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.

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