prompted the development of the first electric guitar (in a phrase, damn, fam). And to further demonstrate the guitar-madness among Hawaiians, they also developed a technique called slack-key guitar. To reuse a word, that’s an out-sized pop culture footprint for a handful of small islands.

That actually starts the story in the middle, because the real story of Hawaiian music begins with the arrival of Mexican vaqueros, who were invited to the islands in the 19th century to corral a cattle problem (slack-key entry is the best on this). Another famous instrument, the ukulele, also came from abroad, if on a different boat; the precursor was an instrument called the braguinha, and it arrived with Portuguese sailors. (Not to crap on the ukulele, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever take it seriously as an instrument, even when it does things I find genuinely wonderful (if you’ve ever wanted to hear the Bob’s Burgers theme song deconstructed, that’s yer link; it’s quite a good story, honestly.))

While I’ve watched a couple slack-key demo videos (one kinda square, one kinda cool; credit the square one, though, because dude actually explains the mechanics, especially the stuff about how a clean strum plays a surprisingly clean chord), it’s not my intent to go deep on it here. I’ve heard of only one of the masters listed (Ry Cooder, and even him barely), so it’d take a couple weeks research before I had anything worthwhile to say. As for the steel guitar, first of all, fan of the noise it makes, but I’ll go deeper into this stuff when I dig into country music, especially the Nashville Sound (apparently). The trail actually gets a little weird on that one, in that Wikipedia’s entry for the Nashville Sound makes no mention of Hawaii or steel guitar, while the Hawaiian music entry contains a sentence that makes that omission seem glaring:
“The musician Sol Hoʻopiʻi arose during this time, playing both Hawaiian music and jazz, Western swing and country, and developing the pedal steel guitar; his recordings helped establish the Nashville sound of popular country music.”
(“Establish” feels like a strong verb to me, but…and while we’re there, here’s a sample of a song by Sol Ho’opi’I; turns out access to the classics ain’t Youtube ready, at least broadly.)

At any rate, this post has the singular purpose of owning the reality that I’m coming into this whole thing with thin knowledge of how all the elements of American popular music fit together, and even that knowledge is largely intuitive and, in the case of Hawaiian music, muddied by a whiff of stereotyping (e.g. the presumed impossibility that Hawaiians could influence country). With that, I go into this project with one eye searching for the unexpected. The Hawaiian origins of a country music sub-genre, for example: it’s a delightfully weird world, isn’t it?

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