The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist James Wintle.
On August 21, 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a proclamation welcoming Hawaii as the 50th state of the union. As the only state made up entirely of islands, Hawaii has an unusually rich and diverse cultural heritage. It is home to a number of musical traditions, many of which have had a major impact on American popular culture in the twentieth century. Of those traditions, I want to briefly mention one of my favorites.
The Hawaiian steel guitar [Kīkā Kila] was invented by native musician Joseph Kekuku in the late nineteenth century, while he was still a young man. As he was learning the guitar, Kekuku began to explore the different timbres that he could produce by sliding objects across the strings of his instrument while it lay flat on his lap. This led him to fashion a smooth steel bar to change pitches with his left hand and to raise the strings up from the fret board so the slide could move more easily over the strings. The broad influence of the instrument in American popular music is really quite impressive. It has become a defining sound of not only Hawaiian music, but also many other genres including Country and Western (steel guitar), Bluegrass (dobro) and the “sacred steel” tradition in African-American Gospel music. The Library of Congress has quite a large collection of “Hawaiian Guitar” music (as it was often mislabeled on the mainland) under the call number M142.H3. This consists of seven boxes filled with everything from traditional Hawaiian songs to arrangements of classical music favorites to hits by the Andrews Sisters. The collection is largely made up of music sent for deposit in the U.S. Copyright Office during the 1930s and 1940s, during which there was a huge Hawaiian music craze in the United States.
The Music Division’s collection of Hawaiian music does not end there. For further fun, visit the Performing Arts Reading Room (LM-113) to study our extensive collection of ukulele music (M142.U5) which includes a 1910 edition of the first known ukulele method book, Ernest Kaai’s The Ukulele, A Hawaiian guitar, and How to Play It. You may also want to view one of the gems of our collection, a special copy of Queen Liliuolakani’s famous songbook (M1844.H3 L72 case) “presented to the Congressional Library at Washington, D.C. by the composer Liliuokalani of Hawaii, 1897,” including the ubiquitous Hawaiian song Aloha Oe.