An innocuous but oddly touching moment arrives not quite halfway through Normal As Blueberry Pie,
the new Verve platter by Nellie McKay. It’s an ostensible ad-lib on the Broadway standard “Crazy
Rhythm,” which she tackles with an old-fashioned insouciance. Addressing the
subject of the song as if it were animate, she assumes the inflection of
someone urging a stray mutt out of the kitchen. “Get on now, go,” she coos. And
then, a moment later: “Shoo! Shoo!”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Statehood -- Hawaii’s official admission to the Union. My father was a senior in high school then (McKinley, for all you locals), and he remembers it fondly. But from our current vantage, commemoration is bittersweet, as even a casual student of Hawaiian culture can attest. Here’s a version of a paper I presented at a recent EMP Pop Conference, which covers some of this ground through the lens of popular music (one song in particular).
This is the lilting solo version of “Over the Rainbow” recorded by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, the Hawaiian music legend also known as Bruddah Iz. There’s a decent chance that you’ve heard it somewhere. On the soundtrack to a Hollywood star vehicle like Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester or 50 First Dates, perhaps. Or during a pair of emotionally charged scenes in the NBC series ER and Scrubs. Or in one of untold thousands of earnest YouTube montages. Or during the seventh season of “American Idol,” when it was performed by a popular contender, complete with ukulele.
In any case, the ballad reaches straight for the heartstrings, as it was clearly intended to do.
But Kamakawiwo`ole, the Hawaiian music legend also known as Bruddah IZ, brought some coded context to the song that most listeners don’t begin to recognize. As an outspoken advocate of Hawaiian sovereignty, he knew the deeper shading of a song about longing for another place, where skies are still blue. His “Over the Rainbow” is a hymn of exile as well as longing, rich in metaphorical suggestion. Its impact has reached far and wide, eclipsing its veiled intentions. But those intentions tell us much about the world in which Kamakawiwo`ole lived, and the one that he never lived to see.