BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE

In the age of electronics, when playing just about any song is only a few clicks away on a smartphone, tablet, or other electronic device, it’s hard to imagine a time when listenable music was much harder to come by. Before phonographs were common household items, if you wanted to hear a song, you either had to attend a musical concert or sing and/or play the song yourself. If you chose the latter option, the easiest way to learn one of the popular songs of the time was to buy the sheet music for it. Although musical compositions written out in standard notation date back many centuries, printed sheet music with both the words and music to popular songs didn’t become commonplace until the 1800s. 

Flash forward to the early 1900s and the beginning of the first big Hawaiian ukulele craze. Fueled by interest generated by the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, the Broadway smash-hit musical Bird of Paradise, and tourism to the U.S.’s recently acquired Territory of Hawaii, millions of mainland Americans became fascinated with all things Hawaiian including ukes and ukulele music. Songwriters were quick to take note (pun intended), and over the next couple of decades, composed tons of tunes tailor-made for ukulele players and Island music enthusiasts.

Some early Hawaiian sheet music was written (appropriately enough) by native Hawaiian songwriters. Sonny Cunha, Henry Kailimai and Johnny Noble all penned popular tunes that were first published in Honolulu, including “My Honolulu Hula Girl” (Cunha, 1909), “On the Beach at Waikiki” (Kailimai/Stover, 1915) and “Hula Blues” (Cunha/Noble, 1920). “Aloha ‘Oe” is one of Hawaii’s best-known songs, written by their last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani in 1878. The song later achieved world-wide renown when new sheet music editions, complete with English lyrics, were published in the 1930s.

The popularity of Hawaiian songs didn’t go unnoticed on the mainland, and it wasn’t long before New York City became the commercial center of Island-themed sheet music publishing. In the late 19th century, a concentration of music publishing firms on 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in lower Manhattan, an area that came to be known as “Tin Pan Alley.” Its nickname allegedly was coined by a songwriter who thought that the collective sound made by many cheap upright pianos all playing different tunes was reminiscent of the banging of tin pans in an alleyway.

In the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley was the hotbed of American popular song composition, pumping out countless hits by composers including some of the best in the business: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Gus Kahn. Kahn alone wrote dozens of popular standards we still play today, including “Pretty Baby,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” and “It Had to Be You.” Tin Pan Alley’s pool of composers also included many former vaudevillians, including Benny Davis (“Ukulele Moon” and “I’ll Fly to Hawaii”) and Harry Owens (”Sweet Leilani” and “The Hukilau Song”). Also a well-known bandleader, Owens later served as the musical director at Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

To capitalize on the Hawaiian uke craze, Tin Pan Alley published umpteen songs with exotic titles and lyrics devised to convey a sense of tropical adventure. Tunes like “Silver Sands of Love (Naughty Hawaii)” (Yellen/Sanders, 1921) and “On the Shores of Waikiki” (Ott, 1931) evoked images of secluded beaches, swaying palm trees, and picturesque sunsets. Other songs sought to inspire romantic fantasies with hula-dancing maidens (“Hula Hula Dream Girl” (Kahn/Fiorito, 1924)) or ukulele-strumming beach boys (“Aloha Honey Boy” (Carter/Smith, 1919)). Of course, what could be more tantalizing to uke-crazed fans than sheet music that featured the ukulele in both the title and imagery: “That Ukalele Band” (Edelheit, Smith, Vanderveer, 1916; note the unorthodox spelling), “Ukulele Blues” (Lapham, Singhi Breen, Kors, 1924), “Ukulele Lady” (Kahn/Whiting, 1925), “Ukulele Baby” (Meskill/Rose/Sherman/Bloom, 1925), “Oh How She Could Play a Ukulele” (Davis/Akst, 1926), and “Say It with a Ukulele” (Conrad, 1928).


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To better sell the fantasies that their song sheets promised, Tin Pan Alley publishers hired artists who created attractive sheet music covers which typically featured Hawaiian themes and paradisiacal island scenery. The ranks of these talented artists included Albert Barbelle (“Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” Goetz/Young/Wendling, 1916), Leland Morgan (“My Waikiki Ukulele Girl,” Glick/Smith, 1916) and prolific artist brothers William and Frederick Starmer. Between them, the Starmer brothers produced over a hundred covers between 1900 and 1940, including “My Honolulu Ukulele Baby” (Johnson/Kailimai, 1916) “Mo-Na-Lu” (Breau, 1922) and “Under the Ukulele Tree” (Dixon/Henderson, 1926). Truth be told, the beautiful images these artists created were often more inspiring than the lyrics of the songs themselves.

Speaking of lyrics, most Hawaiian craze-era songs were written in the “hapa haole” style. Translated as “half foreign” or “half white,” hapa haole songs combine a mix of Hawaiian and English words. Take, for example, the 1933 Cogswell/Harrison/Noble hit “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.” It includes the lyrics: “I want to be with all the kanes (men) and wahines (women) that I knew long ago” and “I can hear the Hawaiians saying ‘Komo mai no kaua ika hale welakahao.’” The latter phrase, loosely translated, means “welcome, stay a short time, experience hot time at my house.” Lyricists often took liberties with the Hawaiian language and occasionally even made up words, as found in the songs “Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo: (That’s Love in Honolu)” (Murphy/McCarron/Von Tilzer, 1916) and “Yaddie Kaddie Kiddie Kaddie Koo,” (Lewis/Young/Meyer, 1916). How do we know some of these words are made up? There’s no “C” “D” or “Y” in the Hawaiian alphabet.

Musically, most hapa haole songs weren’t based on traditional Hawaiian melodies, but rather employed trending musical styles of the time, including ragtime, blues, and jazz. To adapt a songwriter’s melodies for play on the ukulele, Tin Pan Alley hired top arrangers, the best being May Singhi Breen, aka “The Original Ukulele Lady.” Breen was an excellent uke player, composer, and instructor. To make songs easier to play, she convinced publishers to include small uke chord diagrams printed directly above the lines of lyrics. A tuning diagram on the song’s first page showed the correct string pitches, which were typically in D tuning: A D F# B. Why use a tuning that’s one full step higher than the C tuning (G C E A) that’s most common today? One explanation is that D tuning made it easier for ukes to play along with guitarists playing in the key of E or A. It’s also said that the increased string tension made ukuleles sound brighter. [For more on Breen see the Spring 2016 issue of Ukulele.]

Among the many styles of songs it published, Tin Pan Alley was particularly well known for its “novelty songs.” The sheet music typically featured eye-catching cover art, a wacky title, and colorful lyrics. Memorable examples include “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley” (Leslie/Kalmar/Meyer, 1916), “The More I See of Hawaii the Better I Like New York” (Kalmar/Gottler, 1917), “On My Ukulele (tra la la la la)” (Parish/Morris/Herscher, 1926), and “Princess Poo-Poo-Ly Has Plenty Pa-Pa-Ya” (Owens, 1940). My personal favorite vintage novelty song, “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune” (Yellen/Ager, 1927), has a cover featuring a frenzied uke player and lyrics that I can only imagine express how folks who hate ukulele music must feel: “There’s a guy I’d like to kill, if he doesn’t stop I will, got a ukulele and a voice that’s loud and shrill.”  

Not all popular sheet music came from Tin Pan Alley or Honolulu; assorted titles were printed by publishing houses scattered throughout America, in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. And as the ukulele craze spread around the globe, other countries got into the act. British publishers produced their share of Hawaiian-influenced song sheets, such as “Ukulele Dream Girl” (Keech, 1926), “Give Me a Ukulele (and a Ukulele Baby) and Leave the Rest to Me” (Brown/Williams, 1926), and “He Played His Ukulele as the Ship Went Down” (Le Clero, 1932). British comedic actor/singer/songwriter and banjolele virtuoso George Formby performed in numerous WWII-era English films. One of his jauntiest tunes, “The Ukulele Man,” was featured both in the movie Spare a Copper and in sheet music printed in 1941.

After the first big Hawaiian ukulele craze ended during the Depression, publishers continued to print Island-inspired sheet music all the way through the 1930s. Although interest in Hawaiiana had declined, many memorable songs were written in this period, including: “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop” (McDiarmid/Noble, 1936), “Blue Hawaii” (Robin/Rainger, 1937), and “Lovely Hula Hands” (Anderson, 1940).

Ironically, it was the proliferation of affordable phonographs that contributed significantly to the demise of printed music publishing and its once prodigious output of ukulele-oriented sheet music. It’s ironic because in the 1920s and ’30s, phonograph and 78 rpm record sales actually helped boost sheet music sales. In fact, sheet music covers often featured a photo of a popular singer (Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, etc.) or band or group (Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, Jim and Bob, etc.) who had done a phonograph recording of the song. But by the time rock ’n’ roll took over the airwaves and recording studios in the 1950s, sheet music was pretty much a thing of the past.

Despite the publishing industry’s decline, vintage sheet music can still fulfill its original purpose today: to teach us to play songs we don’t know. The next time you’re browsing though a box of musty old music sheets at a garage sale or flea market, pull out a few of the more interesting titles and check to see if they have ukulele chord diagrams; maybe you’ll discover your favorite new tune from the uke craze era!

Selected further reading: The Ukulele: A Visual History, by Jim Beloff; Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music, By Jim Allen; The Ukulele: A History, by Jim Tranquada and John King.

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