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 my other titles ran the gamut 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 of the United States, I was struck by how often the author(s) brought up Hawaiian music (enough to make me wonder whether he (or they) didn't live in Honolulu). A quick recount yielded, he/they made only six references – and one of them just as a category label – but that still seemed out-sized given a personal belief that Hawaiian music started and ended with songs like “Aloha ‘Oe” (you can find a link to some audio at the top right of that page) 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."

Wikipedia’s entry ("Music of Hawaii") disabused that blinkered view within the first paragraph. (And it only now just occurred to me that surf could have originated in Hawaii (no? No. Huh. Seemed like a natural fit)). The actual story packs a still bigger “wow/weird” factor. 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. 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 in the middle of the planet's biggest ocean.

I have to back up a bit, 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 above is the best on this). Another famous instrument, the ukulele, also came from abroad, but on a different boat: the precursor was an instrument called the braguinha, and that came 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.))

I’ve watched only a couple slack-key demo videos (one kinda square, one kinda cool; the square one does more to explain the mechanics), so I don't have the chops to go deep on it here. 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.”
(That's a big very, “establish,” makes you wonder what else Big Nashville is hiding. Still, 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.)

I want to end this introduction with a happy little disclaimer. I come into this whole thing with very little knowledge of how the various elements of American popular music came together to make the sounds we hear today. Also, what knowledge I have is largely intuitive and, as with Hawaiian music, even that trips over stereotypes and bumps into blind-spots. I'm going into this project with one eye forever searching for the unexpected. The Hawaiian origins of a country music sub-genre, for example. We have a nice world when we slow it down enough to let it teach us a thing or two.

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