Friday, November 11, 2011
Bad music: steel guitars
If you have ever listened to country music, you have probably heard a steel guitar. Here's Hank Williams and his band, with steel guitar briefly at 1:03. But where did the steel guitar come from?
Supposedly it was invented in Hawaii. The story goes that in the mid 1890's Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, was strolling by the railway with his guitar. He picked up a metal bolt lying by the track, and slid it along the strings of the guitar. And so the steel guitar was born. There are a number of different stories about this, of course, so probably one of them is true.
Hawaiian guitar music become popular in America in the 1930s, and I used to have a lot of 78s of it. I still have some Felix Mendelssohn in the attic somewhere. Mendelssohn (a descendent of the more illustrious classical composer of the same name) recorded many jazz 'standards' Hawaiian style. Here he is with 'I got rhythm', recorded 28 Oct. 1940. His Teddy Wilson-ish piano break is very nice, coming in at 1:10, followed shortly by the steel guitar at 1:43. Here he is again with Hawaiian war chant.
The sound found its way into country music via Alvino Rey, who is credited as the father of the pedal steel, a steel guitar played flat on its back using pedals that increase the range of the instrument. Here he is playing 'St Louis Blues', which features a talking steel guitar. Another pioneer was Herb Remington. Here he is playing Goodbye Liza Jane, and (at the age of 83) Remington Ride. Finally, Leon McAuliffe and his Western Swing Band play Panhandle Rag (January 1949).
In more recent times we have the Junior Brown. He is famous for the excellent Highway Patrol, of which my wife has a visceral and extreme dislike. She only heard it once, many years ago, but still remembers it with hatred. Sometimes I mention its existence simply to annoy her.
Brown is also notable for Guit steel blues, although this owes more the slide guitar tradition that originated in the Mississipi delta, than to Hawaii.