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Hawaiian beach, boat, palm tree.
Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

As the perfect June weather makes it increasingly difficult to suppress thoughts of beautiful beaches,  gentle breezes,  and swaying palm trees, a Hawaiian getaway might seem the perfect solution. Let us offer this brief appreciation of the wide influence of Hawaiian music with links to audio from the Recorded Sound Section’s National Jukebox as background research.

One of Hawai’i’s most beloved composers was the musically talented songwriter, Queen Lili’uokalani. She composed nearly eighty songs, most of which were characterized by the combination of Hawaiian cultural elements with gospel hymnody and Victorian parlor song. Her most famous song, “Aloha oe,” is widely performed today and is probably the most recognized Hawaiian song in existence. Less known is that the Queen translated into English the traditional Hawaiian Kumulipo chant, which tells the Hawaiian creation story and lineage of kings. Two of the Queen’s songs that would prove well-liked by Hawaiians — “Ku’u Pua I Paoakalani” and  “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” — were written while Liliu’okalani  was under house arrest after her coerced abdication. In fact, while Americans saw “Aloha oe” as a sentimental farewell song, Hawaiians experienced it as closely associated with the Queen’s imprisonment and the loss of their land.

Queen Liliu'okalani, Hawai'i's last monarch, was a prolific songwriter.  Pictured here in about 1915
Queen Liliu’okalani, Hawai’i’s last monarch, was a prolific songwriter. Pictured here in about 1915. Prints and Photographs Division.

As Liliu’okalani’s compositions traveled to the mainland with Hawaiian musicians at the dawn of the twentieth century, recordings of Hawaiian music became increasingly popular.   Among the earlier recordings were those made by Nani Alapai in 1904 which appear to have had some success.  However, it was the success of the 1911 musical “The Bird of Paradise”  that greatly raised the profile of Hawaiian music.  The musical featured a Hawaiian themed plot and featured the musical talents of  The Hawaiian Quintette who recorded for Victor in 1913.  Opening in 1911 in Los Angeles, the play moved to Broadway by early 1912 and then embarked on highly successful tours of the remainder of North America, Europe and Australia. 

While the popularity of Hawaiian music steadily increased in the early teens, its popularity spiked after 1915 when Hawaiian musicians were prominently featured at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Some 16 million fairgoers attended the exposition, and one of the most heavily attended exhibits was the Hawaiian Pavillion which historian George Kanahele has described as “a grand parade of some of Hawai’i’s outstanding singers and musicians.” Among these musicians was guitarist Frank Ferera who would go on to make over 1,000 recordings in his career. In fact, in the wake of the festival and the craze for all things Hawaiian, Victor Records reported that Hawaiian records were outselling all other categories of music they offered.  By 1917 there were over 175 Hawaiian titles in Victor’s catalog, and other major labels — including Columbia, Edison, Brunswick, Odeon, and Okeh — had all released numerous Hawaiian or Hawaiian-themed discs.

Music from "The Bird of Paradise"
Music from “The Bird of Paradise”

In addition to record sales, the magnitude of the Hawaiian craze can be measured by the sale of millions of ukuleles in the 1920’s.  The ukulele, translated as “jumping flea” in reference to the player’s fingers springing across the strings, featured a design based on the small Portuguese stringed instrument, the  machete, and was  introduced in Hawaii in 1879.  Its popularity with Hawaiian King David Kalakua led to its enthusiastic embrace by Hawaiian musicians before the end of the nineteenth century. By the time of the Hawaiian music fervor following the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, the instrument had been widely adopted in vaudeville and featured in Tin Pan Alley songs. By the 1920’s such musicians as Roy Smeck, a vaudevillian and author of  ukulele instructional manuals, May Singhi Breen, known as “The Ukulele Lady,” and, most notably, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards had all become strongly associated with the instrument.  Edwards would become known to later filmgoers as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940).

The ukulele’s use in other genres than Hawaiian music was mirrored by the dispersion of the slide guitar into a wide range of musical styles.  Slide guitar playing originated in Hawaii and was first associated with  Joseph Kekuku who claimed to have invented the style at the age of 11 while experimenting with his guitar at the Kamehameha School on Oahu in 1885.  Played by holding the guitar flat in the lap and sliding a glass or metal object up the strings to create portamento effects and a distinctive tone, it is well represented on the recordings of Hawaiian music in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century.  In addition to Frank Ferera, other poplar performers were Pale K. Lua, and by the mid 1920’s Sol Hoopii.  A number of Western Swing slide guitarists such as Bob Dunn of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and Leon McAuliffe of Bob Will’s Texas Playboys have attested to the influence of Hoopii’s playing on their recordings in the 1930’s.  The instrument would prove to have an enduring influence on country and western music. 

The technique of slide guitar has also proven central to blues guitar playing and other forms of American popular music. It has also played a key role in the development of one of contemporary music’s most popular instruments: the electric guitar.  In fact, DJ and folk music expert Richard Spottswood has stated that the first recording of an amplified electric guitar was made on the Victor recording of the songs “Aleoki” and “Hawaiian Love” on February 2, 1933 by Noi Lane’s Hawaiian Orchestra with Sam Koki on guitar.  

In 2011 the Librarian of Congress honored Sol Hoopii’s electric gutar playing by naming his 1938 recording of George Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” to The National Recording Registry.  In the same year Gabby Pahinui’s guitar on  “Hula Medley” (1947) was also added to the Registry.

To help you gear up for your summer vacation, and to  pay tribute to the lasting influence of Hawaiian music and instrumentation in American pop culture, we  leave you with this illustrated video of the song “Hilo.” For more on Hawaiian music’s impact on American history see the Library’s Songs of America pages on the topic.


  1. Excellent post. This is fascinating. Thank you!

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