Kale Kahalehili and Jean Duff needed to get home to Hawaii. Philadelphia was no place for an interracial couple in 1915. They were struggling. Their kids were struggling.
The young couple met at a theater in Honolulu in 1902. Kahelehili was a dashing young musician playing in an orchestra. Duff was a model from the mainland — 10 years his senior — touring the world as a magician’s assistant.
They fell in love and he followed her home to Philadelphia.
Kahalehili got work as a hotel porter and picked up a few gigs with local bands. Making ends meet was harder than they expected, but the young lovers had a plan.
Hawaiian music was on its way to becoming the most popular music in America, and Hawaiian performers were in high demand on the vaudeville circuit. Once they got married, the couple thought they could earn fame and fortune on the stage.
The fates — and Philadelphia society — were not kind.
By 1915, the couple’s life had become fodder for melodramatic newspaper articles soliciting donations to send the family to Hawaii — a place where their marriage might be more accepted.
They had run up against society’s conventions, Duff lamented. And they were paying for it.
Their story — or as much of it as we can piece together from old newspaper articles and historical documents — is part of a long-erased chapter of American musical and pop culture history.
This article is part of a special podcast series on the Hawaiian diaspora. In Season 4 of Offshore, host Kuʻu Kauanoe takes a hard look at why Hawaiians are leaving the islands today and tells surprising stories from history about Hawaiians who left long ago.
From now until June 18, we’ll be posting weekly episodes, along with written articles. The stories running on Civil Beat’s site will accompany — but not mirror — the audio stories, so be sure to check out both.
After the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Hawaiian musicians journeyed to the United States in droves. Hundreds of ukulele and steel guitar players and hula dancers in search of adventure or just a chance to make a decent living.
Many never came home again.
Some, like Kahalehili, would die in poverty and obscurity, thousands of miles away from their island homes. Others would find fame and fortune.
They would star in Broadway shows, play grand concert halls in New York, and make their way through a busy circuit of theaters and juke joints across the American South.
Along the way, they would change American music forever.
Kahalehili and Duff’s dream of striking it big as a vaudeville act wasn’t entirely outlandish. After all, others had done it.
In the early 20th century, Hawaiian music — or a kind of anglicized version of Hawaiian music — was the most popular music in America.
The steel guitar was a big part of what made Hawaiian music so popular.
“It was a very new modern style,” says John Troutman, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. His book, “Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music,” was published in 2016.
“People were remarking left and right all day long about how this is an entirely new concept for playing the guitar, how it sounded unlike any other guitar playing they’d ever heard in their lives.”
No one knows for sure how the Hawaiian steel guitar was invented, but many credit a Native Hawaiian from Oahu named Joseph Kekuku.
There are a few legends about how Kekuku first created this new sound, but the story told in his family involves a metal comb that Kekuku carried in his pocket.
“He leaned over to pick up his guitar and it fell out of his pocket and hit the strings on the neck of his guitar and created different sounds that he hadn’t heard before,” says AlyssaBeth Archambault. Her great-grandfather was first cousins with Joseph Kekuku. They grew up together playing music in Laie.
Kekuku fabricated a steel bar and finger picks to pluck the strings and run a bar over the strings as well, developing a style of playing that could translate to other guitars and genres of music.
And Kekuku did most of this as a high school student at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu.
“When he was demonstrating this all the other kids just freaked out and they began taking this idea to all of the islands,” Troutman says. “And so by the early 1900s you see examples of this popping up in other islands within Hawaii, not just Oahu.”
Hawaii was undergoing massive change in the early 1900s. It was just a few years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, and times were tough for Hawaiians.
Most of the jobs available to Hawaiians at the time were low-paying menial labor. So Hawaiian music really served multiple purposes in the 1890s, Troutman says.
On the one hand, music gave many Hawaiians the ability to support their families. It also helped preserve Hawaiian language at a time when its use was being widely discouraged. And many musicians were also using their platform to promote sovereignty and cultural pride.
In 1904, Kekuku quit his job as a clerk in Honolulu, and set sail for the mainland. He set up shop in Seattle, playing with local bands and teaching other musicians how to play steel guitar.
Before long, Kekuku was touring up and down the West Coast playing with other Hawaiian bands. Hawaiian music was catching fire. And Hawaiian musicians were heading to the U.S. in greater and greater numbers.
AlyssaBeth Archambault’s great-grandparents, Samuel and Eugenia Nainoa, were recruited by a vaudeville promoter to go to the mainland in 1912.
The family spent more than a decade on the road, touring all across the U.S. Archambault’s grandmother was born on the road, and grew up performing with her parents.
A few years ago, Archambault had an art residency in Pennsylvania, and she found out that her great-grandparents had once performed at a theater about a mile from where she was staying.
“That just sort of sent me down a path of doing research of like, wow, if they played a mile from here, where else have they played?”
The answer was hundreds of cities. And they hit most of those cities more than once over the years.
All these visits to small towns up and down the United States that the Nainoa family made — that hundreds of Native Hawaiians made — had a profound and often overlooked impact on American music.
By 1915, Hawaiian guitar music was outselling every other genre of recorded music in the United States, Troutman says.
Traveling musicians were spreading the sounds of the Hawaiian steel guitar all across America and early blues musicians were listening.
“There were droves of Hawaiian musicians who were performing throughout the deep South,” Troutman says. “There was a much greater sense of interaction that was taking place that was leading to the proliferation of all of these different sounds.”
If you listen to early blues musicians like Son House, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, you’re hearing the sound of the steel guitar, Troutman says.
“In fact people like Son House referred to the slide style of playing as the Hawaiian way of playing,” Troutman adds.
It wasn’t just blues. The steel guitar had a profound impact on country music too. But when you read about the history of both genres — roots music that led to rock and roll and everything that came after — you almost never read about Native Hawaiians.
“As a longstanding music historian, it’s something that I’d never heard of before, I’d never recognized and so then I began to wonder, well why don’t we know this?” Troutman says. “Why don’t we understand this central and powerful role that Hawaiians have played in the development of all kinds of musical genres?”
For decades, this history had completely been ignored by music historians.
One of the reasons this history has been overlooked, Troutman says, is because of how musical genres were racialized by the music industry.
Record companies in the 1920s would recruit musicians based on their race, basically creating race-based musical genres. Country music, for example, was categorized for white musicians and rhythm and blues for black musicians.
“And so we’ve been fighting against these race-based genres of music that cut out really critically important populations of people who were deeply implicated in the origins of that music, including Native Americans, including people from Hawaii, including Latinx people who were just written out of that history — written out of the stories.”
The result is that few people know Native Hawaiians inspired the development of the Delta blues slide guitar. Or that Native Hawaiians inspired the use of the steel guitar in country music.
“All that history was just gone, it was just absent,” says Troutman.
The individual stories of all those Hawaiian musicians who toured across America have mostly been forgotten too.
We came across Kale Kahalehili searching through recently digitized newspaper archives.
From what we’ve been able to piece together through newspapers and genealogy sites, Kahalehili and Duff got married in the early 1900s, hoping to strike it big on the vaudeville scene.
Their dream was not without precedent. Around the same time, a Native Hawaiian man named July Paka and his white wife, who went by the name “Toots,” made an explosive debut on the American music scene.
Joseph Kekuku toured with their band, and “Toots Paka and Her Hawaiians” are credited with helping to make Hawaiian music so wildly popular in the 20th century.
Things didn’t go as well for Kahalehili and Duff.
Kahalehili came down with tuberculosis. Then Duff caught it too. They struggled with racist neighbors — and police.
Kahalehili sued the Philadelphia police department in 1906 for false arrest and battery — and won.
By 1915, when Kahalehili was arrested for getting into a fight with a white neighbor who hit his child, life was grim. Their three young children earned a little cash for the family as models, but struggled at school because of the color of their skin.
Duff had been a famous child model in Philadelphia, so the story of what became of her as an adult garnered national interest for a little while.
Articles about their troubles pop up in newspapers in 1912 and again in 1915, along with mentions of a few fundraisers trying to help them get back to the islands.
“I want to go back to Honolulu,” Duff told a newspaper in 1915, adding, “I’m a Philadelphia girl, but I cannot live with my own people if they insult the husband that I love.”
They never made it back Hawaii.
Kahalehili died in Philadelphia in 1923. Duff died there in 1941.
A lot of musicians who left Hawaii in the 1900s planned to return, but never did.
But they raised their children and grandchildren with a strong connection to the islands.
For a while in the 1930s, Kahalehili and Duff’s son Paulo had a weekly radio spot performing with his own Hawaiian band.
AlyssaBeth Archambault’s great-grandparents left five children behind on Oahu, when they embarked on what they thought would be a short tour of the continent in 1912.
Eventually, they settled in Los Angeles and Sam Nainoa opened a music studio teaching the steel guitar.
More than 60 years later, his great-granddaughter flew to Hawaii with one of his guitars to meet her family in the islands.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you’re Auntie Ula’s granddaughter. You come on over, you have a place to stay,’” Archambault says.
Relatives she’d never met picked her up at the airport, and took her home.
“They told me everything about the island family. And I told them everything about the mainland family,” she said. “And I learned that they used to call us the Hollywood family. You know, the family that left never came back.”
Joseph Kekuku, the man whose way of playing the guitar transformed so much of American music, also never made it home.
He toured for a number of years, before settling in Chicago for a while and teaching steel guitar there. He died in 1932, and is buried in New Jersey.
His legacy — the legacy of all those Hawaiians who spent years touring up and down the United States — can still be heard on the radio today.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.