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Steelin' the Slide: Hawai'i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 26-52 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0003

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Native Hawaiian guitarists, who slid metal bars over their strings to create sweeping glissando sounds, inundated the South in the first decades of the twentieth century and likely served as the direct inspiration for the slide guitar, the distinctive tradition originally and perhaps most beautifully expressed in the recordings of Charley Patton (here), Son House, Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, and others. From the Collection of John Tefteller and Blues Images, www.bluesimages.com, used with permission.

Although the work of eliminating blues myths is a hard row to hoe, scholars have successfully uprooted a few, including the persistent belief that into the early twentieth century, Mississippi Delta blues musicians nurtured their musical traditions in isolation from the sounds of the modern world. We know that they sought out the latest hits from Tin Pan Alley, enjoyed the raucous and worldly, cosmopolitan performances of traveling vaudeville singers, and often mimicked the singing (or, in the case of Jimmie Rodgers, the yodeling) of the biggest recording artists of their day. Robert Johnson now seems much less of a devil-conjuring mystic than a bright, observant professional guitarist who readily assimilated a huge body of riffs borrowed from all the records he could get his hands on. Indeed, our understanding of music-making in the early-twentieth-century South has changed dramatically in recent years.

One belief that seems to have remained relatively intact, however, is that the bottleneck slide guitar style was developed as an "Africanism"—a musical technology that survived from the Middle Passage into the twentieth century. According to this theory, children's instruments—monochord zithers, variously identified in Mississippi as the "diddley bow" or "jitterbug"—served as the direct inspiration for the slide guitar, the distinctive tradition originally and perhaps most beautifully expressed in the recordings of Charley Patton, Son House, Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, and others.

Indeed, folklorists in the 1960s and 1970s extensively documented uses and recollections of such one-stringed instruments around Mississippi and other parts of the South. These instruments were most often comprised of a wire string secured across a board or run from the exterior wall of a house to an anchor—often a brick—on the other end. One could generate sound and change the string's pitch by running a bottle or a similar object up and down the wire. A quick search on YouTube returns numerous videos of Mississippi diddley bow practitioners collected by Alan Lomax or even an electrified version built by modern rocker Jack White. Scholars have worked to link these instruments' roots to West and Central Africa. The connection seems plausible, and it was attractive to folklorists and historians in the 1960s and 1970s who, during and after the national Civil Rights and Black Pride movements, created scholarship that neatly calibrated with celebrations of African American culture and its ties to the African continent.

Upon closer inspection of the origins of the slide guitar tradition, however, the evidence linking it to African monochord zithers is rather tenuous. No mono-chord zithers seem to appear in the written record before the 1930s, well after African Americans had begun recording their slide guitars. This study will reveal that what we instead find in the South, in great preponderance, are Hawaiian guitars. Everywhere. Native Hawaiian guitarists, who slid metal bars over their strings to create sweeping glissando sounds, inundated the South in the first decades of the twentieth century. Yet, in the obsessively researched field of blues music, none yet have seen fit to consider the Native Hawaiian influence as anything more than a curiosity, a sideshow unworthy of serious contemplation.


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Our first proof of guitars on Hawaiian soil derives from an 1840 advertisement for guitar strings in an island newspaper, The Polynesian. Honolulu newspapers routinely advertised guitars and guitar lessons by 1867, and by 1870 we have evidence of guitars being built in the islands out of Hawaiian woods. Emalia Kaihumua (center) holds a guitar in this studio image, c. 1890, along with women holding a taro patch and 'ukulele on either side of her. Courtesy of Hawai'i State Archives.

Thus, a significant reappraisal of blues slide guitar origins is...



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