R. Alex Anderson

Today’s musical offering is On A Coconut Island, composed by R. Alex Anderson in 1936. Before I tell you about Alex Anderson and some of his famous works, I have to first give you a blurb to read explaining the musical genre known as “hapa haole”.

“Hapa Haole” Music Genre 

Definition =  Hapa is a Hawaiian word that was originally part of the full phrase hapa haole, which was a derogatory term for someone half Hawaiian and half “white foreigner.” Today, the phrase has been shortened to simply “hapa” and generally refers to anyone part Asian or Pacific Islander and part Caucasian.

Haole = a person who is not a native Hawaiian, especially a white person.

*Music term = a type of Hawaiian music in which the tune, styling, and subject matter is Hawaiian, but the lyrics are partly, mostly, or entirely in English. This style was born during the mid-to-late 1800’s when Westerners began settling on the Hawaiian islands, and producing songs in some combination of English and Hawaiian language. They started gaining popularity outside of the Territory of Hawaii between 1912 and 1919. During the Depression years this song genre exploded in composition because the North American population yearned to hear songs full of nostalgia and far-away places; and the distraction of the silly antics of native Hawaiians (On the Beach at Waikiki; Little Brown Gal). The era of the War Years generated still more composition of hapa haole songs because people wanted to hear songs that re-affirmed the peace and war movement, and songs about Hawaii were a reminder of survival after the attack on Pearl Harbor and while also embodied the promise of return. Popular songs were those that evoked nostalgia and yearning, yet reassured us.

Examples of composers of this genre: Sol K. Bright – Sophistocated Hula; Harry Owens – Sweet Leilani; Jack Pitman – Beyond the Reef; Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison and Johnny Noble – (I Wanna Go Back to My) Little Grass Shack; Don McDiarmid, Lee Wood and Johnny Noble – Little Brown Gal.

R. Alex Anderson ~ 

R. Alex Anderson  was an American composer who wrote many popular Hawaiian songs within the Hapa Haole genre including Lovely Hula Hands (1940) and Mele Kalikimaka (1949), the latter on of the best known Hawaiian Christmas songs (in the U.S.).

Alex Anderson was born in Honolulu, Hawaii,  June 6, 1894, and died on Oahu on May 30, 1995. (Note: Just shy of his 101st birthday!!)

He attended the Punahou School on Oahu where he wrote the school’s anthem in his senior year. He went on to graduate from Cornell University in 1916 with a degree in mechanical engineering, but returned to his home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu for the rest of his life.

During his career he wrote in excess of 200 songs on piano and ukulele. *He is considered the “most Hawaiian” of the Hapa Haole song writers.

A frequent visitor to the Hawaiian islands, and to Alex Anderson’s home, was Bing Crosby who was frequently his avid golf partner. Bing Crosby had recorded Mele Kalikimaka and it went all around the world on the B-side of Crosby’s hit song, White Christmas on 45’s.

When Anderson wrote On a Coconut Island in 1936 it was immediately recorded by the world-famous crooner and trumpet player, Louis ArmstrongLovely Hula Hands was recorded by Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra in 1940, Teresa Brewer in 1961 and Bing Crosby in 1963. Don Ho included it on his world-famous album, Hawaiian 30 Favorites in 1979.

On A Coconut Island ~ 

One of the things I love about this song is it’s simplicity. It has a swaying quality to it as you go back and forth between C7 and F for the verses. Of course, Louis Armstrong’s version has a lengthy instrumental part, presumably for hula dancing LOL – but you can play the song as slowly or quickly as you like, just play it twice through and tag the ending a couple times. Of course, I’ve got a Hawaiian vamp to open it with, and you strum once downwards on C7 and let it ring as you sing those first three magical words, “On a coconut…”.

R. Alex Anderson wrote this song with an innovative way of rhyming the lyrics. Not just at the end of each stanza – heck no that would be too obvious! – but in mid-stanza with the word “island”. How many words in the English language rhyme with “island”? None to not many. Instead, he chose to break up the word between two measures so that you sing it as “eye land”, which has many rhymes: “while and”, “mile and”, “smile and”, etc. and so forth.

I have found different wording for the chorus on the internet. I am using the wording from R. Alex Anderson’s original composition, and the last verse is the wording from Louis Armstrong’s recorded version of the song in 1936. A sort of homage to Louis, if you will.

Hope you enjoy it! On A Coconut Island 2

Louis Armstrong and The Polynesians, (c) 1936:




A Wonderful Song from the Depression Era

Every once in a while, I discover something that makes me think just a little differently about the world of history as I know it. A few months ago, my ukulele group was looking into Hawaiian songs for 2 engagements for Luau’s. Some were easy, some were very well known to Americans, but insignificant to us. Our leader gave us this song to learn because it is a very simple melody, just repetitive enough to learn quickly yet diverse enough to be interesting, and it is a 2-chord song. I am not sure if he thought the rest of the meaning of this particular song through!

He attached 2 videos to the email with the pdf On A Coconut Island. The first was by two ladies with ukuleles, wearing get-ups with costume wigs (why, I don’t know – it’s youtube!). The second video was a performing ukulele group, all clad in matching Hawaiian outfits, singing along with a vinyl recording of the song by…… Louis Armstrong and the Polynesians, 1936.

At the time, I thought, “That’s neat: Louis Armstrong, paired up with a Hawaiian orchestra, about the time of the World’s Fair perhaps. Maybe he was part of that famous ‘ukulele-craze-movement’ happening in the early century of US history.” That’s all I thought. The Luau performances came and went for us, but still I was strumming this little 2-chord song at home, because it was so darn easy to memorize!

Then in June, we all travelled up to Ancaster to take in a workshop called Play Ukulele By Ear by savvy American uke player Jim D’Ville. Cool. He spent a chunk of time explaining how there are certain patterns of chord progressions that are particular to certain eras of music. For example he talked about how the 4-chord progression of songs in the 50’s was typical of a key: I, VI-minor, IV, V7th. And how when the Beatles hit the shores of the US they changed the outlook on chord progressions completely. They sometimes composed a song entirely in Minor chords, and over-turned other musical conventions. He then launched into a short but very specific description of the development of mainstream music and genres, from the turn of the century (well actually with the advent of recorded music) to present day.

What has this got to do with Louis Armstrong and the Polynesians, you ask? Well, one of the eras Jim D’Ville described was that of the Great Depression. He said, people wanted to sing and compose songs about the better days that came before this very difficult decade. Times were so tough people didn’t have much to look forward to and feared a future of worse struggles. These were very hard times. And so the songs that were played over the radio air waves were from the turn of the century and from the happy-go-lucky flapper days of the early teen years. Songs like Five Foot Two and Ain’t She Sweet. He also mentioned Louis Armstrong’s role in this era of the 30’s. It was no accident that he sang and recorded What a Wonderful World.

On A Coconut Island is also such a song. It’s takes us away from the troubling times of the Depression era and transports the singer to a tropical island, a place of peace, beauty, and solitude. There are no worries there and no troubles. The writer of the song also had some clever fun trying to rhyme words with “island”, coming up with “while and”, “mile and”, and “smile and”. So I sing it that way! He went to all the trouble to write it like that!