Surf music, centuries before the Beach Boys

By William Weir

 | Boston Globe Correspondent   June 08, 2014


With summer just about here, you’re forgiven for feeling a little giddy when the Beach Boys come on the radio. Surf music, performed today everywhere from California (of course) to Finland and Slovenia, is universally recognized as a sonic blend of sun, fun, twangy guitars, and falsetto harmonies.

But Brian Wilson, Dick Dale, Jan & Dean, and everyone else we associate with surf music weren’t the first generation to sing the praises of riding a wave. Or even the second.

Timothy J. Cooley, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, took a look at the long association between music and surfing and found a surprisingly complex story, one that dates back centuries. Surfing first arrived in American popular music not by way of sunny California, but through Hawaii’s hapa haole songs in the early 20th century. Written by both Hawaiians and Tin Pan Alley composers in a mix of Hawaiian and English—hapa haole means “part-white”—the genre dealt with all things Hawaiian, partly as a way to promote the islands as a tourist destination. The songs treated surfing as a novel cultural export—along with ukuleles, pineapples, and hula dancing—for a mainland audience increasingly intrigued by island culture.

Read more here.

For a PDF version of the article, click here.

Timothy Cooley will be presenting his book at the Surfer Joe Summer Festival in Livorno, Italy, later this month.  For more information visit