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 answer: Hawaiian
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 souvenirs—carved coconuts, paper leis, flowery shirts, hula
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.
Hawaiians, of course had traditional
music before Captain Cook “discovered” 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
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 culture. King 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.
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.
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.”
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 haole—half white
music. In 1903, Albert “Sonny” Cunha composed My Waikiki Mermaid, the first
popular hapa haole song.
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
An advertisement promoting Victor's Hawaiian records.
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.
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 hats. Amateur
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.
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.
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.
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 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.