The Tutmarc Brothers: Keeping Hawaiian Music Alive and Well in Seattle

I recently published an article about the history of Hawaiian music in Seattle in Northwest Prime Time, “the largest publication in the Puget Sound region celebrating an active and healthy lifestyle for people over 50.” I”m honored to contribute to a publication that serves the elderly, a demographic ignored far too often in American society. You can view September’s issue here. It also features a profile of the multi-talented and precocious Sherman Alexie, who read Grapes of Wrath when he was five years old. Alexie also speaks honestly about coping with aging and his father’s death.

The following is the original, un-edited text of my article, titled “The Tutmarc Brothers: Keeping Hawaiian Music Alive and Well in Seattle.”

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tutmarc brothers cropped lo rezOn a chilly Sunday evening, eighty and ninety-year-olds crowd the entertainment room of an assisted living community in Seattle. Walkers tangle with wheel chairs, slippers, and chair legs. Shaky hands adjust hearing aids.

“Oh,” one resident says loudly, pointing across the small room. “There’s George. I thought he was dead.”

Northaven residents have come to hear the Tutmarc Brothers, Greg and Paul, who play a blend of hymns and Hawaiian standards. The brothers – often accompanied by their sister, Jeryl, on ukulele and Jay Deffinbaugh on bass – play monthly shows for nursing homes and churches around Seattle.

“We play nursing homes because they’re the only places that will have us,” Greg joked.

The Tutmarcs are content playing to a captive audience and carrying on the family tradition of spiritual Hawaiian music. They come from a line of lap steel players and manufacturers. Their grandfather, Paul Tutmarc, made some of the world’s first electric guitars in his Seattle basement and produced the first-ever horizontal electric base. Their father, Bud Tutmarc, also manufactured his own brand of guitars and bases while recording dozens of Hawaiian albums all over the world.

“To have something to connect us to our dad, and then also his dad, is really important,” Greg said. “It’s emotional. In life there are really two distinct chapters, BD and AD – before your dad’s death and after your dad’s death. Nothing is the same afterwards.”

Greg decided to learn to play steel guitar about fifteen years ago, when he realized that his father’s passing would mean the end of the family’s knowledge of the instrument. “When my dad was getting old, he couldn’t play anymore,” Greg said. “So I decided that I’d better learn.”

In his eighties, Bud taught Greg how to play by talking Greg through it. “He left me with these golden treasures of advice that I figure out later,” Greg said. “I’ll be in the middle of a song and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s what he meant.’ Like he told me to always practice songs at the same pace you want to perform them. There’s always a tendency to rush through a song that you know. But you can’t. To really know a song, to feel it – you know, its shape and how it moves – you need to take your time.”

The lap steel guitar, or the Hawaiian guitar, is played on a lap or table using a steel bar to slide up and down the strings. The ringing effect created, known as “continuous glissando” or “portamento,” moves as the curving spine of a variety of Hawaiian sounds. It can be sensual and suggestive, or it can be solemn – as in the hymns played by the Tutmarc Brothers.

This sound, in its muted acoustic form, rippled through the United States in the early 20th century. It entered via West coast port cities like San Francisco and Seattle. The 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle, which drew over three million visitors in three months, witnessed a performance by the Hawaiian native Joseph Kekuhu, often sited as the inventor of the steel guitar. At eleven years old, so the story goes, Kekuhu had the bright idea to experiment sliding different metal objects along his guitar strings. Seattle music historian Peter Blecha writes that Kekuhu, after his Hawaiian exhibition performance, was swamped with requests to give guitar lessons.

By 1916 Hawaiian music was arguably the most popular genre of music in the country. Tin Pan Alley songwriters produced a number of popular Hawaiian songs, many of them forms of hapa haole, which means “half Hawaiian,” with phony Hawaiian words for lyrics. Arthur Collins & Byron G Harlan’s song, “Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wachi Woo (That’s Love in Honolulu),” spent nine weeks at number one on the 1916 Billboard Chart.

Paul Tutmarc, grandfather of Greg and Doug, embraced three crazes that converged between the World Wars: Hawaiian music, steel guitar, and electrification. “My great grandfather was into whatever was hip,” said Shane Tutmarc, also a musician and currently living in Nashville. In the early 1930s, in the dregs of the Great Depression, Paul spent days teaching music and nights in his garage workshop trying to charge instruments with electricity. Though he lost the race to patent the electric guitar, Paul founded one of the earliest electric guitar companies in the United States, Audiovox.

In the middle of a February 1935 Seattle Post Intelligence newspaper, Tutmarc posed next to a swooning woman while displaying the first ever hand-held fretted electric bass. The headline ran: “Pity Him No More – New Bull Type Fiddle Devised.” Paul said he created the bass because he felt sorry for upright bass players who had to lug their instruments across town or travel alone in a separate car while the rest of the band traveled together.

In the 1930s, the Tutmarcs played as a family in taverns around Seattle. A nine-year old Bud played rhythm guitar. His sister, Jeanne, played ukulele and sang. His mother, Lorraine, sang and played guitar. “Sometimes we had to lie about our age to get in,” Bud Tutmarc said in an interview with Peter Blecha.

In November of 1935, Paul was invited to play at the Hollywood Temple on Northwest 69th street. Bud says that his father agreed to play only because of the prospect of getting more work and more students. Not knowing any gospel songs, Paul played Silent Night. Christmas was still two months away.

Bud described the deep impact made on him by his family’s first trip to church: “We were faced with an immediate necessity of changing our entire lives. It was not only a necessity, but also a desire. Our music was no longer to be used for the devil; we wanted to sing and play for the Lord.”

Shane Tutmarc suggests that his family’s conversion may have had something to do with the conversion of Sol Hoopii, widely considered one of greatest steel guitarists of all time. “My great-grandfather [Paul] became friends with Sol. And my grandfather [Bud] was good friends with him later in Sol’s life. They both really valued his friendship, and both kind of idolized him.”

“Imagine,” Greg said of the father’s relationship with Sol, whom Bud first met as a teenager. “It would be like walking home from school to find John Lennon hanging out in your kitchen. “Sol was that famous, at least in our family.” Known as the “Hollywood Hawaiian,” Hoopii gained international fame for his stirring guitar work in Hollywood films like 1932’s “Bird of Paradise” and 1937’s “Waikiki Wedding.”

For Bud, all music served as different forms of gospel. Bud formed a Christian Orchestra that featured a number of famous guest Christian musicians, among them: Sol Hoopii, Arnie Hartman, and Ralph Carmichael. Starting in 1951, they performed “Monday Musicales” at the Calvary Temple, which served as the new and more Christian name for the Hollywood Temple.

The church’s orchestra maintained the drawing power of any blockbuster film. Chuck Rice, an assisted living resident, remembers the performances fondly. Rice played trombone. “It was wonderful,” he said. “We would fill the place, four or five hundred people, fill the balconies. The sound …” He shakes his head. “The music was beautiful.”

Another resident, Lloyd Lorentzen, recalls those performances. “I’d sit as close as I could to Greg’s dad, Bud,” he said. “I couldn’t sit close enough. I thought the music was straight out of heaven.”

This is a common refrain from audiences of Hawaiian music. “It just sounds heavenly,” said another resident. “It’s so soothing and different from anything else you hear today.”

Bud Tutmarc intended many of his recordings, some of which the Tutmarc Brothers currently play, to sound that way. At the close of an article for the Pentacostal Evangel, Bud writes: “I am certain music will be used to the fullest extent in heaven. In fact, singing and playing instruments will be among the few activities carried over from this life into the life to come.” Bud’s most popular albums, like “Rainbows Over Paradise,” have a dreamlike or eternal quality to them.

Greg says that he once heard the song as a boy while waiting in line at Disney World outside a Hawaiian restaurant. “I turned to my dad and said, ‘Man, dad, what if you got a nickel for every time that song plays here.’ It played over and over.”

When the Tutmarc Brothers perform they are not-so-subtly preparing their audience for the next life. Of playing at nursing homes, Doug says: “Music is a valuable way to give the message of hope and encouragement that God loves them. We’re trying to encourage them in the right direction … I only hope someone can return the favor when we’re in a place like this.”

Their songs are mostly Christian ones, some of them descended from the nineteenth-century missionary movement in Hawaii. At that time, Christian songs largely served two purposes: to save souls and to oppress traditional forms of Hawaiian culture, like hula music, viewed as lascivious by prude western eyes.

When delivered to a room of geriatrics, the hymns have a gentler and more purely uplifting purpose than their original one. One smiling woman observes that the songs sound like lullabies. Another says they sound like a song for a funeral.

The songs carry extra weight delivered so close to the listeners’ days of reckoning. On one hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Doug sings in a deep and resonant voice: “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? / Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Greg’s guitar – a “Serenader Bud-Electro” built by his father – hums along with the melody, pulling it gently at the edges. In the audience, heads sway. A few eyes moisten. I nod in and out of sleep – a very gentle sleep.

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