Back in 1958, one of my teachers thought it would be a good idea to get us to talk about the possibility of statehood for Hawaii. Having a bunch of kids discuss current events seemed like a fine way to get our minds off sex and music. And so, like many Americans, he asked “Should Hawaii become a state?” After some silence, one of my classmates raised his hand and said, “No. Because it isn’t touching.”
This rather quaintly phrased objection expressed what many people felt back then. States were supposed to be pieces of land that bordered other states, and the US of A was a big hunk of land composed of adjacent little pieces. To include some islands way out in the Pacific that took god-knows how long to reach before jet travel was commonplace just didn’t make sense.
But actually it did. And on August 21, 1959, Hawaii (along with Alaska – another piece of land that “wasn’t touching”) was granted statehood. Hawaii became the 50th state, stoking an upturn in the flag industry, as Americans rushed to update their red, white and blue banners. Under all that national pride, the reasons for growth were not quite so pure. America had actually annexed Hawaii in 1898 and made it a territory in 1900, hoping to keep its economic advantages out of the hands of the Europeans. There was plenty of intrigue and some threats of violence surrounding these events, and more than another half century would pass before political and racial resistance to statehood would finally subside.
States all have their own unique identities, but none is more exotic and ethnically diverse than Hawaii. It’s quite commonplace for Americans from the mainland who visit Hawaii to think of it as a foreign vacation. To this day, travelers arrive in Honolulu and ask what kind of money the locals use.
While it’s true that American culture often assimilates everything in sight, it also leaves many superficial trappings intact. Thus, almost everyone has a sense of what “Hawaiian music” sounds like. Unfortunately, for many of us, this conjures up images of Don Ho (or one of his numerous clones) singing “Pretty Bubbles.” In fact, this is unfair to Mr. Ho. Long before his popularity spread in the 1970s, there was an earlier epidemic of watered down Hawaiian music spreading across the US. At the turn of the century, Hawaiian songs were normally sung in their native language and rarely left the islands. In 1912, a stage play called Bird of Paradise opened on Broadway and was a smash hit. The show featured a troop of Hawaiian musicians performing in their native language. The New York Times called the music “weirdly sensuous,” which drew even larger audiences. After that, the play began to tour, taking this new music to listeners outside New York City. Just as this was happening, a 1915 San Francisco exposition of Pacific culture featured a show by the Royal Hawaiian Quartette, bringing native Hawaiian music and dancing to a west coast audience.
The American appetite for this strange new music grew almost overnight and non-Hawaiian songwriters struggled to produce Hawaiian-sounding product. Naturally, there was a limit to what Americans could digest, and so Hapa Haole songs were born. Strictly speaking, Hapa Haole means “half foreign” although colloquially its meaning may be closer to “songs the accursed white man has stolen from us and exploited for his financial gain.” The truth is, however, that Hawaiians, too, were making good money as the market for their native music spread to a whole new continent and brought tourism to their door.
Much Hapa Haole music contains just enough Hawaiian language to sound authentic. It wasn’t uncommon for early Tin Pan Alley songwriters (whose Hawaiian vocabularies consisted of “Aloha!”) to write gibberish that sounded Hawaiian and, with a ukulele and steel guitar to accompany it, who was likely to know, much less complain? Even standard pop songs in English could be made to sound Hawaiian if you threw in a few Hawaiian-sounding touches - some words, the right stringed instruments or a Hula rhythm. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hawaiian-based music literally flooded the market and accounted for a surprisingly large share of record and sheet music sales. On into the 1950s and later decades, Hawaiian songs were often viewed as “novelty records.” Amazingly, they have retained their appeal across massive changes in American culture and values. In fact, the impact of Hawaiian music has never been far from American popular culture ever since “The Bird of Paradise” hit the Broadway stage in 1912.
Most often, Hawaiian songs have been quasi-romantic ballads. They are often tales of lost romance. “I visited the islands. I met a wonderful woman there. We had a brief and passionate adventure, I had to leave, and now I miss her.” Take these powerful feelings of loss and regret, add some swaying palms, crashing surf and Hawaiian musical rhythms. The result is a recipe for nostalgia and commercial success.
The music on this collection is largely a fine example of Hapa Haole music. These are largely songs aboutHawaii recorded by mainlanders whose credentials often include little more than a visit to Honolulu, if that. Nevertheless, these are, in the main, good records that convey the sound, style and appeal that Hawaiian music has held for a wider audience for nearly a hundred years.
Sweet Leilani is a special case, written by band-leader Harry Owens. Owens’ career tells you much of what you need to know about Hapa Haole music. Leaving a successful career in the US, Owens moved to Hawaii in 1934 and led the Royal Hawaiian Band, composing titles such as “Hula Breeze,” “Princess Poopooly Has Plenty Papaya” and “O’Brien Has Gone Hawaiian.” Bing Crosby discovered Sweet Leilani while in Honolulu filming “Waikiki Wedding” in 1937. Along with winning the Academy Award for Best Song, the record spent 25 weeks on the pop charts, earning Bing the first of his 22 gold records. Its flip side, by the way, was a little ditty called “Blue Hawaii,” a tune with which Elvis fans might be familiar. We present both songs here in lesser known versions by Marty Robbins and Hank Locklin, respectively.
Other highlights include Buddy Knox’s 1957 hit record Hula Love, released seven months after his best-selling “Party Doll.” This brief visit to the Islands by Knox was the last Top Ten record of his career. Many artists as diverse as Bill Haley, Teresa Brewer and Jimmy Newman also tried their luck at Hawaiian records, but failed to achieve Knox’s luck. For singers like Marty Robbins and Hank Snow, their interest in Hawaiian music was more than a dalliance, and their efforts are well represented here.
The under-appreciated Skeets McDonald is represented by Hawaiian Sea Breeze, a track from his highly collectable “Going Steady With the Blues” LP. Also on hand is the ever-bizarre and irrepressible Jenks Tex Carman, performing his Hillbilly Hula, a song that gave flight to his imagination and musical skills. In addition to vocal music, we are treated to three masters of the steel guitar: Speedy West, Jerry Byrd and Winnie Winston. West and Byrd show off their legendary flying fingers while Winston digs into the bluesy changes of Hawaiian Farewell.
Old joke: A tourist walks up to a local in Honolulu and says, “Would you mind helping me?” “Not at all,” says the local. “Thanks,” says the tourist. “I’ve always wondered if the correct pronunciation is Ha-Waii or Ha-Vaii? The local replies “It’s Ha-Vaii.” “Really!” says the tourist. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re velcome,” answers the local.
The issue actually comes up on this collection of songs. Most of the artists pronounce it “Ha-Waii” but there are a few exceptions. When you listen to his Hawaiian LPs, you realize that Marty Robbins actually switches back and forth, depending on the song. You’ll also hear the less common V-sound by the Sons of the Pioneers and on the vocal chorus to the track by Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. All that seems fine compared to the approach taken by Jimmie Rodgers, however. For some reason, the Singing Brakeman comes up with the rather unusual “Ha-Why-Uh.” Perhaps that’s what you heard in boxcars in the 1920s.
Today, many native Hawaiians are working hard to reclaim and preserve their culture. Don Ho and his like have served their purpose. They drew attention to the islands and provided economic opportunities for many. But the time has come to preserve real Hawaiian music in its own language. The Na Hoko Hanohano (Hawaiian Music Awards) has just completed its 41st annual meeting, conferring honor to artists whose names you won’t find on this collection. But they are part of the continuing story of the music of Hawaii.