That Winsome Moan

By  |  June 16, 2017
“Guitar” (2016), by Steve Miller, @stevemillerdotcom. Courtesy Robin Rice Gallery NYC, @robinricegallery “Guitar” (2016), by Steve Miller, @stevemillerdotcom. Courtesy Robin Rice Gallery NYC, @robinricegallery

“I didn’t do any research,” Luther Dickinson said with a grin as he opened the door to his room at the Washington Square Park Hotel. Dickinson was in New York for a show that evening at Rockwood Music Hall, and he had agreed to talk with me about a question I’d become obsessed with: Did blues slide guitar evolve from the Hawaiian steel guitar or from the African instrument usually claimed as its ancestor? Dickinson’s corner room looked out over the canopy of Washington Square Park, and steel guitar music issued from an iPad on his nightstand. “I put on Hawaiian YouTube, just to get in the mood,” Dickinson said, placing the device in front of his two-year-old daughter, Isla Belle. 

With a slide—a short length of glass bottleneck or metal pipe slipped over a finger, once improvised and now produced as a standard accessory—the most basic acoustic guitar can sing, can sound human, in a way the instrument otherwise cannot. A guitar neck is divided up by frets, the vertical bands that define where one note ends and another begins. The slide bypasses this order, allowing the player to drift between notes, creating an eerie, metallic wail. Contrary to the Hawaiian steel theory, folklorists—and many players like Dickinson—have long believed that the technique evolved from one-stringed instruments used in Africa, knowledge of which was transported to the New World via the slave trade. According to this history, the diddley bow was passed down through generations until it turned up in accounts of the South in the 1930s, forming a link between American blues and its ancestral strains of music on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dickinson grew up in the Mississippi hill country south of Memphis and learned to play guitar from bluesmen like R. L. Burnside before forming the North Mississippi Allstars with his brother Cody. As the eldest child of the producer Jim Dickinson, who worked with Ry Cooder and was close to Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Luther became a slide master almost by default. He was five when he picked up the guitar, and instead of starting him with the usual fingerings, his father tuned the instrument to an open chord and stuck a bottleneck on Luther’s finger. Dickinson told me he was certain that the blues slide technique originated in Africa. “You can’t discount the fact that these musicians were literally just nailing a piece of broom wire to their porch,” he said, referring to the diddley bow. “They weren’t trying to play Hawaiian music. They never heard Hawaiian music.”

 

The slide guitar has been wailing and moaning in blues music since at least 1903. The bandleader W. C. Handy was dozing off at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, one humid night when “the weirdest music I had ever heard” wafted through the air, as he later wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues. It came from “a lean, loose-jointed Negro” who was singing and playing guitar in a way Handy had never seen: by sliding a knife along the strings. “His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.” A vision of the archetypal blues slide guitarist was born. Twenty years later, the Kentuckian Sylvester Weaver, about whom little is known, showed up in New York and made the first recordings to feature slide guitar, a couple of melancholy numbers called “Guitar Rag” and “Guitar Blues.” Okeh Records marketed him as “the man with the talking guitar.” Handy’s account and Weaver’s recordings were the first to capture a style that later developed through the music of Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, and so on. Over the course of a century, the sound of this peculiar instrument has helped define the music we call blues.

Yet the specific origins of blues slide guitar have never been accounted for in detail, not even by the folklorists who assert its link to the diddley bow. The gaps in this knowledge were partly what led John Troutman to look into blues slide while researching his recent book Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of American Music. Troutman, a history professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who plays steel guitar himself, knew the diddley bow story and had no reason to doubt it when he started working on his project. Hoping to specify the relationship between blues slide and his main subject, he spent eight years looking at old newspapers, private papers, interviews, and many other sources on the musical culture of the South in the early twentieth century. What he found were Hawaiian musicians playing steel guitar—everywhere. “It certainly wasn’t something I expected,” Troutman told me. “All of a sudden I saw musicians from all over the world traveling routinely into Mobile, Alabama; Anniston, Alabama; Montgomery; and Selma—all these little towns. That’s when I recognized that there’s a serious rupture in how we have come to understand Southern music up to this point and what you encounter when you actually look in the archives.”

In Kika Kila, Troutman traces the history of Hawaiian guitar, from its introduction to the islands by foreign sailors in the 1840s to its becoming ubiquitous in the 1870s and 1880s. While Protestant missionaries and American plantation owners wrested control over the islands away from the native royals in the 1890s, a schoolboy named Joseph Kekuku noticed that running a knife or comb along the steel strings of a guitar made an interesting sound. Other cultures with stringed instruments had noticed this, too, but Kekuku developed his discovery into a complete new form. His technique involved tuning the guitar to an open chord, raising the strings high above the fretboard, and running a heavy metal bar (the “steel” after which the style was soon named) over its strings. Instead of holding the guitar up against his chest, he laid it across his knees. Soon Kekuku’s method was widely adopted in the islands, especially for songs that championed the restoration of native Hawaiian rule. It is not an accident that early Hawaiian steel guitar music has a mournful—one might say bluesy—quality. The songs were plaints for a freedom and sovereignty that had just been wrenched away.

“Two native Hawaiian musicians coax amazing harmonic effects from their guitars, a style of melody that has a curious resemblance to that of the violin in its sweetness,” Variety wrote of a 1909 New York performance by Toots Paka’s Hawaiians, a troupe that featured Kekuku himself. Hawaiian players started touring the mainland United States around the turn of the century; by 1916, their music was outselling all other recorded genres in the country. Its popularity lasted for decades. In the South, Hawaiian steel guitarists traveled with vaudeville and tent shows, jamming in the streets to advertise their performances. They also graced the stages of theaters that welcomed mixed audiences. Troutman portrays the Jim Crow South as a place of complex diversity, where Hawaiians played on the early chitlin’ circuit. Their brown skin got them barred from white-owned hotels, forcing them to stay at boardinghouses with black travelers. 

Given the popularity of Hawaiian music and the extent to which the musicians mixed into Southern life, it’s easy to imagine their guitar style spreading. That it grew into the lap- and pedal-steel guitars long used in country music is undisputed. But Troutman—along with a few other writers, like Nick Tosches in his 1977 book Country—asserts that Hawaiian steel playing likely also evolved into the slide guitar of the blues. 

 

“I’m very surprised to hear that, and my first reaction would be to disagree,” Luke Winslow-King told me over the phone from an airport lounge in Detroit. Winslow-King is a thirty-three-year-old roots singer known for his slide guitar style. I thought I’d detected a hint of Hawaiian influence in some of his songs; other critics did, too. But he expressed a view I found common among contemporary blues slide players. “I could see how someone could argue that maybe [Hawaiian] music popularized slide . . . but I’m sure that there were people playing slide music in Africa in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s,” he said. “And that those people came over as slaves and continued the tradition.”

This prevailing theory was popularized by an influential 1970 article by the folklorist David Evans, who insisted that blues slide existed before the Hawaiians, via the diddley bow. “This is surely not a case of imitation by Negroes,” Evans wrote. Robert Johnson, born around 1911, is supposed to have played a one-string, and Big Joe Williams and Bukka White, both born before 1910, said they did, too. Strangely, though, the diddley bow does not show up in any written accounts of the South before 1930. None. Evans told me this should be expected, given that “we are speaking of a children’s learning instrument, constructed by children out of ‘junk.’” He called the diddley bow “extremely ‘underground’ and informal.” Still, it is difficult for me to believe that such an instrument, if it was at all important to local musical styles in the early twentieth century, could have completely evaded documentation. 

For Troutman, the silence around the diddley bow is a major clue that Hawaiian guitarists—whom he found playing steel guitar all over the South before 1920—were a greater influence on blues slide guitar. He writes that the first studies of blues slide came during the civil rights movement, at a time when asserting the African roots of American black culture was, for good reason, an academic and political priority. In this pursuit, as writers like Elijah Wald have shown, blues researchers—primarily white folklorists and collectors—emphasized what they viewed as the more exotic aspects of the performers’ lives (rural poverty, echoes of slavery, surviving African folklore) and downplayed details that would have given a more complex, if familiar, picture of the musicians. For example: that many were traveling sophisticates quite skilled at their instruments who knew the latest Tin Pan Alley and hillbilly songs and enjoyed playing them as much or more than the blues. (When interviewed by Alan Lomax in Mississippi, Muddy Waters said he had fifteen blues songs in his repertoire, seven Gene Autry tunes, and a dozen pop hits.) 

Taj Mahal is a seventy-four-year-old singer and guitarist who has made a career out of expanding blues music by incorporating into it other sounds from around the world—including Hawaii, where he lived for nearly two decades. When I told him about Troutman’s book, he seemed to think the point was obvious. “I don’t think the diddley bow made the slide guitar,” Mahal said. “No, no, no. I would definitely think it was the Hawaiian music. The definite connection was the Hawaiian steel guitar.”

Obviously, Taj Mahal wasn’t around in the 1920s to see Robert Johnson or Bukka White learn slide, but he offered a vivid illustration of how the Hawaiian style spread. In the South, he said, “black people couldn’t go into the furniture stores” where musical instruments were sold. “So most black folks got their guitars through the catalog. Many of those guitars came with an instruction book and a little thing to raise the nut up . . . to be able to play Hawaiian style.” His own first guitar was designed so that the strings could be raised and played with a slide. “That was huge,” Mahal said. From the 1920s to roughly the 1950s, the makers of cheap guitars simply assumed that novices would want to play the Hawaiian way, it was so popular. Mahal toyed with it five years before he ever heard Robert Johnson.

I smiled as Mahal recounted the history, beginning with Joseph Kekuku. He gave the texture of lived experience to Troutman’s persuasive theory. Even David Evans, who has a litany of disagreements with Kika Kila, concedes that “some of the black slide guitarists who recorded in the 1920s and especially 1930s definitely show some Hawaiian influence.” He wrote via email: “I admit that I was overly enthusiastic in asserting an African ‘origin’ of (all) African American slide playing in my 1970 article.”

 

At the Washington Square Park Hotel, Luther Dickinson was unconvinced by Troutman’s history, so I read him a particularly compelling passage from Kika Kila. It’s an excerpt from an interview that John Fahey, Mark Levine, and Barry Hansen conducted with the towering bluesman Son House in 1965. When asked about his musical background, House recalled that his father and uncle played tuba and trombone, and only picked up guitars around the time House was ten years old, in roughly 1912. House said that “none of the old guys” played guitar in open chord tunings, and none used a bottleneck or a knife on the strings. This supports Troutman’s narrative—plus, House never mentioned a diddley bow. And then there’s this: When asked how he came to use a slide on a guitar tuned to an open chord, House said, “The first guy I paid attention to . . . was a guy by the name of Rubin Lacy . . . And he’s the first guy, him and this guy [James McCoy] . . . that I see play the slide—the Hawaiian way.”

“Well, there it is!” Dickinson said, leaping from his seat. “That’s amazing, man. That guy broke the code!” He went on a long perambulation around the room, musing about cultural exchange. “In my family and my community’s folklore, we didn’t know of [blues slide] being Hawaiian.” He sounded a little out of breath, as if his picture of the music he plays had just been altered. “I think that’s amazing. The slide guitar is a universal instrument. And if it’s jumping from culture to culture over the oceans and decades, man, it just makes the story longer and deeper.”

Indeed, Kika Kila presents a stunning example of the nation’s cultural mélange. It insists that we can’t really understand blues slide without imagining some kids on Oahu running steels over their guitars in the 1890s. The book also shows a dynamism in early blues players that more common, clichéd portraits—of grizzled imbibers singing on Southern porches—lack. When something utterly new came around, like a technique that let the humble guitar issue a winsome moan, these musicians listened to it, learned it, and transformed it, through their own creativity, into a sound that still makes us shiver. 

Admitting that slide guitar probably came from across the Pacific doesn’t diminish the brilliance of early blues musicians. W. C. Handy was enchanted by that “ragged bluesman” at the Tutwiler train station in 1903, but he wasn’t under any illusions. “As he played,” Handy would recall years later, “he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable.”


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Ian S. Port’s first book, about electric guitar pioneers Leo Fender and Les Paul, is forthcoming from Scribner.