Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hawai'i, Bluegrass, and Bill Monroe or 'Ukuleles and Moonshine Part One

Oh Vaughn Vaughn Vaughn. . . your conundrums are like intellectual crack.

For those of you who haven't yet scrolled down and seen Mr. Garland's delicious query, well, you should. Don't worry. I'll wait.

So, you're up to speed now, eh? Excellent.

It should be said I am not an expert on any sort of music. Oh, I come from a family steeped in opera and bluegrass and, on road trips especially, Motown. And I love to research music in my spare time, especially those complex points where the streams of bluegrass, country, rock, and jazz intersect. But my understanding is elementary, to say the least - I look forward to Mr. Mason and Mr. Long, in particular, adding a little insight here beyond what I drop, because they are true experts on a the subject. But I will say I had heard that Hawai'ian music, as we generally think of it at least, was related to other American musical traditions, in particular jazz and classical country variants, including bluegrass and mountain music. Indeed, I have often thought in the last year or so that some new-wave bluegrass band should take up the 'ukulele. Seriously - I did. So, when I read Mr. Garland's words, well, I knew I needed to jump at the chance to least scratch the surface here. So, after a few web searches, this is what I found.

First, I found this article in a recent webzine called Dulcimer Session. Its called "Ke Kukima Polinahe Music for the Appalachian Dulcimer." The article details how some European instruments were brought originally from Britain and Portugal by early traders, and how at least a few Appalachian dulcimer players are beginning to adapt Hawai'ian music to their instrument, and vice-versa. The grooviest part, at least for a gross amateur like myself, lies in the fact that there are several mp3's with both samples of this adaptation's elemental parts, as well as a few complete pieces. If you've grown up on bluegrass or its kin, you'll immediately feel at home.

Next, the good, old, multi-billion article Wikipedia dropped me some knowledge on the music of Hawai'i. Specifically it brought to my attention a couple of key points, notably that (1) the 'ukulele and the steel guitar are both Hawai'ian innovations which were the product of Hawai'ians taking European instruments and adapting them to their musical needs/interests, (2) slack-key guitar style was invented in Hawai'i, probably to achieve effects similar to their own native music while also adding in elements from traditional Mexican music (brought by Mexican cowboys in the 19th Century) and the music of sailors from North America and Europe, and (3) that the relationship between continental American forms of music, including classical country, bluegrass, and jazz, began in the second decade of the 20th Century when Hawai'ian musicians began touring the United States. Wikipedia tells us Hawai'ian musicians were essential in helping to create the legendary "Nashville Sound," right along with two of my favorites, the tremendous Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley.

Our peer blog of Hawaiirama (nice site, guys, by the way), has a nice write-up on the Hawaii Slack Key Guitar Festival. This write-up includes a link to the festival's (which looks to be about 23 years old) homepage, here. The write-up asserts that a key difference between bluegrass and Hawaiian slack-key and bluegrass/country slack-key lies is that Hawaiian tends to be smoother and less twangy. I'll leave that one up for debate.

Finally, a site which is destined to become one of my favorites is the homepage of the Bluegrass Hawai'i Traditional & Bluegrass Music Society. The Society seems to already have close to 15 member bands who, I have to say, wear more comfortable looking clothes than any bluegrass band I've ever seen. Several of the bands are linked from the page (I think I'm going to throw them up here, down below, but I'm guessing the list is growing, and thus warrants constant re-checking-out-ed-ness-itude. The page also lists minor and major Hawai'ian bluegrass events, including jam sessions, has a complete set of rocking links, photos, and so forth. . . really a great site.

Alright, that's a start. If you know anything else or know where to find something else, well, if you're a contributor, write it up. If you're not a contributor and want to do a guest piece, well, drop it on us. We're looking forward to it.

Oh, and this picture of the late, great, Bill Monroe was posted on Bluegrass Hawai'i's photo page with the following caption:

September 7, 1981: Bill Monroe got lei'd!
The Hawaiian Country Festival took place on September 7, 1981,and featured several local acts--Melveen Leed, the Fifth String Band (Sam's bluegrass act!), the Country Living Band (a Waimanalo country act), as well as the Father of Bluegrass and country legend Johnny Paycheck. (photo ©Sam Hayakawa, used with permission, many mahalos to Sam!)

I'm afraid I don't know Mr. Hayakawa (though there was a Senator Samuel Hayakawa from California, God rest him), but I want to say thanks to him as well - if he'd like us to take this down, we completely dig, but damn, a picture this good deserves to be seen. A lot.

Post Script - I don't know if anyone else knows, but I am very curious to know what role the US Navy had in the interassociation of these two traditions. Call me crazy, but the ol' USN seems like the perfect means for this transition.


Zac said...

The Bible, Koran, the Dal-Dei Ching, and Motown.......all respectable sources of infinite wisdom and knowledge.

John L. Kerns said...


GREAT topic, great post.

Being a big fan and student of bluegrass, I have to admit that I was ignorant of any Hawaiian influences on this here mountain music. Thanks.

SteveLong said...

I wish that I knew more about the topic, as it is quite interesting. I will add that the resonator guitar, commonly called the Dobro (which is actually the name of a prominent manufacturer of them), is very Hawaiian in nature. Some blues guitarists lowered the action on them and played them as guitars rather than held flat and played with finger-picks and a slide, which is what basically makes the dobro a simplified steel guitar. I have even seen one of the metal-bodies ones with a Hawaiian-esque scene, complete with palm trees and such, etched on the back and sides of it.