Wednesday, November 06, 2019

John W Troutman's "Steelin’ the Slide: Hawai‘i and the Birth of the Blues Guitar" tracing the evolution of slide guitar from Hawaiian native players through to their tours in the South where they influenced early blues musicians

John W Troutman makes a case that, popular though the account is that slide guitar in the Delta blues tradition has ties back to African monochord zithers or didley bow instruments has been, it's more plausible to argue that a difussion of the Hawaiian Native traditions of guitar music saturated the American South more rapidly and widely than previously imagined.

One of the things I've been mulling over as I've tackled mastering bottleneck technique and have been reading about the history of Native American music is noticing that there are descriptions of microtonal differences in pitch; conspicuous use of glissandi connecting notes, indefinite pitches, rhythmic flexibility and that these are all aspects of Native American song that, were one to set out to replicate those effects on an instrument, "could" be duplicated on European string instruments but could far more easily be replicated on an open chord tuned guitar which ...

in case you hadn't already guessed it, is pretty much how the Hawaiian pedal-steel tradition evolved, to keep things short for a mid-week blog post. 

The more I read the more I'm persuaded that we have Joseph Kekuku specifically to thank for the innovation of slide guitar in the bottleneck and pedal steel traditions.  It also does not just so happen that the history of the pedal steel tradition of guitar playing is a specialty of Troutman's.

It could be easy to go through life and not realize that Kekuku was about 23 years old when Johannes Brahms died.  Kekuku's method of guitar playing took seven years to master but by the dawn of the 20th century was situated to become immensely popular in the United States and elsewhere.  This style of guitar playing was presented in California performances as far back as 1906. 

Troutman proposes that while there is no evidence from interviews with early blues musicians to the effect that they drew upon didley boy traditions of playing there is evidence they regarded bottleneck playing as a style drawn from Hawaiian playing customs, bottleneck style guitar playing being introduced into recordings in the 1920s.  Of interest is Troutman's reference to recollections by Son House that his father's generation played guitar in standard tuning and not in the open chord tunings necessary for slide playing.  Troutman highlights that even when pressed by an interviewer to describe slide guitar as deriving from some more ancient tradition Son House described it as a modern and popular style and a specifically Hawaiian style of playing guitar he'd picked up. 

Troutman's thesis, that black musicians in the South picked up slide guitar techniques and sounds from Hawaiian musicians touring the South, reminds me of a case that has been made by Dale Cockrell that miscegnation, musical and cultural, was significantly more common in the lowest strata than in the middle and upper classes.  To put it bluntly, poor people at the bottom rungs of society were more likely to be able to and also have no choice but to interact with each other on a regular basis in ways that the better-heeled could avoid.  The sharp edge of Cockrell's point is that whites, blacks and other people of color groups were interacting in the underground scene for generations but were not considered respectable or orderly enough to make it into the public record except by way of court cases.  This is the short version of a case he's made in Demons of Disorder and Everybody's Doin' It.  Myths and histories regarding blues may have had it that slide guitar either evolved separately from Hawaiian guitar traditions by way of some lineage to central and west African music but, as Troutman argues in his work, there's no evidence that this was the case and, contrary that, there are interviews from early, formative blues players in which they shared that they took up what they called a Hawaiian style of playing guitar. 

All of that gets to a point I've circled around at this blog for a few years, that American cultural histories an be so literally and figuratively black and white on things like popular music and concert music that substantial contributions from other groups can get sidelined.  I've only learned about Troutman's work this week but as a guitarist who appreciates the challenges of slide guitar and has been interested in reading about how that tradition of playing developed I'm planning to read more of Troutman's work.

As it applies to classical guitar music, which is something I've written a fair amount about over the years, the antiquity of bottleneck technique going back possibly as far as the late nineteenth century, suggests to me that classical guitarists who take the prospect of complete mastery of the instrument seriously, should learn to play some bottleneck pieces.  And the part of me that's got a half Northwest Native and half white lineage thoroughly steeped in the West Coast, it's encouraging to see a scholar highlight some musical history in which "everything" in American music doesn't necessarily always tie back to the South, the New England area or the usual places in American popular musical history.  We couldn't have the music we have today in the United States without the significant contribution of Hawaiian natives playing the six string. 

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