E Pluribus Swing

On June 17, 2011, Governor Perry signed Senate Continuing Resolution 35, and Western Swing became the official state music of Texas.

Now, if Western Swing music needed a motto, a good choice would be E Pluribus Unum.

You probably know the phrase from the ribbon carried in the beak of the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. You probably also know it means, “Out of many, One.”

What you may not know is that it comes from a poem by the Roman poet Virgil.

In the poem, a farmer gathers up ingredients and makes the Roman equivalent of picante sauce. He observes that while the mix is a single thing, it is not homogenized. He can still perceive bits of what came together to create the whole.

The same can be said of Western Swing.

Start with traditional country music, add some jazz, some blues, a dash of polka, a pinch of ragtime, a smidgen of mariachi. Now try a taste. Something’s missing. What could it be?

The steel guitar.

How in the world did that oddball instrument get in the mix?

You have to go back to October of 1864 when a 1,160 ton steamer, christened Sea King, put to sea from Scotland, purportedly on a commercial voyage to India.

But instead she headed for the Mediterranean and rendezvoused with her new owners. Down came the Union Jack ad up went the Stars and Bars.

Armed and re-crewed, the Confederate Sates Ship Shenandoah began her trek around the the globe to prey on Union merchant vessels.

CSS Shenandoah being repaired at Melbourne, Australia, 1865


The war ended in April of 1865, but the commander of the Shenandoah had no way of knowing. By that time he was harassing the US whaling fleet in the Pacific. (Whale oil lubricated Northern manufacturing in those pre-petroleum days.)

Thus it happened that the Shenandoah ran an American whaling ship aground off Hawaii in June of that year. Some of the crew where Portuguese sailors who made their way to shore with their steel stringed guitars.

The Hawaiians loved the sound of these instruments and began making their own. Soon just about every Hawaiian boy had one.

Then one day in 1885, eleven year-old Joseph Kekuku was walking along some railroad tracks playing his guitar when he spied a large bolt on the ground and an idea flashed through is head.
He picked up the bolt and slid it up and down the neck of his guitar while playing. The singing slur of notes made him smile…and the steel guitar was born.

Fast forward to 1918: Hawaiian music is all the rage and Joseph Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet is touring Texas. Kekuku’s steel guitar was a hit with Texan ears and Texas musicians began to experiment with it.

Over the next several years, the steel guitar, along with all the divergent musical strains in Texas, epluribusunumed in to what we call Western Swing.

In the early 1930s, the steel guitar was the first instrument to be electrified.

In 1935, Houston musician Bob Dunn became the first man to play an electrified instrument on a commercial recording, playing with Milton Brown (of Fort Worth) and His Musical Brownies on I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.

Aloha, y’all!

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