Steel Guitars and Old Fashioneds
I have long enjoyed the sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar. My grandmother used to mix herself an Old Fashioned and dance to her old 78s of Hawaiian music on hot summer afternoons. My sister and I learned to love the sound of ukuleles and steel guitars. When she passed, I inherited my grandmother’s collection of 78 rpm records, including her treasured Hawaiian music. To this day, I love the sweet sound of Hawaiian music, I'm kinda fond of the Old Fashioned also.
That wonderful sound came to American shores around the turn of the 20th century and quickly became an exotic treat across the continent. Throughout the 1910s and ‘20s, many Hawaiian bands formed in such unlikely places as New York, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
The influence that the Hawaiian steel guitar craze had on American music is still being debated by ethnomusicologists and music historians. Some contend that the Hawaiian steel guitar was adapted by blues musicians; others argue that the styles developed concurrently and that neither played a large role in the development of the other.
Cliff Carlisle was a superb guitarist, singer, and songwriter from Taylorsville, Kentucky who was influenced by Hawaiian steel guitar, rural Black blues musicians, and the “Blue Yodel” style of Jimmie Rodgers. I’ve written about Cliff Carlisle before, but I failed to mention that he claimed that he was influenced as a child by the sounds of Hawaiian guitar on the radio. Carlisle was born in 1904, putting his early developmental years squarely at the peak of Hawaiian music popularity. During the 1930s he recorded several sides with the master of the Hawaiian Steel guitar, Sol Hoopii.
Dorsey and Howard Dixon were mill workers from South Carolina who turned to making a living at music late in life. The Dixon Brothers were influenced by their friend and fellow mill worker, Jimmy Tarleton. Tarleton had learned the Hawaiian style while he was in California. Find my previous post on Darby & Tarelton here.
Now, I am not qualified to enter into the academic debate about the influence of Hawaiian steel guitar and the blues, but my ears hear an unmistakable Hawaiian influence on these rural Southern artists of the 1920 and ‘30s. Give them a listen and make your own decision.
Y'all have a good weekend.