Early Hapa Haole Songs

The term “hapa haole song” usually brings to mind songs like “Lovely Hula Hands” or “Beyond the Reef” or “Blue Hawai‘i.” These three songs all share the same format of text and tune. Hum this to yourself:

Lovely hula hands, graceful as a bird in motion
And the swirling winds over the pali, lovely hula hands, kou lima nani e.

Lovely hula hands, telling of the rain in the valley,
Say to me again “I love you,” lovely hula hands, kou lima nani e.

I can feel your soft caresses of your hula hands, your lovely hula hands.
Every little move expresses so I’ll understand all the tender meanings

Of your hula hands, fingertips that say aloha
Say to me again “I love you,” lovely hula hands, kou lima nani e.

If you simply look at the text with no reference at all to the tune, it looks like there are four stanzas.

But if you sing the tune, youʻll know that the first and second “stanzas” have the same tune; the third “stanza” is a different tune, and the fourth “stanza” returns to the tune of the first and second “stanzas.” Some musicians would say “verse-verse-chorus-verse” or “verse-verse-bridge-verse.” Music analysts will often use alphabets to represent each different section of tune; this format would then be represented as “A-A-B-A.” Each “stanza” often has the same length, and that length is most often of 8 measures, and the entire tune would be 32 measures long. This 32-measure “AABA” format is used extensively in American popular music of the 1910s and thereafter, and musicologists often refer to it as “popular song form” or “32-measure AABA popular song form.”

The overwhelming majority of hapa haole songs by R. Alex Anderson, Harry Owens, Don McDiarmid, Tony Todaro, Sol Bright, and others conform to this 32-measure AABA popular song form. (There are exceptions, which is why I wrote “the overwhelming majority of hapa haole songs”.) This song form comes straight from the American popular music publishing industry that flourished in New York City in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. Now marked by a plaque at West 28th between Broadway and Sixth Ave., the district earned the nickname “Tin Pan Alley” from the sounds of songwriters and jobbers at work drifting out the windows of the concentration of publishers within a one- or two-block area.

The 32-measure popular song form dominates in the work of Tin Pan Alley songwriters the likes of Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin , Gus Kahn, and Harry Von Tilzer, among many others. After the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, when Hawaiian music took off on national popularity, Tin Pan Alley songwriters churned out Hawaiian-themed songs filled with gibberish pseudo-Hawaiian lyrics and maudlin stereotypes–songs like “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” “My Isle of Golden Dreams,” “Ukulele Lady,” “Honolulu Iʻm Coming Back Again” and “Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.” (!)

Many contemporary Hawaiian would like to bury this chapter of Hawaiian music history. But here are two reasons why this part of history cannot be cut off like a dead branch:

  1. Many of these songs were recorded by revered Hawaiian musicians. No less than Alfred Apaka recorded “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula.” And Robert Cazimero teamed up with the The Makaha Sons to sing the most unforgettable rendition of “My Isles of Golden Dreams” wrapped sublimely around Helen Desha Beamerʻs “Pua Malihini.”
  2. The 32-measure popular song form from Tin Pan Alley was taken up by Honolulu-based songwriters of hapa haole songs like R. Alex Anderson (who wrote “Lovely Hula Hands” above), Sol Bright, Harry Owens, Jack Pitman–whose song “Beyond the Reef” practically defines the category of hapa haole song), and Tony Todaro, among others.

So the 32-measure popular song form in hapa haole songs has its roots in Tin Pan Alley songwriting. BUT . . . if we look earlier than 1915, the hapa haole songs written by Hawaiian songwriters that have endeared themselves are not in the popular song form. Get ready for this:  the iconic hapa haole songs of Sonny Cunha are in the format of hula ku‘i songs!! So is the song that fueled the Hawaiian music craze after its introduction at the Panama Pacific Exposition:  “On the Beach at Waikiki.” Hum this to your self:

  1. “Honi kāua wikiwiki” sweet brown maiden said to me
    As she gave me language lessons on the beach at Waikiki.
  2. “Honi kāua wikiwiki” she then said and smiled in glee
    But she would not translate for me on the beach at Waikiki.
  3. “Honi kāua wikiwiki” she repeated playfully
    Oh those lips were so inviting on the beach at Waikiki.
  4. “Honi kāua wikiwiki” she was surely teasing me
    So I caught that maid and kissed her on the beach at Waikiki.
  5. “Honi kāua wikiwiki” you have learned it perfectly
    “Donʻt forget what I have taught,” said the maid at Waikiki.

Every stanza has the same tune. Just like hula ku‘i songs. Back up further to Sonny Cunhaʻs “My Honolulu Tomboy” of 1905, and the songʻs last verse is “Haʻina ʻia mai ana ka puana / She is my dear little sweet little Honolulu Tomboy” and every verse is followed by a “vamp.” These early pre-Tin Pan Alley hapa haole songs, written by Hawaiian songwriters, were distinguished from hula ku‘i songs solely by language. 

Just to be clear: I am NOT saying that all hapa haole songs after Tin Pan Alley are in 32-measure popular song form. I am also NOT saying that all hapa haole songs before Tin Pan Alley are in the format of hula ku‘i songs. What I AM saying is that the category of “hapa haole song” has evolved, from an early pre-Tin Pan Alley use of hula ku‘i format among many songs, to a post-Tin Pan Alley use of 32-measure popular song form among MANY songs.

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2 Responses to Early Hapa Haole Songs

  1. Pingback: HAPA-HAOLE HAWAIIAN MUSIC – A SAMPLING | Sandra Wagner-Wright

  2. Pingback: Needle on the Record | In Terms Of

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