Prettiest Girl in the County
Speaking of the Native American connection, Charlie Kahana (1865-1959) was half Hawaiian half Native American, blind and one hundred percent champion fiddler. Vivian Williams has dug up a fascinating tale and you can read the whole of it in this Fall’s edition of Fiddler Magazine. His Hawaiian father, John Kahanu, had abandoned his employment on a whaling ship in Vancouver in 1860 and married Mary Skqualup, a Clallam/Lummi woman who had inherited land on San Juan Island from her husband. Charlie was fascinated by the French Canadian influenced fiddle music he heard locally, and made his first fiddle out of scraps of cedar. Between 1891 and 1911 he provided music for passengers on the steamboat ‘Flyer,’ the rapid transit of the era, as it shuttled people and goods between Seattle and Tacoma. He either won or placed high in many fiddle contests throughout the Puget Sound area from the 1920s on into the 1950s. It was the report of his 1930 win in a contest in Tacoma that caught Vivian’s eye.
Turns out there were many Hawaiian men who came to the Pacific Northwest on whaling ships or to work in the fur trade. Skilled on and in the water, they were prized by the ship owners. That admiration was apparently not reciprocated as a great many jumped ship or were otherwise stranded. Many of these men found a home among the local tribes and married native women. An 1843 survey showed some 500 people of Hawaiian ancestry and to this day many native people also claim Hawaiian ancestry. Local place names reflect this influence: Kalama, WA and Friday harbor, WA (named for Joe Poelie – which translates as ‘Friday’) for example. While working on projects for Northwest Folklife we (well, my wife Annie Jamison) heard these stories from both Hawaiian and NW Native, especially Lummi, sources.
The Prettiest Girl in the County is a fun and fairly simple tune of southern origin. I just like how Charlie played it and have enjoyed playing it myself lately. You will notice that Charlie’s lyrics show a local adaptation as “the prettiest girl in the county – o” morphs into “two little Indian boys in the counting room,” to a slightly different melody line than he plays on the fiddle. Rather than force the words into the meter established by the tune, he adapts the tune to fit the lyric at hand. This reflects a common practice among the native peoples of the Northwest and helps explain the crookedness of so many Métis fiddle tunes. By the way, he also sang localized lyrics to other popular songs. ‘The Old Grey Mare’ included lines about “digging clams in Bellingham Bay.”
You can also hear Charlie Kahana on the NW field recordings section at www.voyagerrecords.com.
Thanks to Vivian Williams, Howard E. Buswell, Annie Jamison and the web site, ‘Hawaii’s Forgotten Hawaiians’ (http://www.hawaiian-roots.com/furtrade.htm).