Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Blue Hawaii

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Blue Hawaii

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Steelin' the Slide: Hawai'i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar" by John W. Troutman, in Southern Cultures, Spring 2013.

BLUES PROPHET ROBERT JOHNSON (1911--38) and other early blues guitarists captivated listeners with a new way of playing their instrument. Sliding a steel bar or other hard object over the strings to change the guitar's pitch, they created a sound eerily like that of a weeping or singing human voice. Later blues and rock musicians such as Muddy Waters (1915-83) and Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949) would further improvise on the sound.


Scholars have mostly agreed that the slide style was directly influenced by the "diddley bow" or "jitter-bug," a single-stringed instrument they say was carried to America by West African slaves. The more likely story, John W. Troutman argues, is that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.

In the 19th century, the American South was just one of a number of regions around the world experiencing an influx of newcomers. Half a world away, Honolulu harbor received a steady stream of "sailors, whalers, merchants, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and laborers from distant lands such as the United States, Portugal, Mexico, and Japan," as well as cowboys from Latin America brought in to wrangle cattle. With all these foreigners also arrived--in the early 1800s, and likely via Mexico--the Spanish guitar, which quickly caught on as an accompaniment to the local hula song and dance.

A few decades after the first guitar appeared in the islands, Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932), a Native Hawaiian youngster, flipped his own instrument to lie flat on his lap and played it with a piece of metal he slid across the strings. Over the next seven years he honed the lap-steel style and hacked his guitar to accommodate it, raising the strings from the fretboard. "The effect, as described by all who first heard it, was transcendent," Troutman says. It "sonically revolutionized every musical tradition it touched. …

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