Story of The Blues.
story of the blues
Keeping the old blues alive
andrew bazeley
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This could be a long ramble. It’s not just that I play guitars and have got some rather nice ones that makes me want to say so much about them. They are a wonder: I can’t think of many other man-made objects that tell you so much about social as well as musical history over such a long period. Cars and planes – yes, but their history is so much shorter. Guitars’ looks, their variety, their versatility, their power and their symbolism have always said something about the times and the people who have used them.

What other instrument has been capable of expressing the delicacy of Elizabethan madrigals: the dark power and drama of Villa Lobos and Flamenco: the raw physical energy of Chuck Berry: the breathtaking skill of Django Reinhardt: the challenging innovation of Jimi Hendrix, the mournful pathos of slide players like Blind Willie Johnson: the voice and song extension for Richard Thompson and Robert Johnson, and the driving but simple rhythmic foundations for The Beatles and Bob Dylan? And yet it has been easily accessible as a means of accompaniment for billions of amateur music makers over many centuries.
the American guitar makers

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and so ...
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This section mostly comprises Andrew’s long and very personal essay on the development of the guitar. But first, here are some pictures of some of his own instruments (click on the photos for video clips of Andrew playing them).
 the story of guitars
the beginnings
guitars arrive in The States
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the boom years: 1920 - 1970
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electric guitars
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more recent guitars
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resonator guitars
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Gibson L1


National Triolian
(steel) 1929
(wood) 1928
Story of The Blues.

The USA in the mid 19th century was a  melting pot of cultures, races, skills and tastes. Not only that, but as the century turned, it was a land of optimism, curiosity, and  lack of wars and tension with other lands and peoples. In a way, therefore, it was ready to embrace music from other cultures.


It’s no surprise, therefore, that immigrant musical instrument makers, as well as entrepreneurs,  found a good market for their skills and ideas. Not only that but – as music-making became more widespread and less class-bound - the instruments needed to be much more versatile, approachable, affordable  and LOUD.




In the first decade of the 20th century several important technological developments led to an unprecedented spread in the demand for music and musical instruments. One of these was the invention of the phonograph (the Victor Talking Machine Co. was established in 1902). In conjunction with this came a boom in the music writing and publication industry (“Tin Pan Alley” acquired its nickname in 1903). The mass-production of an affordable motor car brought a new mobility to the masses, and the moving picture houses brought stardom, romance, fun and music much nearer to the starstruck public.


Shortly afterwards – in the mid ‘twenties - hundreds of new radio stations received licences to broadcast, and many of them brought live music of all kinds into everyone’s living rooms.

Much of the popular interest in self-made music was kick-started by one particular event back in January 1880 in New York: a concert performed by the visiting Figaro Spanish Students. Most of them played the Spanish bandurria – essentially a Spanish adaptation of the mandolin. What struck the American public about this troupe was their incredible musicianship, but lack of written music, conductor or apparent direction. Despite a stunningly-performed repertoire including Mozart and Beethoven, many of them could not actually read music – a fact which didn’t take long to be revealed in the New York press and beyond.


The first effect of this event (and subsequent concerts) was to arouse an interest in the mandolin – a fact which a certain Orville Gibson was quick to capitalise on. Another more general one was the belief that anyone could make music – especially with the encouragement, fun and anonymity offered by forming groups and clubs. So began a massive popular craze to form small community bands, choirs and orchestras: driven later by the availability of recordings, shows, and sheet music, and the ingenious efforts of musical instrument manufacturers.


The instruments had to be portable, and it was inevitable that the mandolin became the instrument of choice in the early days. Having said that, the banjo was still fairly popular – having been around for nearly a century, and associated with minstrel and vaudeville music.


But the guitar was also very much around, and soon became adopted – and eventually gained ascendancy - as a much more versatile and powerful instrument than either the banjo or the mandolin.


This became even more apparent when blues and jazz were heard and published for the first time in the early 1920s.

I’m always staggered by how long ago they were invented. There’s always been a heated debate about who actually came up with the idea, but it was Adolph Rickenbacker (yes – the same Rickenbacker whose company later made the guitars John Lennon and George Harrison played, Roger McGuinn pretended to play, and Pete Townsend smashed up), who first produced a guitar with an electric pickup.

This was in 1931.

The idea was – I keep reading –  very simple (remember that I just can’t figure out anything I can’t see).  A big old horseshoe magnet was positioned over and under the strings, and an electrical coil placed underneath that. Apparently, when the vibration of the strings disturbs the magnetic field, an electrical signal is generated in the coil, and sent out of the guitar to an amplifier, where it is boosted and sent out to a loudspeaker.

Rickenbacker stuck one of these assemblies on top of what looked like a  bedpan (it was actually called “The Frying Pan”) and set it up for the then-popular Hawaiian style.

Rickenbacker was already involved in the “how do we get the guitar louder” business, having manufactured the steel bodies for National resonator guitars since 1928 (yes, yes – I will come on to that!). Not only that, but the company he formed to market these new inventions (called Ro-Pat-In: nobody quite knows why – maybe it was a combination of their wives’ Christian names: Roxanne, Patsy and – well maybe not) included Paul Barth and George Beauchamp – former executives and founders of the National Company, who went off in a huff over patents.

A couple of years later Rickenbacker (sometimes – back then  - spelt “Rickenbacher”) tried sticking this pickup in an arch-top guitar, but later went back to making small solid bodies (out of aluminium or bakelite), and set up for Hawaiian playing.

For a few years Rickenbacker’s electrics were the only ones around. Lloyd Loar – formerly Gibson’s chief designer, and creator of the ground-breaking L5 “f-hole” models, made some strange solid-bodied efforts in the mid 1930s, but not much is known about them.

It wasn’t until good old Gibson entered the fray in 1936 that the electric guitar really started to muscle in on  guitarists’ consciousness.

Gibson placed a flat bar pickup on one of the arch-top L5 derivatives: the L50, and stuck  tone and volume controls on the body. The model number “ES 150” continued the Gibson trend of differentiating Hawaiian guitars from Spanish (“H” or “S”), now prefixed by “E” for electric.

Gibson continued to make a whole range of electrics based on their hugely popular “f-hole” jazz guitars, both in Hawaiian and Spanish versions, and these lines are still amongst Gibson’s best.

But they were also – alongside Rickenbacker and National/Dobro, making little flat solid-bodied “lap” guitars for Hawaiian playing, and it was this design that started folks a-thinking about the future of electric guitars.

There was (and still is) a problem, you see. The natural acoustics produced by the sound chamber of an acoustic guitar sort of conflict with those produced by the electro-magnetic pickup. Consequently you get “feedback”. This is still a big problem for acoustic guitarists who need to amplify. It’s especially difficult when playing in to a microphone. I’m not sure about the details, but basically the sound waves generated by the electrical jiggery-pokery get back inside the guitar again, then – in turn – get picked up again by the amplifying device, and form a sort of continuous loop. It’s also to do with the vibration of the wood on the guitar being out of kilter with the note produced (and amplified) by the pickup or microphone.

Either way, it can be a bugger, and ever since those early days guitarists have battled with the problem, and usually given up and turned to the alternative – the solid- bodied electric guitar.

This is where the biggest arguments occurred about “who was first”. At around the same time – between 1948 and 1951, several crackpots were fiddling about with the concept of a  solid “standard” guitar (there had already been some Hawaiian ones). The idea wasn’t entirely new: the great guitar virtuoso Les Paul took a weird effort called “the log” to Gibsons in 1939, and they laughed him out of the house. It was essentially a big Gibson archtop sawn in half, with a big chunk of timber placed down the centre with the pickups mounted on it. The solid bit eliminated all the vibration and feedback problems he’d experienced with the electrified hollow acoustics Gibson had been marketing hitherto.

Rickenbacker had already been  making a guitar version of one of their little bakelite Hawaiian guitars as early as 1935, but they never caught on.

There were two (well, three really, as two people worked together on one project) fairly unknown tinkerers who could maybe rightly claim the “me first” crown. One was Paul Bigsby (whose name later became associated with the “vibrato” or “tremolo” arm fixed to thousands of guitars). In 1949 he built – in association with country singer/guitarist Merle Travis – a revolutionary guitar with a solid single-cutaway body (looking spookily like the later Gibson Les Paul), and a machine head which looked spookily like the (not much later) Fender Telecaster.

Leo Fender was the other tinkerer. He was joined in his Fender Electric Instrument Company by George Fullerton, and they produced – around 1950 – what shortly became the Telecaster (it was originally called the Broadcaster, but Gretsch were already making a drum kit by that name, and threatened legal action: as it turned out, this was a pretty dumb thing to do, as the Fender guitar was a massive hit, and Gretsch would probably have been quite happy to have been associated with it!).

A few years after that, Fender went even further, with the space-age-looking Stratocaster (better known as the “strat”).

In between these two – and probably the reason behind Fender’s adventurousness with the Strat – Gibson waded in with the Les Paul solid-bodied guitar.

When Gibson saw the success of the Fender, they realised what they had missed when they turned away that famous crackpot Les Paul and his “log”. So they went back to him (he was really famous by now) and asked him to design a new solid electric guitar for them. And so the great Les Paul models were launched.

To this day – just as the Martin Dreadnoughts did in the flat-top acoustic world – these three very different-looking guitars: the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, and the Gibson Les Paul,  set the pattern for electric guitars. They’ve sat perfectly comfortably alongside the big “f-hole” guitars with pickups on, and there has even been a range of “hybrids” – thin hollowed-out bodies with pickups on, like the Gibson 335 and the Rickenbackers I’ve already mentioned.

Once these two concepts had been proven to work – there wasn’t really much more you could do with the electric guitar (although electric guitar buffs would murder me for saying so!). Development since then has been in the detail of the electronics inside the pickup, but more in the quality of amplifiers, and the gadgets you can use to make the sound more versatile and – of course – MUCH LOUDER. When you think of those early radio-type amplifiers, and compare the sound quality and level with big stadium guitar bands like AC/DC, it’s pretty mind-boggling. And yet, when you look at the guitars chosen by many of those guitarists, they’re as often as not Fender Telecasters, Fender Strats or Gibson Les Pauls. Many big-name players (like Dave Gilmour, Sting and - here he is again - Eric Clapton), take a great pride in playing really old guitars, with not many improvements (if any) on the original components and set-ups.

Where a lot of mental energy has been exerted, though, is in finding ways of amplifying acoustic guitars, and avoiding the feedback problems I mentioned earlier. I can sympathise with those who prefer the sound and feel of an acoustic guitar, but want it to be heard in concerts and pubs.

In recent years, new kinds of pickups have been developed, which transmit and amplify vibrations either from the wood body (transducers), or the strings themselves (piezo). This helps a bit. But my heart sinks when I read articles in guitar magazines (especially ones purporting to be about acoustics), when players are asked about the equipment they use on stage. They usually preface it by saying “oh, I like to keep it simple…  all I use is..” then they reel off a huge list of pedals, processors, sound enhancers, pre-amps and special effects.

It seems to me that a lot of people spend a fortune and waste a lot of time and energy trying to add loads of effects to make their acoustic guitar sound like – well, an acoustic guitar! Either that, or they use so many effects that the guitar sounds just like – well, an electric guitar! So why not use one instead? There was a craze a few years back for big-stage acoustic players to stick a sort of plastic disc into the soundhole: it stopped the feedback, but killed all possible resemblance to an acoustic sound.

The real thing is much better. I still play my old guitars into a microphone, but it is tricky avoiding the feedback problem – especially if you want volume. It’s especially bad when you have foldback monitors (the speakers that face you, as a performer, so you can hear yourself). What happens is that the sound from the monitor gets inside the guitar, bounces around inside, then comes out again and straight into the microphone, setting up another of those loops.

There - for all I said about not having much to say about electric guitars, I seem to have drivelled n quite successfully!

there we have it. All about guitars.

It’s been a long old ramble, and I’ve enjoyed checking up on some of the stuff I sort-of knew about, or was interested enough in to find out more.

I know the whole thing has been a bit biassed – it was never going to be anything but an expression of what I knew and felt about guitars.

I’ve missed tons.

Bass guitars, for example: can you imagine how revolutionary it was when Fender  - in  the early 1950s - didn’t just put a pickup on a double bass, but suggested you held it in your arms rather than standing it on the floor!?

As with the Fender and Gibson solid electric guitars, those early designs set a pattern which have lasted - and others have tried to emulate - ever since (although there are some formidable alternatives).
There have been attempts to create an acoustic bass guitar: started by a collusion between Ernie Ball and ex-Fender pioneer George Fullerton in 1972, with the Earthwood-branded bass.  Other makers joined in rather reluctantly, but the idea didn’t really take off until pickups started to be added in the 1980s (rather defeating the object, in my view!). I can’t help thinking that the idea of a bass guitar matching the volume and tone of an acoustic 6-string guitar was doomed to fail. The tension and pitch of bass strings is completely different, and I can’t see how their reverberation can possibly cause the resonance of the timber in a guitar necessary to produce the tone and volume required.They’re still around, but usually have some pretty elaborate pickups fitted.

Another omission: I’ve stopped my discussion about Hawaiian and country slide guitars without saying anything about electric Hawaiian guitars and “pedal steels” which are amazing beasts, with loads of levers and pedals.

I’ve also glossed over the whole world of classical and flamenco guitars. There’s no excuse: my first decent acoustic guitar  was a hand-made Tatay Spanish jobbie. I loved it, and it was the only guitar I ever sold for more than I paid for it (I was 14). One of my favourite recent purchases was a 1905 Ramirez flamenco model, which I love even more. The mid-19th Century Torres style has not really changed much, and some of the great Spanish builders have survived (still often in the same familes - as with Ramirez) alongside some other notable European craftsmen, and the inevitable (but often very good) Japanese brands.

But I hope that - despite my  omissions and biasses - I’ve managed to share my childish (as well as professional) joy at the very being of the guitar. If you don’t understand it, pick up a D’Angelico archtop, or admire the inlay on a Martin D45: listen to the natural “sustain” on an A-string plucked on a National Tri-cone, or the amplified equivalent on a Gibson Les Paul.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about guitars  being the the bread-and-butter or the mirror of Society for the past 400 years, but the fact that they are still around and hugely popular must mean they are pretty bloody important.

And lovely!

a new - and unlikely - influence
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In addition to this, the popularity of jazz-influenced dance bands put a huge pressure on the professional band guitarist: the bands were getting bigger and louder, and the music (and the audiences) more raucous. Yet at the same time, the guitarist was expected to follow the new craze of slipping a solo (often Hawaiian-sounding, by popular demand) into the middle of a song.


And so – at the same time that guitars were being adapted or redesigned to accommodate the Hawaiian style – there was an equal demand for guitars that could simply be heard above the racket!


The trouble was – they just weren’t loud enough! The extension of the sound chamber up into the neck was a great idea, but – set against the lightness of the wood and the fact that the instrument lay on the player’s lap, pointing upwards rather than forwards – the sound advantages were just cancelled out, and they were actually no louder that a conventional guitar.


The other problem was that it wasn’t just Hawaiian music that made new demands on the rather dated guitar. True – the Hawaiian style of playing (slid notes on often a single string) was much admired and copied. But its importance went way beyond that: it was suddenly fashionable and desirable to play solos and tunes on the guitar – Hawaiian or otherwise.


This fact is just so important – it affected the style of music played on guitars in the fields of blues, country, Hawaiian, folk, jazz, vaudeville and even classical music for ever



Herman Weissenborn arrived from Germany in 1902, and, by 1910, had settled in Los Angeles as a guitar,  piano and violin repairer and builder. Some time in 1920, he built his first special Hawaiian style guitar, and immediately hit upon a winner (although another maker – Chris Knutsen – produced something very similar at around the same time). These were very peculiar-looking instruments: the bodies were fairly shallow (so as not to slide off your lap) and the body chamber extended right up to the head, making a continuous huge box of a sound-chamber incorporating a great hollow square neck. Decoration tended to be fairly minimal (as you couldn’t see it from the audience!), and they were generally made – in the true Hawaiian tradition – from lightweight koa wood.


A whole range of such guitars were made – alongside the converted conventional guitars – from 1920 up to the mid-1930s. Many manufacturers put their name to them, but it is believed that a large number of them were made or designed by Weissenborn himself. With the recent upsurge in interest for “resonator” guitars (much more about these later), there’s now a good market for these weird instruments – both originals (which are extremely rare) and modern replicas.



By 1920 the Hawaiian craze had swept America. That – coupled with the increasing popularity of guitars, mandolins and banjos (thanks to Gibson’s extraordinary marketing techniques, as well as Lyon and Healy’s huge and attractively-priced output, and Martin’s pursuit of pure quality) brought the guitar to the forefront of Americans’ musical consciousness and aspirations. Everyone wanted to play, and many of them wanted to play like the Hawaiians.


The big names in guitar manufacture weren’t slow to respond to the demand. Both Martin and Gibson brought out specially-built Hawaiian versions of their acoustic range: Gibson sold “Hawaiian equipment” to convert their guitars in 1917 (raised nut, flat frets, steel bar and finger-picks), and Martin, in the early 1920s, were offering their basic range in Hawaiian versions (including heavier internal bracing to strengthen the body, allowing it to take the thicker steel strings). To this day, some Gibsons have the model prefix “ES” for “Electric Spanish”, used originally to differentiate them from the Hawaiian (“EH”)versions.












But there were one or two canny guitar-builders who realised that – once you didn’t have to conform to the conventions of accurate frets, narrow necks and bendy thin strings, you could totally rethink the design of the guitar.



By the spookiest of chances: many years later I was at a singaround session in a little pub in the backwoods of East Suffolk. One of the performers was an obvious regular – an elderly white-haired (but very glamorous) lady, whose name was Mimi or Mitzi or something. She played the electric Hawaiian steel guitar, and I strummed a few chords along with her. At the end, she came over and said how nice it was to have someone accompany her. I said how much I loved that kind of music, and she was tickled that someone so young (all things are relative!) would know about that old stuff. I said I had an old record of Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders, and she said “well, that was my band”. Turned out she was actually their lead Hawaiian guitarist!


Anyway – back to The States early in the 20th Century, and the Hawaiian music boom.


The Hawaiian sliding style of playing the guitar initiated a rethink of how the guitar had to look and be played.


You remember I banged on about the four  basic guitar attributes: tone, volume, accuracy and playability. Well, the slide style sort of turned this on its head. Because the notes were made (often playing one string at a time) by resting a steel slide on the strings, you no longer needed to be able to press the strings down with the fingers of your left hand (if you’re right-handed, that is). This meant that the strings didn’t need to be close to the fingerboard: indeed, it was discovered that the sound was actually better (and you didn’t rattle the slide on the frets) if you raised the strings up away from the frets. They could also be thicker, and consequently louder.


Once you accept this premise, it then becomes apparent that you can overcome that age-old problem of not being able to see what you’re doing, by turning the guitar up to face you, as you no longer need to “grip” your hand around the neck, to help press your fingers on the frets.


The old accuracy thing is also less relevant: although the frets and position dots help to see where you are (and, of course, with the fingerboard facing up, you can see this so much better now), you can make adjustments if you don’t quite get the right note, by sliding the note up or down a bit more – if anything, this adds to the effect. (I always reckon that violin players can get away with this: if they don’t hit the fingerboard in quite the right place, they can add a bit of vibrato or wobble the note around a bit, until they get it dead on, without the listener being any the wiser).


So we now have a new requirement for the good old guitar (which hadn’t really changed much for about 150 years): the strings could be raised up from the fingerboard (and could be a damned sight thicker); the neck didn’t need to be so slim and curved (as the hand didn’t need to go round it), and the body needed to make the sound louder, so that the single notes could be heard above the strumming.


3. American guitar makers
4. A new and unlikely influence
6. Electric guitars
8. Resonator guitars
1. The beginnings
 2. Guitars arrive in the States
5. The boom years - 1920-1970
7. More recent guitars
National Triolian tenor (wood)

There’s an awful lot of stuff on this page, so it might take a while to load fully. Please hang on in there - it’s worth it!

Gibson L4C
Washburn 211
Framus Strato
Vicente Tatay
Gibson J50
Club 50
Sentchordi Hermanos 1880s
José Ramirez 1905
Style 0 Artist 1915
Melody Maker 1964
Gibson J45 1946

But trends in popular music in the 1920s sent guitar design into a new direction: the element of volume became the over-riding requirement of the instrument. To trace the reason for this, we have to go back to a few decades earlier, and to a different and most unlikely part of the world: Hawaii.


Controversial and unlikely though it may sound, it is my belief that what happened to – and came out of – Hawaii, had a significant impact; not just on guitar design, but on the way it was played, and – in turn – the direction of guitar-based popular music.



In the 1870s, Portuguese immigrants brought over a small 4-stringed instrument called the Braguinha (after the town of Braga). Then in 1879 a shipload of Portuguese also included braguinha players and makers, and it wasn’t long before the instrument was adopted by the islanders. However – as they had with the guitar – they adapted it for their own style of music, and by 1886 it had taken on the shape of a guitar (with tunings more akin to the guitar), and made from the native koa wood. It was played as an accompaniment to the native hula-dancing, and would probably nowadays be recognisable as a ukulele.

The “uke” became enormously popular, in The States as well as in Hawaii, but – due to its small size and only having four strings - it was only any good as a “ strumming” instrument, to accompany dancers and singers. The guitar was still around, and could easily have become the dominant instrument: particularly for playing melodies.

Then something happened, which didn’t just shape the way Hawaiian music went in the late 19th century, but started a method which had a far-reaching effect on popular music right up to the present times: the discovery of “slide” guitar.


There are various claims as to who started it all off. The one most often credited is Joseph Kekuku, who claimed that – in 1885 – he was walking along a railroad track playing his guitar (as you do!), when he saw a railroad spike lying on the ground. He picked it up and started to slide it along the strings. In another story he claims that he was leaning over his guitar, and a steel comb fell out of his pocket and slid along the strings. Either way, it was Kekuku who was one of the first to develop the style, and brought it to the attention of not just Hawaiian musicians, but – eventually – to the whole world.


But there are others who might have an equal claim; not just to the technique’s discovery, but to its popularisation. For example, James Hoa made “chime tones” (probably what guitarists now think of as “harmonics”): half-stopping on the frets by holding the back of a knife lightly on the strings, then sliding it along.


Most historically interesting was Gabriel Davion. He was said to be an Indian boy who was captured by pirates and dumped off in Hawaii. (I have this image of a young adolescent sitting on a sun-drenched beach, drinking coconut milk and being entertained by hula-girls; his parents in a run-down part of Mumbai or somewhere getting a ransom note saying he would have to stay there forever if they didn’t co-operate!). Anyway, it was thought that Gabriel may have brought to Hawaiian music an idea from an ancient Indian instrument called a gootvadyam, which involved rolling a ball along the strings to make a sliding sound.


These two musicians were certainly of some prominence at the same time as Joseph Kekuku: they were all mentioned as playing in a sliding style at King Kalakua’s Jubilee celebration in 1886.


On the face of it, all this discovery meant was that the Hawaiian style of music became even more romantic-sounding, with those long sliding notes we now know so well. But I believe it meant far more than this; not just to Hawaiian guitar-playing, but to the future of guitar playing and design - in The States and eventually beyond. But first, let’s look out how the music of little Hawaii became famous throughout the world.


The adaptation of guitars and ukuleles; the influence of musical styles from foreign visitors and settlers, and the adoption of slack (or open) tunings and sliding techniques, created a love for music in the Hawaiian islanders. This was strengthened by the enthusiasm, sponsorship and actual musical talent of the Hawaiian Royal Family late in the 19th century. King Kalakaua was known as “the merry monarch” because of his love for music and dancing. Queen Liliuokalani was a prolific composer, and her sheet music was published in the U.S.A. as early as the 1890s. The Royal Hawaiian Band played their first hit song “Aloha Oe” – composed by the Queen – in San Francisco back in 1883.

This was all symptomatic of an American obsession with Hawaii – to the extent of it being made a U.S. Territory in 1898. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, the Hawaiian Legislature obtained a $100,000 grant to promote its trade and culture. America was Hawaiian music mad, with musicians like Joseph Kekuku and James Hoa (then – a few years later – Sol Hoopii, Gabby Pahinui and the Tao Moe Family) enchanting a music-mad nation with their stunning techniques and their strange but beautiful music. In 1916 the Victor Record Company sold more Hawaiian music records than any other category.


It wasn’t just America either. I actually owned a 78 rpm record of Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders; a 1930s British dance band who latched on to the still-going Hawaiian craze. This particular record was the famous “By a Sleepy Lagoon”, which became – and still is – the theme to BBC Radio’s “Desert Island Discs”.