BRUCE’S UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 21–25 MAY 2019: “PRINCESS POO-POO-LY HAS PLENTY PA-PA-YA,” A COMIC SONG OF YESTERDAY THAT LIVES ON (SORT OF) TODAY
Most of us have glanced (askance?) at the tune “Princess Poo-Poo-ly Has Plenty Pa-Pa-Ya” in our yellow book as we flip past while looking for other tunes we actually play. I don’t think that many of us have heard this one performed so it has never been chosen at any of our strum sessions. While musically obscure, I do think that it’s worth a listen, if not a strum. And, it does gives us an interesting back-story.
Princess Pupule has
She loves to give them away
And all of the neighbors they say
Oh me-ya oh my-ya you really should try-ya
A little piece of the Princess Pupule’s papayas ….
Published in 1939, the sheet music for “Princess Poo-poo-ly Has Plenty Pa-pa-ya” credits the song to Harry Owens (1902-1986), well-known conductor of the then popular Royal Hawaiian Band. But did he really write it?
A tradition of the time was that a few music publishing experts, like Owens, would assist local songwriters in publishing their works in exchange for a co-writing credit that would then get them a share of any royalties. It was actually written by one Donald McDiarmid (1898-1977), a member of Owen’s orchestra and a songwriter who, in a bar, wrote the whole tune in one evening.
Owens and his orchestra recorded it, but rarely if ever played “Princess . . .” at any of the sophisticated tourist hotels in Waikiki.
Owens considered it as “low-brow, mildly ribald, comic hula,” and was simply content with the royalty money. He and his hotel band stuck with the sweet and haunting island ballads and love songs that Mainland tourists came to Hawaii to hear and dance to.
Owens was not just another big band leader, however. He tried to learn all he could about the local culture by mixing and working with native Hawaiians and local musicians. He wanted “a marriage between the music of Hawaii and the Big Band sound on the mainland.” His best-known song is “Sweet Leilani, written for the 1934 movie “Waikiki Wedding” starring Bing Crosby.
The song, which became the first Hawaiian song to win an Academy Award, was named after Owen’s daughter.
Owens was an early devote of what became known as “hapa-haole.” Literally “half foreign,” this was music with a Hawaiian theme and sound written and performed by non-natives.
Ensconced at the Moana Hotel in Waikiki, his live shortwave radio broadcasts were transmitted around the world.
Using tricks like a microphone planted on the beach to underscore his show with surf sounds, his show was instrumental in building up the Hawaiian mythos—and attracting ship- and plane-loads of tourist cash.
At the same time, however, a lot of hapa haole perpetuated a somewhat benign, but still stereotypical, view of Hawaiians and island visitors. Among many other tunes, think of our Yellow Book favorite: “Ukulele Lady.”
In retrospect, the period from 1900 to 1940 was a period in which hapa haole ripened into its own in all the popular styles of the day—ragtime, blues, jazz, foxtrot and waltz tempos—often with a hula tempo, but jazzed up a bit.
It was a unique period marked by the enormous response by mostly Tin Pan Alley songwriters (who seldom set foot on a beach let alone one in Hawaii) to write, and Mainland bands to perform, songs—a few tasteless, many simply humorous, and a lot quite romantic—about life and love in the islands and, particularly, with those lovely hula girls.
Pearl Harbor and World War II eased this a bit as comic and caricature songs about Hawaii were seen as unseemly in wartime. Since the 1970s, however, there has been an increasing effort by Hawaiian musicians and Mainlanders to focus on those songs that reflect the indigenous music of the Hawaiian people and the beauty and traditions of the islands—even if hapa haole.
In recognition of his pioneering contribution to this, the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts awarded Harry Owens its 1987 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Anyway, our song, “Princess . . . ,” had legs, so to speak, and while it wasn’t played that often in the upscale hotel ballrooms of tourist Hawaii, it did find a home in Honolulu “tiki-tonks” and with increasingly popular “Hawaiian” bands on the Mainland.
It’s a catchy tune with novelty lyrics and in a style described by some as “Hot Hula”—certainly not indigenous Hawaiian music but, nonetheless, a song of the islands.
Still, many observers and critics writing today point out that many Hawaiians themselves celebrate hapa haole for helping to preserve their history and language.
There were silly, wacky songs in the 20s, swing in the 30s, rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, surf-style in the 60s and so on. It’s a testimony to the Hawaiians’ grace, humor, and sense of perspective that they make room for this music in their polyculture society of today.
After all, we mainlanders still play ukuleles and wear Hawaiian shirts. Go figure.
Oh Yes. “Poo-Poo-Ly” is a play on the Hawaiian word “pupule” (pu-PU-lee) which translates as “crazy; mad; insane.” Also, her “papayas” is Hawaiian slang for, well, your guess is as good as mine . . .