It must have been the winter of 1979-80 when I was browsing through a music store and came across Keola Beamer’s instruction book, Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar. I’d never heard of the style — an extension of the parlor guitar style of “Spanish Fandango,” favoring a variety of open and other “slacked” string tunings — but it looked approachable and there was a little plastic record included, so I picked it up and learned two or three of the pieces. This one in particular caught my fancy, and I recall practicing it in Dave Van Ronk’s living room one afternoon when he was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and him coming in and saying, “If you don’t watch out, you might play something pretty” — which was his way of saying he was pleasantly surprised.
I was still playing it when I ended up in Vancouver for the first time a few months later on my first extended stateside hitchhiking trip, and my hostess there turned out to have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and had records by Ray Kane, Gabby Pahinui, and Atta Isaacs. I taped them all, listened to them quite a lot for a couple of months, and then moved on… it was pretty, indeed, but I had the same problem with it that I later had with bossa nova — I bought a couple of Baden Powell records and some Joao Gilberto, enjoyed them for a while, and then I wanted to hear something grittier.
Many years later, I was writing for the Boston Globe and got the first releases from George Winston’s Dancing Cat record label, a half-dozen Hawaiian slack-key CDs, and called Winston to do a story on them, and he was so excited that anyone at a major newspaper knew anything about slack-key that he sent me a box of about thirty cassettes, of everything currently available in Hawaii. And then I got to interview Ray Kane, who was wonderful, and Ledward Kaapana, who blew me away both as a guitarist and as a live performer. And around the same time I happened to be back in Utah Phillips’s dressing room, and he was warming up by playing a slack-key instrumental and said that was the first way he learned to play guitar.
So I had a second wave of interest in the style. Ray Kane convinced me that the singing was a big part of the tradition, and the traditional singing, unlike the guitar playing, was not a pretty sound that non-Hawaiians could embrace as background music. Like, for example:
But I wasn’t going to start singing in Hawaiian, and even to play the instrumental style, by that time I’d realized I should have used Beamer’s tablature as a starting point for my own explorations, rather than just learning “Manu Kai” note for note. So that was that, for me… but it’s still a pretty little guitar piece.