Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Uncle Jack and the Bird of Paradise

Could it be that "the worst song ever written" sparked America's first love affair with Hawaiian music?

Here is a little historical rambling that I've been meaning to post since September that was sparked by a chat over a latte with Peter Alau.

Peter had recently inherited an 'ukulele, a family heirloom with a mysterious past. The uke was found stashed away behind the fireplace at a recently-deceased relative's house in Hawaii. According to the Alau ohana lore, the family skeleton closet contains one uncle Jack Alau, who is remembered as a musician, composer, and heavy drinker. Uncle Jack was apparently a One-Hit-Wonder back in the day, but ended up a black sheep that no polite Alau talks story about.

Jack Alau is notoriously remembered for composing the music for what Rick Reublin at Parlor Songs called "one of the worst songs ever written," One-Two-Three-Four. Rather bizarrely, One-Two-Three-Four is about as un-Hawaiian a song as you can imagine.

Herewith, the lyrics, written by one S. Kalama:
Down by the stream where I first met Rebecca
Down by the stream where the sun loves to shine
Bright hued the garlands I wove for Rebecca
Bright were her eyes as they gazed into mine

One, two, three, four, some times I wish there were more
Ein, zwei, drei, vier, I love the one that's near
Yet, nee, sam, see, so says the heathen Chinee
Fair girls bereft, there will get left, one, two, and three
And it really gets no better from there. If your morbid curiosity gets the better of you, here's the tune. (Okay, that was a bit disingenuous on my part. If you want to hear it played a la mode, here's a period cylinder recording from 1917.)

Anyway, Peter wondered if the uke he inherited might have been the instrument used by Uncle Jack to compose
One-Two-Three-Four. So I decided to do some sleuthing.

I turned up nothing conclusive about the uke, nor any pertinent biographical info about Jack Alau. But my research did lead me to some rather unexpected insights about the original spread of the popularity of Hawaiiana--and Hawaiian music in particular--in the early 20th century.

First off, while
One-Two-Three-Four was originally penned in 1906, it didn't become a wildfire hit (and apparently it was!) until it was featured in a now all-but-forgotten stage play, entitled, The Bird of Paradise. Christopher B. Balme wrote an extensive piece about The Bird, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in the origins of Hawaiiana in popular culture. In "Selling the Bird: Richard Walton Tully’s The Bird of Paradise and the Dynamics of Theatrical Commodification," Blame notes that The Bird:
“had considerable impact on US culture in the first half of the twentieth century…

...The play is set in Hawaii in the early 1890s, the period in which the US annexed the islands and disempowered the native queen and indigenous Hawaiians. The story revolves around a doomed liaison between a young American and a Hawaiian girl. Tully was a collaborator of David Belasco, the author of Madame Butterfly (1900), the inspiration for Puccini’s opera, and the play itself was immediately recognized as a Polynesian variation of the Belasco/Puccini melodrama. The Bird of Paradise is explicitly exoticist, implicitly racist, and, perhaps most egregiously, it was a huge commercial success that was performed throughout North America for over a decade between 1912 and 1924 and was revived twice on the West End in London. (emphasis added) It made both its author and producer a fortune, which they lost and partially regained in the course of one of the most protracted and influential trials on plagiarism in US judicial history; and it played a pivotal role in the popularization of a particular brand of ethnic music and dance, which is known throughout the world and detested wherever lovers of so-called serious music gather…

“The Bird ran a modest but respectable 112 performances at Maxine Elliot’s before embarking on extended tours of North America and many productions at local stock theatres. Although its impact on Broadway was considerable, the play’s long-term effect was generated by the multitude of stock company productions that the original spawned. The play was seen throughout the US and Canada over a period of twelve years.”
While The Bird was a drama rather than a musical, per se,

"Included in the production was purportedly authentic Hawaiian popular and traditional music. “Authentic” meant that the musicians had been imported from Hawaii. Although Laurette Taylor and other New York actresses rendered the hula, real Hawaiians provided the music… As only Hawaiians could at this time play in the style, Tully imported a Hawaiian band known as the Hawaiian Quintette, which included the famous steel guitarist Walter Kolomoku. Their performance led them to become so successful in their own right that they recorded the play’s incidental music for the Victor phonograph company, a recording that sold well into the 1920s."

Here's a couple Victor recordings of the Hawaiian Quintette, courtesy of John King:
Kaua i ka huahuai (aka Hawaiian War Chant)
Tomi Tomi
(And a link to the explanatory page on John's site.)

Naturally (or should I say "unnaturally"?), one of the pieces of "Hawaiian" music featured in the production was Uncle Jack's ditty. Being written in English (and phonetic German and Chinese), it caught on like wildfire, and was included in just about every Ukulele method book until Jim Beloff rescued us all with the advent of the Jumpin' Jim anthologies. Irving Berlin, himself responsible for many early riffs off of themes popularized by The Bird, also included One-Two-Three-Four
in his 1917 show, Stop! Look! Listen!, which also included Henry Kailimai's On the Beach at Waikiki.

As for Uncle Jack Alau? Well, he's still a mystery. Although if Ailau is an alternate spelling of his name, he might have also composed Wailana Waltz, more popularly known as Drowsy Waters.


Gary said...
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MrBaliHai said...

Very interesting post, Gary, and excellent research. Thanks for sharing.

PJ Alau said...

Thanks much for this Gary. I'll keep researching on my end.

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