Monday, December 7, 2020

Mele Kalikimaka—Murfin ’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                                    Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby and the Anderson Sisters.

Seventy-nine years ago today the Japanese launched their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrusting the United States into a bloody worldwide conflagration and forever altering the lives and destinies of millions.  It also cast a somber pall over Christmas festivities getting underway stateside, but how, exactly, do we find inspiration for a Winter Holiday Music Festival post?.  The answerHawaiian music!

World War II Gobs paid good money to pose with "hula girls" at Honolulu storefront photo studios.

Millions of GI’s, sailors, and airmen were either based in the Islands or stopped there on their way to or from the theaters of operations in the Pacific and Asia.  Most had enough time in paradise to come home with souvenirscarved coconuts, paper leis, flowery shirtshula girl tattoos, and maybe a dose of VD picked up in Honolulu’s infamous brothels which were much grittier than the one depicted by James Jones in From Here to Eternity. And, of course, they came home with memories of and affection for Hawaiian music.

Traditional Hawaiian Polynesian musicians with gourd drums and rhythm sticks.

The Hawaiians, of course had traditional music before Captain Cookdiscovered” the islands.  They shared a Polynesian traditions of drums, other percussion instruments like striking sticks and rattles, simple flutes, and conch shell trumpets accompanying chants and dances.  Visiting sailors, mostly whalers, introduced some Western music and instruments in the early 19th Century

The Hawaiian royal family was deeply interested in music and fostered the importation of European classical and band music into the cultureKing Kamehameha V (1863-’72) secured the services of Prussian military bandleader, Henri Berger from Kaiser Wilhelm I to instruct the royal family and train native musicians and also formed the Kings Own Band, now the Royal Hawaiian Band under the direction of William Mersberg, from Weimar.  Liliʻuokalani was the last Queen of Hawaii before the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown was an apt pupil of Berger and a prolific composer.  Among her works was the most universally recognized Hawaiian song, now a virtual unofficial anthem,  Aloha ‘Oe.

Liliʻuokalani, last Queen of Hawaii, composed  Aloha ‘Oe in 1878 while she was still a princess.

Guitars were likely introduced on the islands by Mexican vaqueros, brought there by King Kamehameha III in 1832 in order to teach the natives how to control an overpopulation of cattle.  Portuguese  sailors  introduced the called the braguinha, a small, four-stringed of the cavaquinho and the precursor of  the `ukulele. In 1879 ship called the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu bringing Portuguese field workers from Madeira. Legend has it that one of the men, João Fernandes, later a popular musician, tried to impress the Hawaiians by playing folk music with a friend’s braguinha; it is also said that the Hawaiians called the instrument `ukulele (jumping flea) in reference to the man’s swift fingers.

Steel-string guitars also arrived with the Portuguese in the 1860s and slack-key style had spread across the chain by the late 1880s. Slack-key was a uniquely Hawaiian style of tuning a steel-strung guitar They re-tuned the instruments to sound a chord—now  called open tuning—and played not with a flat pick, but plucking the strings.   Together the new guitar style and the `ukulele were central to the development of a unique new Hawaiian music. 

In 1904, Joseph Kekuku, inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar, left Hawaii to perform on the American West Coast. Newspaper critics called him the “world’s greatest guitar soloist.”

About 1889 Joseph Kekuku began sliding a piece of steel across the strings of a guitar inventing steel guitar (kika kila) about the same time, traditional Hawaiian music with English lyrics became popular.  From about 1895 to 1915, Hawaiian music dance bands became in demand. Typically string quintets they were influenced by Ragtime rhythms  and English words were commonly used in the lyrics. This type of Hawaiian music was called hapa haolehalf white music.  In 1903, Albert “Sonny” Cunha composed My Waikiki Mermaid, the first popular hapa haole song.

The Victor recorded their first Hawaiian sessions, twenty songs in all, in 1906 in Honolulu and Hawaiian bands were introducing the music to California.  A Broadway show, Bird of Paradise introduced Hawaiian music to many Americans in 1912 and the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco followed in 1915. Just one year later, Hawaiian music sold more recordings than any other style in the country.  Hawaiian acts by both natives and American performers were a staple of the Vaudeville stage until it ultimate demise.

                                                An advertisement promoting Victor's Hawaiian records.

The influence of Hawaiian instruments would be even greater in American music.  Mississipi Delta blues men were quick to adopt the slide guitar style and from them it was picked up by early “hillbilly” recording artists.  The steel guitar and dobro resonator guitars played with a slide became a defining sound of emerging country music in the 1930’s and later western swing.  The slide steel was first electrified and then adapted into the modern steel pedal guitar.

The easy-to-play uke became a fad instrument of the Roaring Twenties symbolized by Harold Teen and Joe College in the raccoon coats, bell bottom pants, and porkpie hatsAmateur ukulele bands similar to earlier mandolin bands became popular.  Cliff Edwards a/k/s Ukulele Ike was a singer and actor, who enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s, with jazzy renditions of pop standards and novelty tunes on the instrument along with his high tenor and falsetto voice.  He is best remembered now as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.  Other noted uke players have included Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim. 

For some years the ukulele came to be considered a toy instrument for children but has lately had a resurgence of popularity largely due to social media posts.

During World War II all of those Americans on the islands got a big dose of a mature, thriving, and unique Hawaiian music scene.  But they did not hear the song we are featuring today.  Instead Mele Kalikimaka was a product of the post-war years when new, powerful land-based commercial air craft like the four engine Constellations made the islands quickly available to mainlanders at affordable prices.  Many ex-GIs were among those who brought their wives and families to a now bustling tourist destination.

R. Alexander Anderson, composer of Mele Kalikimaka and other Hawaiian Hapa haole standards.

Mele Kalikimaka was written in 1949 by Robert Alexander Anderson, a Hawaiian-born former World War I Army pilot, a successful businessman,  and the composer of many Hapa haole songs.  One of his employees casually wondered why there were no Hawaiian Christmas songs, “they take all the hymns and they put Hawaiian words to the hymns, but there's no original melody.”    Anderson set about correcting that.  He had good connections with several Hollywood figures who spent time on the Islands and was a friend and golfing partner of Bing Crosby.  Crosby was so taken with the song he recorded it in 1950 with the Andrews Sister and sent a copy of the 78rpm single to Anderson as a surprise.  The song was popular and successful after Crosby crooned it on his annual Christmas radio broadcast.  It was also included on Crosby’s classic 1955 compilation album Merry Christmas guarantying a place for it in the Holliday canon.

The Decca single of Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby with the Anderson Sisters.

The song has been covered many times including versions by Hawaiian-born Bette Midler and Hawaiian music superstar Don Ho. It has also been used in several films including L.A. Confidential, Catch Me If You Can, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. 

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