The guitar can arguably be called one of the world’s most versatile musical instruments. A big problem for early blues players wanting to play it, however, was the cost of buying one. Up until the late 19th century, the guitar had been considered affordable for members of the American middle class (and above), but not for poorer African American musicians whose blues style was a perfect match for the instrument. Black blues players had no choice but make their own guitars, many fashioned from old wooden cigar boxes and broomsticks (for the neck). Only with the introduction of the Sears mail order catalogues in 1893 did guitars and all other instruments become more easily affordable.
When the Portuguese first sailed to the Hawaiian islands in the 18th century, they took guitars as gifts for the royal family there, but they never taught the islanders how to tune their gifts. The Hawaiian way of tuning produced the now-famous slack key guitar style that we currently associate with the sound of Hawaii. The 1880s saw another innovation to the Hawaiian guitar style, a way of playing that would later strongly influence the emergence of the American blues.
In Hawaii around 1885, an Oahu schoolboy, Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932), picked up a metal bolt on a railway track near Honolulu; and made music by sliding the bolt over the gut strings of his Portuguese guitar, thus producing the first steel (slide) guitar sound. “In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawaii and would never return. He started in the United States by performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was called ‘Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet’,” states Wikipedia.” “In 1919, Kekuku left the U.S. for an eight-year tour of Europe traveling with ‘The Bird of Paradise’ show. His show was so popular that it became a film in 1932 and again in 1951, though Kekuku was not in either film.”
Many blues historians and musicologists have pondered the mystery of just how (and when) the blues was influenced by the wailing sounds of an accompanying slide guitar. Some attribute the sound as coming from the “diddly bow,” a crude guitar fashioned from discarded junk materials that was used by early bluesmen who did not have enough money to buy a real guitar. Author John W. Troutman begs to disagree. He argues in Southern Cultures 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.”
No matter where you stand on this argument, almost everybody can agree on one thing: the steel guitar produces a sound that can pierce the soul of a listener. “There is something so special to see a brilliant guitarist with his eyes shut, his head flung back, wringing the plaintive notes of pain and anguish from his guitar. It’s playing that uplifts us, enriches us and makes us feel good. It’s for every occasion and as long as people play the guitar, some of them will play the blues,” opines Richard Havens in the udiscovermusic.com blog.
But not everyone says “amen” to these statements, especially some African American non-musicians and churchgoers during the early years of blues development. “What we now call blues was the often intimidating, frightening music heard in the darkest of places; in evil places like brothels and sleazy drinking dens. Blues was the devil’s music, many African Americans felt. If blues was mentioned at all, it was with distaste. The guitar, in particular, was seen by many blacks as the devil’s instrument. Most successful black artists would have felt blues to be undignified and beneath them. They had too much self-respect to perform or listen to the music that dare not speak its name,” writes blues historian Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved (volume one).
Maybe so, but listen to what B.B. King, often called “The King of the Blues” has to say: “I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man. I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper. Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.”
About Joseph Kekuku: