In November 1975, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald perished under the waves of Lake Superior, and Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad to its crew captured the nation’s lost hope with the words, “… all that remains are the faces and names … Superior, they say, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.”
The unsettled memories of the names and faces we have lost to COVID-19 echo this same sentiment in the silence that lingers throughout the band building’s hallways.
The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music remains unbowed by 2020’s heartaches as we start 2021.
Imaginary escapes to Polynesian lagoons and Fijian waterfalls are difficult to conjure from land of endless corn.
However, creative wit can summon Hawaii’s surf among summer’s fields in a gentle breeze — escape only a mindful glance away.
The center’s newest exhibit, “America’s Hawaiian Imaginations through Letritia Kandle and Eddie Alkire,” opened in December.
It documents America’s fascination with Hawaiian culture that reached its peak during another dark time in America’s distant past.
During the 1930s, America’s escape from the uncertainties of the Great Depression was through Hawaiian music.
By this time, “slack-key” guitar performance was part of mainstream music with its use of altered tunings and picking techniques first popularized by Portuguese sugar-
cane workers in the 1830s.
During the 1880s, performers like Joseph Kekuku adapted these early techniques, and Americans first heard this style of music during Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Demand for Hawaiian music grew rapidly, and by the 1920s, virtuoso performers like Sol Ho’opi’i were incorporating these techniques into different popular jazz and blues forms.
Two of America’s leading Hawaiian guitar performers, educators and innovators during the 1930s and ’40s were Letritia Kandle (1915-2010) and Eddie Alkire (1907-1981).
Kandle first encountered Hawaiian music and culture during Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition.
The following year, she formed her all-women ensemble, The Kohala Girls, who were very popular with Chicago audiences.
In 1937, Paul Whiteman invited Kandle to perform on his Chicago jazz radio hour with her new
“Grand Letar,” a one-of-a-kind electronic steel guitar designed by Kandle and built by her father and the National Guitar Company.
By the early 1940s, Kandle had become one of Chicago’s leading steel-
guitar teachers and later became the director of the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra, which gave regular concerts until the early 1950s.
Eddie Alkire grew up in central West Virginia and taught himself to play steel guitar by enrolling in mail-order courses.
After working briefly for Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse in 1929, he became the lead guitarist for the Oahu Serenaders, who were affiliated with Cleveland’s Oahu Publishing Company.
He performed weekly on both NBC and CBS national radio stations until 1934, when he left Oahu to establish his own music-publishing company and steel-guitar correspondence school.
Five years later, he invented his new 10-string EHarp steel guitar, which was regularly used by musicians for many years.
Unlike previous exhibits, this year’s show is both physical and virtual.
While the pandemic may restrict people from visiting the physical exhibition housed on the second floor of the Harding Band Building, our virtual exhibit provides visitors with the ability to see and hear Kandle’s and Alkire’s wonderful music and unique instruments from home.
So join us for the first of the center’s many new American music exhibits and programs planned for 2021.