Hawaiians On the Chitlin Circuit

One important question that is addressed head on in John Troutman’s book “Kika Kila” is what is what level of influence can we ascribe to the Hawaiians in terms of the development of the slide guitar in southern blues music? Did southerners independently come up with the slide guitar or did they adapt and refine something they learned by watching and listening to Hawaiian slide players? What I really appreciate about Troutman’s book is he tackles these questions in a scholarly manner with definitive sources and veritable texts and quotes. By addressing this question outside the scope of folk tales, legend, and myth I feel like we are able to develop a clearer understanding of the interaction between Hawaiian and southern musicians.

What’s really fascinating is that in reading Troutman’s description it appears that the source of the narrative pointing towards a southern origin is really an ignorance of the influence and large scale presence of Hawaiian steel guitar players in the early 1900s. It would make sense if there was a lack of understanding about the existence of Hawaiian touring Musician’s in the south during this time period that myths not based on fact would be developed to explain the use of the slide in the south. And it would also make sense that I order for a linear narrative to be written connecting the African continent to the development of delta blues slide guitar to ignore the Hawaiian influence and focus on the diddley bow.

In his chapter titled “Disappearing of ‘Hawaiian’ from American Music” Troutman is able to lay out evidence that puts into question the possibility of a southern origin of the slide guitar as played by the early delta bluesmen. While he admits it is certainly not conclusive in terms of the introduction of the steel guitar in the south being from the Hawaiians, he does say “It is tantalizing, however, and more supported by the documentary record than any other explanation.”

More importantly than whether or not we can arrive at a definitive conclusion about whether or not southern musicians came up with the slide guitar independent of the Hawaiians is that Troutman’s inquiry provides a platform for extended investigation of the people and places Hawaiian musicians were in contact with during their musical tours of the early 20th century.  While much has been written about the presence of Hawaiian musicians at various world fairs and expositions in the major cities from 1900 to 1930, this book sheds light on the lesser documented excursions it to the small southern cities and the performance by Hawaiian musicians on the chitlin circuit. In doing so we develop a much broader understanding of the relationship between Hawaiian steel guitar and early delta and southern blues.

Where Did It Come From: Guitar Origins In the Islands

As I digest the opening chapter of John Troutman’s book “Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music” I am intrigued by the possibility of two other sources for the guitar in Hawai’i. While the common narrative holds that cowboys of California brought here by Kamehameha III in the 1830s were the source of the first guitars in the islands, Troutman presents two other possibilities. At this point in our study of the steel string guitar I don’t think it’s a question of what is the true source, but what research needs to be done to add some factual evidence to support the possibility of the other origins of the guitar in Hawai’i.

One possible theory is that the guitar was discovered during a visit to Monterey, California by about 80 Hawaiians during the reign of Kamehameha I (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 14). And another one is that New England missionaries brought them in 1820s when they first arrived. What we do know is that there is documentation of an advertisement for guitar strings in an island newspaper in 1840 (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 14). This at least gives evidence to the reality that the guitar was here and in use by the 1840s.

I am not trying to disprove the Hawaiian cowboy narrative, as it does fit well with my own personal upbringing in the rolling hills of Waimea, but rather suggest that more research is needed in this area in order to ensure the narrative being presented is accurate. What we also have documentation of is the use of open tunings in Hawaiian guitar playing tradition. Troutman provides a quote from Daily Bulletin that preferences a guitar player at a Honolulu Symphony Club performing on the guitar “with steel strings tuned to an open E chord” (Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music pg. 20).

So while the origin of the guitar is still up in the air, the use of open tunings and other techniques associated with Ki Ho’alu playing was alive an well by the 1880s. I look forward to other documented tidbits like this one as I move through this fascinating book.