BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Grammy award-winning guitarist and songwriter Peter Rowan has been a staple on the bluegrass and acoustic music scene for over five decades. His collaborations read like a list of American roots-music giants, including Bill Monroe, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Flaco Jiménez, Vassar Clements, and on and on. Rowan’s first instrument, however, was not the guitar, but the ukulele. For Peter, what began in 1946 with a wacky uncle, grass skirts, and a ukulele won in a poker game, turned into a lifelong love affair with music.
That early experience returned to Rowan, who in 2017 released My Aloha!, an album inspired by the connections Rowan found between the music of Hawaii and the American roots music he had been playing for a lifetime. I recently spoke with Rowan about his roots and how these influences tie together.
“I was about four years old when my Uncle Jimmy came back from Honolulu, where he had been discharged by the Navy after serving in New Caledonia in the South Pacific during the war. Uncle Jimmy was sort of a free spirit—the hot ticket in the family. He was probably in his twenties at the time. He brought back grass skirts and coconut bras that me and my mother wore. I still remember that day because it was so unusual. He also brought back a Martin ukulele that he said he won in a poker game. I was immediately enamored because the ukulele was pretty happy-sounding. So, Uncle Jimmy taught me ‘Five Foot Two’ and ‘Ain’t She Sweet,’ and that’s really what got me started on the guitar—learning those top four strings and how the voicing of chords happen.”
Little Peter was suddenly swept up in the huge Second Wave of ukulele popularity that spanned the late 1940s to the early ’60s. Arthur Godfrey was all over radio and television playing the ukulele, and Mario Maccaferri, an Italian luthier and inventor, was making and selling his plastic Islander ukuleles by the millions. “A few years later,” Rowan recalls, “my dad gave me a plastic Maccaferri Islander uke. It was perfectly playable. It also came with a Chord Finder with Arthur Godfrey’s signature in gold on it, which you’d attach to the fingerboard with elastic bands. It had a picture of the chord and you just pushed a button. Well, that lasted about a day. I thought, ‘Here’s a picture of the chord, I can do that with my own fingers.’”
Peter and his friends first pretended to play ukulele together by strumming on tennis racquets, but they soon graduated to the actual instrument. “Me and my buddies down the street were playing ukes, mostly the tunes that were floating around at the time. This was the pre-rock ’n’ roll era, ’52–’53. I think we all had a version of ‘Aloha ’Oe.’ We learned Everly Brothers tunes and everything else on the ukes. But then, suddenly, Elvis Presley appeared on the scene with a guitar draped over him and we soon realized we needed to play guitars.”
Peter Rowan formed his first band in 1956 at the age of 14, a rockabilly outfit called the Cupids. As the early-1960s began, Peter was developing a love for folk and bluegrass music. This led to his joining Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys on guitar and vocals in 1964. After leaving Monroe in 1967, Peter went on to play in such notable acoustic ensembles as Earth Opera with David Grisman, which opened a number of times for the Doors; Seatrain with fiddle player Richard Greene; Muleskinner with Grisman, Greene, Clarence White, and Bill Keith; and Old & In The Way with Greene, Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and John Kahn. In the early 1970s, he wrote a pair of classic songs for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, “Panama Red” and “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy.” Also, in the ’70s, Peter started traveling to Hawaii, where he eventually met artist and musician Douglas Po’oloa Tolentino. “After meeting Doug, I started getting into the whole history of Hawaii, the genealogy, and tracing their music back.”
Fast forward to the 21st century, and luthier James Island of Port Townsend, Washington, was building Peter a custom baritone ukulele. “It’s called ‘The Owl,’ says Rowan, describing the instrument’s distinctive appearance. “The fingerboard comes down to form a beak where it meets two sound-holes which are the eyes. I took the Owl to Hawaii for probably five years and the instrument made me touch base with some musical roots that went all the way back to my childhood.” Playing the ukulele again inspired Peter to begin writing songs for what would become My Aloha! In fact, one of the cuts on My Aloha is an homage to his eccentric Uncle Jimmy. “My Uncle Jimmy used to say ‘hubba-hubba ding-ding.’ Well, it turns out that the Hubba-Hubba was a nightclub in Honolulu. So, it was like I was reuniting with the spirit of the guy who introduced me to music by being in Hawaii and playing the ukulele.”
My Aloha was recorded in Honolulu and Peter almost exclusively played ukulele. “On the record, I indulged my ballad side. One afternoon, my friend Annie took me to the old Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. I found my way up onto the stage in the dim, warm light. As I stood there, I felt the mana—the aloha of the days gone by. I could almost hear the music of those bygone days and the music on My Aloha comes from that! Wave upon wave of love breaking on the reefs of time. Breaking, re-forming endlessly.”
And according to Peter’s record company, Omnivore Recordings, the album “demonstrates how Hawaiian steel guitar and ukulele were an influence on foundational bluegrass, folk, and country artists like Bill Monroe, even if the connection is not immediately obvious.” Peter adds, “It’s amazing when you listen to the early recordings of Hawaiian music. In 1916, John Kameaaloha Almeida & His Hawaiians recorded a song entitled ‘Pua Lilia.’ Thirty years later, Bill Monroe actually took the melody from ‘Pua Lilia’ note-for-note and recorded it as his song ‘Kentucky Waltz.’”
My Aloha actually features two ukuleles. “There’s a curious thing that happens when you’ve got two ukes. Doug Tolentino played the concert and I played the baritone. So, I played a lot of runs as I might play on a guitar.” Being a lifelong guitar player, one would expect that certain guitar styles would find their way into Peter’s ukulele playing. “What I do is apply whatever flamenco techniques I know. Also, I’ve learned a lot of interesting rhythms by visiting Texas. It seems ukulele styles are endless. I played a festival in Kauai last year and the guy playing bass for me was a Hawaiian who was also teaching a uke workshop that day. He showed me a strum from Hilo, the ‘Big Island strum.’ Oo-Ta, Oo-Ta-Ta, that’s the way they teach it. Down-Down, Up-Down-Down.”
Also, on the technique side, Peter discovered that his ukulele playing had led him to discover a way to play the guitar faster. “Bluegrass emphasizes fast, and I love playing fast. Going back to bluegrass after My Aloha, I found a way to play much faster than I could before. When I started playing the ukulele again, I went back to using my fingers and thumb as opposed to a flatpick. So, when I made my next bluegrass record, Carter Stanley’s Eyes, I didn’t want to give that fingerstyle up. I ended up using a thumbpick and three fingerpicks. Using this ukulele style, you can play faster than any flatpicker on a guitar.”
It is truly amazing the number of phenomenal musicians who received their introduction to the joy of making music courtesy of the humble ukulele. And, it’s a wonderful thing that Peter Rowan found his way back to his first love. “Getting back into the uke opened up new dimensions for me—more passionate tempos and falsetto singing. I go back to Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers and the yodel, which has such a connection with Hawaiian music. In fact, Jimmie Rodgers’ traveling tent show was called Jimmie Rodgers Hawaiian Entertainers. It’s inspiring for me to play the ukulele. There is something magical there that ties it all together.”