America’s fascination with Hawaiian culture reached its peak during the Great Depression. The country needed a temporary escape from the Depression’s daily uncertainties, and its people eagerly embraced Hawaiian music for their imaginary travels to exotic places. By this time, “slack-key” guitar had already become a part of mainstream American musical culture with its use of altered tunings and finger picking techniques first popularized in Hawaii by Portuguese sugar cane workers. Slack-key styles of the 1830s blended western-European performance techniques on a six-stringed instrument, called the guitarra portuguesa, and traditional Hawaiian melodies played on a four-stringed instrument originally called the ukeke, but today referred to as the ukulele.
Sometime during the 1880s, performers like Joseph Kekuku adapted these slack-key methods to acoustic guitars by laying the instrument on their laps and sliding a steel or wooden bar over its fretted neck. Americans first heard Kekuku’s new style of performance in 1893, when the annexed territory of Hawaii staged an exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
Eight years later the Columbia Phonograph Company released its first recording of “Aloha ‘Oe.” By the first decade of the twentieth century, demand for Hawaiian music grew rapidly as traveling Vaudeville shows started booking music groups like Toots Paka’s Hawaiians. In 1912, steel guitars and ukuleles were featured in Richard Walton Tully’s musical, Bird of Paradise, which was widely acclaimed. In addition, composers from New York City’s Tin Pan Alley began regularly writing Hawaiian-themed novelty songs for voice and piano. Most of these songs featured idyllic stereotypes of Hawaiian life, but often included belittling titles such as “Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That’s love in Honolu).”
By the early 1920s, Frank Ferreira, a leading Hawaiian guitarist, began mass-marketing recordings of Hawaiian music. Virtuoso performers like Sol Ho’opi’i soon expanded on Ferreira’s technique by blending his slack-key methods with jazz and blues forms, a style many native Hawaiian musicians called “Hapa Haole,” or inauthentic Hawaiian music.
Following Ho’opi’i’s lead, dance bandleaders around the United States began hiring guitarists and banjoists to perform slack-key guitar and ukulele. Even early country music groups, often called “Hillbilly bands,” began incorporating the sounds of the steel guitar into their performances, and during the 1930s, early sound motion pictures also included them in their sound tracks. The earliest appearances of steel guitars as background music occurred in the films His Jazz Bride (1926) and Bird of Paradise (1932). The steel guitar’s presence in these movies motivated many people to learn to play the Hawaiian guitar. However, due to a lack of master teachers, most individuals had to learn to play the instrument by enrolling in long-distance correspondence courses that mailed weekly music lessons to the students.
Two of the leading performers, innovators, and educators of Hawaiian music in the 1930s and 40s were Letritia Kandle (1915-2010) and Eddie Alkire (1907-1981). Like many Americans, Kandle’s first encounter with the guitar was through Warner Baxter’s performance as the Cisco Kid in the film, In Old Arizona (1928). While her early music experiences were with the Spanish style guitar, after watching performances during the Hawaiian exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Letritia was quickly inspired to take up the Hawaiian guitar. The following year she formed an all-women’s steel guitar ensemble called the Kohala Girls. In 1937, Paul Whiteman invited her to perform with his jazz band during his radio hour. She performed on an instrument of her own design; a four-neck electric guitar called the “Grand Letar.” By the early 1940s, Kandle had become a leading teacher of the steel guitar in downtown Chicago and eventually became the conductor of the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, an ensemble made up of various string instruments including ukuleles and steel guitars.
Eddie Alkire began his career as an electrician in the coalmines of West Virginia. In the mid-1920s, he taught himself to play the steel guitar by enrolling in a series of correspondence courses. In 1929, he left electrical engineering to perform with the Oahu Serenaders, a group affiliated with Cleveland’s Oahu Publishing Company. As a member of this unique music ensemble, Alkire performed weekly on nationally broadcast radio shows on NBC and CBS. In 1934, he resigned from the Oahu Publishing Company and formed his own music-publishing company and steel-guitar correspondence school. Five years later, he invented a new 10-string electric guitar, called the EHarp (pronounced Ay-Harp).
This exhibit examines the innovative teaching methods and new guitar technologies developed by Letritia Kandle and Eddie Alkire during the 1930s and 1940s, which have continued to influence steel guitar performance practices today.