Surf music, centuries before the Beach Boys

Timothy J. Cooley took a very, very deep dive into what surf tunes once meant.

Queen Emma of Hawaii in the late 19th century. A surfing chant, or mele, written for her praises the health benefits of surfing, and offers geographic details about where she surfed. 
getty images
Queen Emma of Hawaii in the late 19th century. A surfing chant, or mele, written for her praises the health benefits of surfing, and offers geographic details about where she surfed. 

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.


And well before that were the 18th- and 19th-century Hawaiian chants, or mele. In recordings and written texts of these chants, surfing appears as a sacred rite, a definer of class divisions, and, as the Beach Boys noted centuries later, lots of fun. Performed for royalty, the songs serve as an oral history of the sport and of Hawaiian society as a whole, with elaborate details about surfing hot spots, different techniques, and the structure of surfboards (your place in society decided the size of your board).

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“[The chants] could go on for an hour, they went on for pages and pages and pages—they’re wonderful,” Cooley says. His new book, “Surfing About Music,” is the first ethnomusicological look at the full history of surf music. From his home in California, Cooley spoke to Ideas about his research.

The Beach Boys and Dick Dale (below) embodied the twangy, California-pop sound of 60s surf music.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Beach Boys and Dick Dale (below) embodied the twangy, California-pop sound of 60s surf music.

IDEAS: You’ve studied highlander music in the Tatra mountains of Poland, and one of your specialties is the globalization of music. How does surf music fit in?

COOLEY: It’s a continuation of the same theories that I use to understand a fairly regionally confined ethnic group....Surfers often point to themselves as a tribe of surfers. The points around which surfers identify themselves are not so much locations, but what I call an affinity group, which is more related to religious identities.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Dick Dale.

IDEAS: You begin with the 18th- and 19th-century Hawaiian chants, in which surfing figures heavily.


COOLEY: What we find in the chants, the mele, is that it that everyone surfed—men, women, and children. I try to make the point, because I think it’s an important one, that women surfed as much and sometimes were recognized as being the best surfers in the water in pre-contact Hawaii. It also seems to be that [surfing] was part of the whole structure of society—“This is one of the ways we perform privilege of the royal family and also the rights and abilities of the commoners”—and that was articulated through different types of boards and access to different kinds of waves. It appears to have been an expression of society, an expression of institutional power, and an expression of royalty. Although I hasten to add that it wasn’t exclusive to royalty in any way. It was practiced by all people.

IDEAS: They aren’t musically related, but lyrically, there’s a big emphasis on geography in both the mele and more modern surf music. Both the chanters and the Beach Boys call out their favorite surfing spots in their songs.

COOLEY: Geography is key to surfing. You can play baseball on a diamond, and it’s pretty much the same....In surfing that’s absolutely not the case. The size of the wave, the direction the swell approaches—these become central to a surfer’s knowledge....That’s a fascinatingly consistent part of the mele, and it also shows up in interesting ways in some of the [modern] surfing songs. The naming that the Beach Boys do, I don’t think they got that from the mele. I think they got that from Chuck Berry—that kind of city-naming that Berry did. They were stealing everything at that point, including Berry’s riffs.

IDEAS: The cultural importance of surfing is much less apparent in the hapa haole pop songs than in the mele—it’s often treated as one of many tourist attractions. How else does the sport figure into these songs?

COOLEY: It’s associated with courtship, similar to the position of surfing in mele—so there’s a parallel, there’s a continuation of an idea that surfing is one of the ways that you can attract a mate. But it doesn’t have the ritual layers that it did in mele, where surfing on the same wave with a potential mate would be followed by some kind of sexual contact after that. It was literally foreplay in some cases. It’s much more subtle in the hapa haole songs....But I think the main message I got from hapa haole songs was that it was something that white people could learn.

In the first half of the 20th century (pictured, 1944), “hapa haole” music brought surfing (and ukeleles) to a curious America.
Felix Man/Picture Post/Getty Images
In the first half of the 20th century (pictured, 1944), “hapa haole” music brought surfing (and ukeleles) to a curious America.

IDEAS: By the late 1950s and early ’60s, surf music became less associated with Hawaii and more with Southern California. Why?

COOLEY: One of the reinventions of surfing when it was exported from Hawaii was that it became an industry, and that industry was centered in Southern California. And then the first popular music comes out to be definitively associated with surfing, which would be Dick Dale instrumental rock and the Beach Boys’ songs about surfing....All of a sudden, in 1961, surfing had a different soundtrack, and it came from California.

IDEAS: You make a point in your book that that soundtrack was pretty male. How did surf music in the 1960s reflect the masculine culture of the sport at the time?

COOLEY: Lyrically, the women in the Beach Boys’ songs are trophies for the good surfer. Even in “Surfer Girl,” she doesn’t surf. She hangs out on the beach while her boyfriend surfs....I hear something that has become important in mainland surfing, which is the display of masculine power and the rewards of that. I just hear a very different story in hapa haole and mele, where it’s a very different story about surfing: Power’s part of it, but women can access that power. Grace is also equally important.

IDEAS: We think of the early 1960s as the heyday of surf music, but there’s probably more surf-inspired music now than ever.

COOLEY: There’s a Surfer Joe Summer Festival in Italy that I documented for the book where they bring in bands from a number of European nations and the United States and Argentina. There’s a surf rock festival in Slovenia—there’s a couple of really good bands there.

And there are probably more ukulele players now than there were in the heyday of hapa haole music as well....I guess it demonstrates the irrepressible desire among humans to make music.

William Weir is a writer in Connecticut, whose work has appeared in Slate, the Hartford Courant, and other publications