Charlie Kahana, back row, second from left. Photo: Courtesy Tacoma Public Library
It’s amazing what you can accidentally run into while surfing the internet. I was poking randomly though the online photo and newspaper archive of the public library in my old home town, Tacoma, Washington, and came across a photograph of a group of fiddlers, dated February 1930. They had just competed in a fiddle contest at the RKO Pantages Theater, and were shown gathered around a bench in Wright Park, which is six blocks from the house where I grew up. The winner was listed as Charley Kahana, member of the Puyallup Indian tribe, whose reservation is near Tacoma. So of course I had to learn more about this contest and its champion. The information I found fills some blanks about early fiddling in the state of Washington.
Charley was half Hawaiian and half Native American (but he was Lummi, not Puyallup), played for dances, busked on a ferryboat, and won several local fiddle contests. But what I found most exciting is that in 1956 he was recorded on what are probably the earliest field recordings of fiddling in the state of Washington. On these tapes he not only talks and plays the fiddle, he also sings “Pop Goes the Weasel” in Chinook Jargon!
Charley’s father was John Kahanu, born in Oahu, Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). John worked on a whaling ship, and around 1860 he jumped ship at Esquimault on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He came to the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Northwest Washington, and then moved to Whatcom, on the American mainland, where he went to work in the coal mines. He married Mary Skqualup from the Bellingham Bay area, who was of Clallam and Lummi descent, and had inherited a farm on San Juan Island from her late husband. There were many Hawaiian men, including Hudson’s Bay Company employees, who came to the Northwest in the mid-19th century, and married Native American women. John worked for a sawmill, sold shingles in Victoria, B.C., and also worked on farms in the San Juans. Over the years the name “Kahanu” became “Kahana.”
John and Mary’s son Charles was born in 1865 on San Juan Island, and when he was fourteen years old he moved to nearby Orcas Island to live with his brother. When his parents moved to Saltspring Island, British Columbia, he went along, but wanted to come back to the U.S. side. His cousin and uncle had three thousand head of horses on the mainland near Bellingham, Washington, and “I got crazy on horses, riding, I liked to ride.” As a young man he moved around the islands a lot. Over the years Charley worked as a laborer, a farm hand, and a fisherman, and drove horses in the woods for lumber companies. Around 1902 he became captain of the schooner Industry, which took lumber to the limekiln at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island and carried sheep and cattle between the San Juans and Victoria, B.C. Later he moved to Marietta, Washington, on Bellingham Bay, across the mouth of the Nooksack River from the Lummi Indian reservation.
Charley’s musical career began when he was twelve years old. There were a number of settlers of French heritage on San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez Islands. Most of them were descended from Hudson’s Bay Company employees who had married local Native American women. In the 1850s the Hudson’s Bay Company operated a large sheep farm, several other farms, a fishing station, a lumber camp, and a hunting camp in the San Juans. In 1877 one of Charley’s neighbors on San Juan Island, named Champeau, held a dance at his house. Charley had never seen or heard a fiddle before; the only musicians he had ever seen played jews harp and banjo. He had severely injured his foot, and cried with disappointment because he couldn’t walk to the dance with his mother and father. So he “tied it up with a rag and I crawled over there… I got over there and all the dancers, all the French people were dancing. I seen them fiddlers. Joe Ladabouche was one of the fiddlers, and Edward Gagnon…they made the fiddle talk!”
When Charley got home he made a fiddle out of scraps of cedar shakes, with a leather tailpiece, horse tail for the bow, and strings out of thread; eventually his father killed a sheep to make better strings. His first public performance took place in 1878 at Colonel May’s New Year’s ball at East Sound, Orcas Island. In 1879 he played for the Colonel’s dance again. He got his first real fiddle by trading a small canoe to another Indian on Saltspring Island, in British Columbia.
Kahana played for dances off and on for most of his life, in many cities and towns on Puget Sound, including Port Townsend, Seattle, Tacoma, and Bremerton. He also played in Sandpoint, Idaho, and at the Sunnyside Hotel in Vancouver, B.C. For two years he played fiddle on the Flyer, a high-speed steamboat that carried passengers between Seattle and Tacoma from 1891 to 1911. “There was four of us, me and Big Jim, a fella name of Ross, and a fella by the name of Ragtime Jimmy, I think his name was, playing a little mandolin. Tips from the passengers… On a good day, you know that boat was loaded. Well, we’d take in money, maybe twenty, thirty dollars, you know, that is, four of us. Of course we’d divide that up when the day was over, see. By God, I’ve made the highest twenty, twenty-five dollars a day, we’d take lots of money. The next morning, by gosh, believe it or not, all that money I made, the next morning I wouldn’t have a penny to buy breakfast. When we’d get ashore at Tacoma and tie up… There’s a saloon they called the Last Chance, got a piano in there, we’d go in and play music, you know, and whoo! Lots of beer, lots of girls!”
[For the rest of this article, as well as transcriptions of “The Bazaar” and “Campbell’s March” as played by Charley Kahana in 1956, purchase the Fall 2013 issue!]
For more information on pioneer-era Northwest fiddlers, see Vivian’s article “Northwest Pioneer Fiddlers” at: www.voyagerrecords.com\arNWFiddlers.htm
© 2013 Vivian T. Williams
[Vivian Williams is a contest-winning fiddler, judge, and recording artist. This summer she was inducted into both the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Hall of Fame (by the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Association headquartered in Weiser, ID) and the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame (by the New York State Old Tyme Fiddlers' Association in Osceola, NY). Vivian Williams and her husband Phil have been documenting and performing the folk music of the Northwest since the 1950s. They have an extensive catalog of recordings and books available at www.voyagerrecords.com.]