The distinctive music of the Hawaiian Islands is easily recognizable – its signature thrumming of a 'ukulele, thwacking of bamboo percussion sticks (puili), and keening "steel guitar" lines are, today, universally associated with native hula dancing and festive luau feasts. But it was an international exotica "craze" that made those sounds so familiar -- and the city of Seattle played a significant role in sparking that remarkable fad during the earliest decades of the twentieth century.
The A-Y-P's Hawaiian Days
In 1909 Seattle was the host city of a world's fair -- the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- whose very name highlighted the four-month-long event's focus on promoting the vibrant cultural and economic activities of those "Pacific Rim" areas.
Among the many attractions at the A-Y-P were the exhibits mounted in the Hawaii Building (on today's University of Washington site of Suzallo Library). The days of August 25th and 26th were designated as the fair's special "Hawaiian Days." Included in the exhibits mounted there were displays of the commercial commodities available for importation from the islands -- raw materials like koa wood and various tropical foodstuffs. In fact, when a ceremony to dedicate the Hawaii Building was held on the 25th, free pineapples were given to the many attendees. Fair-goers were also entertained by numerous "Hawaiian troubadours," who performed there (under the direction of 'ukulele master, Ernest K. Kaai) as well as at various other sites all across the exposition grounds.
But the music played by those native musicians was apparently not of an entirely ancient or traditional form -- which would have included guitars played in the usual Spanish strumming or picking style. Rather, at least one of their guitarists wowed the crowds with a radically unique approach known today as the "steel guitar" technique -- a mode of playing the instrument horizontally (often on one's lap) and utilizing a steel bar to slide up and down the strings creating an effect formally known as "portamento" (or "continuous glissando").
Hawaiian Music before the A-Y-P
As the host city of the 1901 Pan-America Exposition, Buffalo, New York, witnessed an earlier form of island music when the Hawaiian Band performed there. In addition to two grass-skirted pre-teen hula girls, that ensemble also included about 18 musicians -- about three guitars, three ukuleles, two baritone ukuleles, one mandolin, two fiddles, and two flutes. But there were no steel guitars in sight.
Still, it can be fairly well presumed that those musicians helped prime the ears of Americans to enjoy Hawaiian music, as did the band that played at Portland, Oregon's Lewis & Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair in 1905. Then, on March 24, 1906, the Royal Hawaiian Sextette performed a 14-song concert -- including "Aloha Oe" and "Ahi Hela" -- at Seattle's new Garvey-Buchanan Company department store (2nd Avenue and Seneca Street). The ensemble was led by Albert "Sonny" Cunha (1879-1933), the famed musician widely credited as the first Hawaiian composer to popularize Hawaiian songs with English lyrics, and whose "Hula Blues" remains a standard. And it was in Seattle that the presence of Hawaiian musicians -- especially Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932), the self-proclaimed inventor (ca. 1885) and early master of the Hawaiian-style steel guitar technique -- had undeniable consequences.
Kekuku in Seattle
The A-Y-P Exposition featured Joseph Kekuku who apparently intrigued enough fair attendees that he was swamped with requests to give lessons and as a result Kekuku reportedly stuck around town for a while to provide locals with steeling lessons. One of his students, Paul Goerner, even went on to form his own American-Hawaiian Quartet, which advertised its availability to furnish music for "Parties Dinners, Smokers and Entertainments." An apparent fast learner, by 1910, Goerner himself was offering instruction on both the Hawaiian 'ukulele and steel guitar.
In time, Kekuku relocated to Los Angeles where he helped the Hawaiian craze expand, performing and taking on students, one of whom -- Myrtle Stumpf -- went on to produce the first-ever tutorial course, a 68-page classic booklet titled: the Original Hawaiian Method for Steel Guitar.
Knutsen in Seattle
It was in 1909 that Seattle's veteran luthier, Chris J. Knutsen (1862-1930), suddenly began to build radically different guitar designs. The Norwegian immigrant -- who had arrived in the Northwest in the 1880s -- had previously been making instruments in Port Townsend (and later, Tacoma) since about 1895. Based in Seattle since 1906, Knutsen had continued to make various wooden instruments, but his first guitars oriented to steeling only popped up around the time of the arrival of the Hawaiian musicians at the exposition, which he almost certainly attended.
Working from his shop at 219 Westlake Avenue N., Knutsen -- historians have speculated -- was likely inspired by an oddly designed one-off guitar brought to town by Kekuku (and/or a fellow Hawaiian player). This is a theory that helps explain why the luthier shifted gears and began making thin-bodied, slope-shouldered, and hollow-necked guitars, which helped make steeling easier and louder.
What is certain is that Knutsen also suddenly began making such guitars out of Hawaiian koa wood rather than the Northwest native species such as Douglas Fir and cedar. And plenty of people -- musicians, music fans, and other instrument builders alike -- were impressed by his new designs. An undated photo of Kekuku's Hawaiian Quintet shows that they had acquired a Knutsen-made instrument at some point, and a California-based guitar designer named Hermann C. Weissenborn (1865-1936) later began selling similar instruments (along with the Kona brand models soon produced by former Kekuku student, Charles S. Delano), which managed to capture the expanding market demand. In doing so, all such steel guitars became generically known -- rather unjustly -- as "Weissenborn" guitars.
Hawaiian Music on Record
Another technological innovation that was advancing in parallel to guitar design during those times was that of musical recordings. And with the public's growing interest in Hawaiian music, it was natural that Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) began cutting wax cylinder sessions with Hawaiian musicians as early as 1899. Then in 1915 he attended the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco -- a fair that featured music by emerging Hawaiian talents including Keoki E. Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartet (which, interestingly, was photographed in 1916 with a Knutsen instrument) and their steel guitarist, Palakiko Ferreira (1885-1951) -- who'd been gaining fame under the stage name of "Frank Ferera."
Interestingly, another local contribution to the popularization of this music occurred after Ferera had married Helen Greenus (1887?-1919), a Seattle girl whose parents' home was at 1616 Summit Avenue. Like her husband, Greenus also played ukulele and steel guitar, and as a vaudeville duo -- "Helen Louise and Frank Ferera" -- the wildly popular twosome made their recording debut back in July 1915, and "more than any other artists, they supplied what the record-buying public wanted in the way of Hawaiian music" (Gracyk). Louise and Ferera recorded prolifically for pioneering labels including Edison, Columbia, Victor, Gennett, Paramount, Lyric, and Pathe Records. In 1917 they were joined by Helen's singing sister, Irene Greenus, and the group proceeded to cut additional discs for Imperial, Columbia, Pathe, and Empire Records. Sadly, in 1919 Helen Greenus mysteriously disappeared from the steamship, President, while on a voyage with Ferera. But, as the demand for Hawaiian discs increased, other major talents emerged including Solomon ("Sol Hoopi") Ho'opi'i Ka'ai'ai (1902-1953), whose skill with hot improvisation on jazz and blues tunes began garnering attention.
In 1926 the next great advance in steel guitar design occurred. The Los Angeles-based National String Instrument Company had Sol Hoopi debut their radically new Ampliphonic Resonator guitar at a big Hollywood bash. Like the Knutsen and Weissenborn instruments, this was designed to be played horizontally and with a steel bar, but the hollow-necked metal-bodied guitar featured a spun-aluminum device -- like a radio speaker cone -- at its center. Following Hoopii's performance, these loud National instruments quickly became the preferred choice amongst Hawaiian, blues, and hillbilly players far and wide.
Meanwhile the craze for Hawaiian music skyrocketed -- by 1916, reportedly, "Hawaiian records were so popular ... they outsold all other forms of music on the mainland" (Gold Coast). The vaudeville theater circuits provided an early means of popularization, and then when America's most popular radio crooner -- Washington state native, Bing Crosby (1903-1977) -- tapped into the tiki-centric zeitgeist and kicked off a long string of recorded hits (including "Aloha Oe," "Sweet Leilani," "Blue Hawaii," and many more) in the 1930s, steel guitars permeated mainstream musical tastes.
Electric Steel Guitars
The Pacific Northwest provided another boost to the expansion of steel guitar-based musics. And that was through the contributions of Seattle's top steeler and instructor, Paul H. Tutmarc (1896-1972). As a lad of 15 years, Tutmarc had begun steeling on a Weissenborn instrument and in the 1920s he performed locally with his Hawaiian music group, the Islandaires.
But then in the early 1930s he began experimenting with the idea of electrifying -- and amplifying -- his instruments. By mid-decade Tutmarc had designed one of the world's very first electromagnetic pick-up devices and his Audiovox Manufacturing Company proceeded to build and market various electric instruments which are now acknowledged by historians as important pioneering contributors to the rise of electric guitars in general . His namesake son "Bud" Tutmarc (1924-2006) went on to establish himself as one of the world's premier Hawaiian steel-guitar recording artists.
Steel Guitar Legacy
Meanwhile, as the steeling technique spread in popularity over the decades, it became (in modified forms such as "bottleneck" sliding), a staple of blues, bluegrass, country/western, and other musics. Its sound began gracing classic recordings ranging from Robert Johnson's famous "Crossroads Blues," to Hank Williams's "Honky Tonkin'", to rocker Chuck Berry's "Blues For Hawaiians" which was released in 1959 -- the very year that Hawaii became the United States' 50th state. Aloha...