Hawaiian Music

1912 – Hawaiian Music Craze

On January 8th, 1912, The Bird of Paradise opened on Broadway in Daly’s Theatre. It was very well reviewed and moved on January 22nd to larger quarters at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre to accommodate the appreciative New York crowds where it ran for over 100 performances. It would have run longer except for disagreements between its producer Oliver Morosco and theater owners. It went on the road and was seen all over the country making it one of the most profitable plays of its day.

Bird of Paradise

The Bird of Paradise capitalized on America’s insatiable appetite for the foreign and exotic by telling the love story of an American scientist on the Hawaiian Islands falling in love with a local Princess. By 1912, Americans had some free time and cash in their pockets from a growing middle class in midst of the industrial revolution. This was good light entertainment dressed in uptown sophistication. It was a hit.

It was also a musical. The story unfolded surrounded by Hawaiian music. Ukuleles, slack-key guitar, slide guitar, mandolin and exotic vocal harmonies. It could be joyous, sad, emotional or ominous; the new music could express it all.

There were several new concepts to the American listening public: slack-key guitar with it’s exotic and moody feel of open chord tuning, ukulele with its small size and joyful rhythmic drive, and the slide guitar, an entirely new use of the instrument and its resulting sounds. The new music caught on.

1915 – The Panama Pacific International Exposition

On February 20th, 1915 The Panama Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco. It had been under construction for 3 years and held the promise of revitalizing a city nearly destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. It was a Worlds Fair: a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the discovering of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer Balboa. Like all Worlds Fairs, exhibitors showed off their latest products and developments. This included wood and natural materials from distant lands.

Panama Pacific International Expo

Hawaii had been annexed as a United States Territory under William McKinley on July 6th, 1898 with a natural resource export economy (Hawaii didn’t become a State until 1959). Koa and other natural resources were on display for American import. To help sell their products were Hawaiian musicians and dancers playing native music on instruments made with koa wood. This was the first American close-up exposure to the Hawaiian culture. The crowds seemed to appreciate the dark skinned young ladies in grass skirts who knew how to move their hips. It was infectious and the American Hawaiian music craze followed.

Suddenly there was demand for Hawaiian instruments: guitars and ukuleles. The manufacturers responded quickly as it didn’t require a great deal of retooling to produce Hawaiian models of existing instruments. Ukuleles would become a symbol of the college crowd in the Roaring Twenties. Ukuleles were well suited to upbeat jazz renditions of current songs and dances, and well suited for vocal accompaniment. It was the natural evolution of the music that hit the shores only a few years before.

The slide guitar techniques were quickly noticed by the Southern Blues players and the Central American Country players. Each musical style quickly adapted the technique to their own particular styles. It is remarkable how the advancement of one technique can evolve in so many directions so differently.

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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth