Mele Hawai‘i — Historical Sources

Related posts:

  1. Mele Hawai‘i —  An Introduction (September 24, 2009)
  2. Mele Hawai‘i Playlist for my UH course on Hawaiian music (August 29,2010)
  3. Lili‘uokalani’s “He Buke Mele Hawaii” 1897 (July 29, 2010)
  4. Some Comments on The Queen’s Songbook (July 19, 2010)

Anyone wishing to explore the repertory of songs categorized in the 19th century as mele Hawai‘i will find themselves in an oasis of historical sources. The term “mele Hawai‘i” has come to be used in recent decades as a general term for all Hawaiian songs. However, there is overwhelming evidence from the late 19th century that the term was originally used for one particular kind of song–the songs created by Hawaiian composers–many of whom were musically literate and notated their songs themselves–which used Christian hymns as their models for tunes and verse-chorus songform. The most prominent composers were the four siblings popularly known as “Nā Lani ‘Ehā”–David Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani, Miriam Likelike, and William Pitt Leleiohōkū.

Now when we go searching for mele Hawai‘i songs, they are all over the historical print and manuscript sources. So here is a chronological rundown of the foundational sources.

1869:  The earliest commercial published sheet music–in musical notation–of mele Hawai‘i repertoire known at this time (in other words, that I am aware of) is Lili‘uokalani’s song “Nani Nā Pua,” published in 1869.

1888: The earliest published collection of mele Hawai‘i songs appeared in 1888. This collection contains only lyrics, no musical notation. The title is Ka Buke o na Leo Mele Hawaii, by “Keakaookalani and J. M. Bright.” Click here to see this book on Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Library; copy from Hawaiian Historical Society.

1897: Ka Buke Mele o na Himeni Hawaii, edited by Ed C. Holstein (Honolulu: Hawaiian News Company). Containing only lyrics, this volume is an expanded edition of the 1888 collection. It was reprinted by Bishop Museum Press in 2003.

1899: Aloha Collection of Hawaiian Songs, compiled by Charles A. Hopkins (Honolulu: Wall Nichols; and Boston: Oliver Ditson). This is the first published collection of musical scores of mele Hawai‘i songs It was reprinted in 1901. This volume is also the basis for a 1960 publication titled Music of Hawaii, edited by Russ Henderson, and published by Boston Music Co. Click here to view this volume on Google Books; copy from the University of Virginia Library.

1902:  A. R. Sonny Cunha, Songs of Hawaii (Honolulu: Bergstrom Music Co.). The second published collection of musical scores signaled the presence of Bergstrom Music Co. as a competitor to Wall Nichols. Bergstrom Music was not new to music publishing, however, as that company produced 30 individual song titles in the sheet music series “Mele Hawaii” edited by Royal Hawaiian Bandmaster Henry Berger between 1884 and 1898 (see photo at top of this post).

1907: A third published collection of musical scores appeard in 1907: Royal Collection of Hawaiian Songs. No compiler or editor is identified on the title page of this volume printed by the Hawaiian News Company. The volume was reprinted without any changes in 1915.

1914:  A. R. “Sonny” Cunha, Famous Hawaiian Songs (Honolulu: Bergstrom Music). This songbook is an enlarged edition of the Cunha’s 1902 Songs of Hawaii, now sporting new contents and a new title. Significant among the new contents is the inclusion of seven of Cunha‘s English-language hapa haole songs, which Bergstrom Music began issuing as individually as sheet music beginning with “My Waikiki Mermaid” in 1903 (just after the publication of the songbook Songs of Hawaii in 1902).  Click here to view this volume on Google Books; copy from Harvard University Library

1916: Charles E. King, Book of Hawaiian Melodies (Honolulu: Charles E. King). This volume is popularly referred to as “King’s Blue Book,” because of its blue-toned cover. King launched his music publishing enterprise in 1915 with individual sheet music. This volume is King’s first book-length collection of songs.

Charles E. King’s music publishing activities is long and complex. There are at least four different titled volumes published:

  1. King’s Book of Hawaiian Melodies (1916-1948)
  2. Songs of Honolulu (1917)
  3. The Latest Hawaiian Hulas (1917)
  4. Prince of Hawaii (1925)
  5. King’s Songs of Hawaii (1942, 1950)

In my first scholarly article, “Published Hawaiian Songbooks” which appeared in 1987, I called attention to the complexity of King’s publishing output. This quote is from the 1987 article which appeared in the Music Library Associationʻs journal Notes (vol. 44 no. 2, Dec. 1987).

The songbooks of Charles E. King occupy a seminal place in Hawaiian music publishing. Not only was King the foremost publisher and arranger of Hawaiian-language songs, many of his own compositions number among the best known and most often performed works in this repertory. His five songbooks, published between 1916 and 1950 in as many as 28 editions, present a copmlex bibliographic picture characterized by a great duplication of songs from one publication to another.

King’s publishing enterprise began in 1916 with his Book of Hawaiian Melodies (… the “Blue Book”) which was subsequently issued in some 22 editions up to 1948. Its companion volume, Songs of Hawaii (popularly known as the “Green Book”), was issued in two editions, in 1942 and 1950. . . .

No two editions of King’s songbooks have the same content. Some songs appear in all editions of [the Blue Book], others are found in many editions but not all, and a handful appear in only one or two editions. Most but not all of the songs in each edition were carried over to the next. Moreover, the entire contents of Songs of Honolulu [1917] were incorporated into later editions of the [Blue Book]; songs from Hawaiian Hulas were partially absorbed into the [Blue] Book and Songs of Hawaii [the Green Book]; and most of the songs from Prince of Hawaii were incorporated into the [Blue] Book. Many songs in early editions of the [Blue] Book that are not contained in the last (1948) edition turn up instead in Songs of Hawaii [the Green Book], some of them in the 1942 edition only. It is misleading to assume, as some have done in the past, that the 1948 [Blue] Book and the 1950 Songs of Hawaii [the Green Book] are entirely representative of King’s published output; only a careful examination of all of King’s publications will determine the extent of the repertory that he actually published. (pp. 235-236)

1929: Johnny Nobleʻs entry into music publishing in Honolulu is marked by two collections of songs.

This volume is a stapled collection of sheet music published by Wall Nichols between approximately 1896 and 1905. I had not seen or known of this volume until I won it in an ebay auction several years ago.




This volume combines songs from three different sources:  1) the songs from the Wall Nichols sheet music series; 2) songs from Henry Berger’s “Mele Hawaii” series published by Bergstrom Music; and 3) songs from Bergstrom Music’s 1907 volume Royal Collection of Hawaiian Songs. The songs from Berger’s “Mele Hawaii” series, which were not included in the 1907 volume, were reprinted here using the original plates. The combination of songs from two competing music publishers, Wall Nichols and Bergstrom Music, suggest that Noble had acquired the copyrights to these songs. Furthermore, Noble’s publishing enterprise began in Honolulu, as the information in lower right corner of the cover shows. Noble also arranged co-publication by the San Francisco music store and publisher, Sherman Clay, and many copies of this collection still in circulation are of the Sherman Clay printing. Importantly, the contents of the Sherman Clay printing is not identical to the Honolulu printing of this volume, despite the identical cover and title page: several hula ku‘i songs in the Hawai‘i printing were replaced by English-language hapa haole songs in the San Francisco printing!

Johnny Noble’s music publishing enterprise subsequently included a significant number of hula ku‘i songs in at least two other songbooks that allow us to track the publication of Noble’s catalog as copyright transferred to Miller Music Corporation in New York, and later United Artists. A significant amount of the catalog of repertoire published by Noble remains under copyright in the ownership of a now-huge entertainment conglomerate, presenting musicians and writers who seek permission to use any of the material with one heck of a search.

Additional note: Musician Ernest Kaai also operated a Hawaii-based music publishing endeavor. I am familiar with his methods books for ‘ukulele, which included a significant amount of repertoire not in other publications of the time. Kaai also published piano-vocal arrangements of songs individually in sheet music. Both the extent of the song repertoire in sheet music, and what relationship that repertoire bears to at least two published song collections (that I am aware of at this time) is not yet known, and is definitely something for a mele sleuth to pursue!

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1 Response to Mele Hawai‘i — Historical Sources

  1. I ran across two Hawaiian songs with notation in the 1891 edition of Hampton Institute’s “Cabin and Plantation Songs.” Not surprisingly, they were “Aloha Oe” and “Hawai’i Pono’i.” There are also several Native American songs in this collection, reflecting the presence of Indian students of Hampton at that time. Perhaps the Hawaiian songs reflected a student presence or Samuel Chapman Armstrong’s Hawaiian background. I was wondering where this publication stands in the Mainland U.S. history of publication of Hawaiian songs. I assume that it is very early. Any thoughts appreciated!

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