Hawaii Calls – Ed Kenney – Pearly Shells

Continuing our look at Ed Kenney and his frequent appearances on the too short-lived Hawaii Calls TV program…   

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around the popular song “Pearly Shells.” I thought we could take Ed Kenney’s performance of the song to discuss – and perhaps dispel – a few of these. 

“Pearly Shells” is an adaptation ­– not a translation – of the much older Hawaiian song “Pūpū A`o `Ewa.” When a Hawaiian language lyric is written for a Hawaiian song, unsuspecting audiences more often than not believe the English version to be a loose translation of the Hawaiian, and this is rarely the case. (For example, take the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” – the original Hawaiian having nothing to do with marriage.) As you listen to the song here, it will likely strike you as a sort of child-like or teeny-bopperish love song – something Bobby Rydell or James Darren might have sung in one of their beach-romp flicks. But the original Hawaiian has nothing to do with love at all. “Pūpū A`o `Ewa” is a mele pana, a category of Hawaiian song written to honor a place – in this case, the town of `Ewa on the island of O`ahu. More specifically, this is a song about that place and its then current events – the discovery of pearl oysters at Pu`uloa (or what you might call Pearl Harbor) in the late 19th century. So the only thing that the English and Hawaiian language versions of the song have in common is that in both cases their shells are pearly. 

Next, the composers of the English-language “Pearly Shells” broke the original song form of “Pūpū A`o `Ewa.” They only retained the melody and chords of the chorus – not the verses. According to ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Tatar, the original Hawaiian song follows the musical structure of hīmeni ha`ipule (religious hymns). It has multiple verses and a chorus which utilizes a call-and-response device. “Pearly Shells” has no verses at all – only a chorus – and adds a bridge that is not at all related to the original hīmeni song structure. In other words, what was originally in the structure of church song was redesigned as a pop song – and only the refrain remains. It is almost difficult to assert that one song is based on the other. 

While we are speaking of breaking the song’s original form, while the original “Pūpū A`o `Ewa” has a call-and-response chorus, “Pearly Shells” boasts an echo chorus. How are these different? In call-and-response, the congregants (or audience) since both a different melody line and lyric from their leader. In an echo song, the audience sings exactly the same words (and often even the same melody) as their leader. Need an example? Pull out your copy of Don Ho’s first LP, The Don Ho Show (or pull it up on Spotify). (Don was infamous for his sing-alongs.) Listen to “E Lei Ka Lei Lei” and “Pearly Shells” back-to-back. “E Lei Ka Lei Lei” is a call-and-response song; “Pearly Shells” is an echo song. 

For these reasons, despite that I am not an ethnomusicologist, I staunchly disagree with Tatar’s assertion (from the 1979 edition of Hawaiian Music and Musicians) that “Pūpū A`o `Ewa is one of the few Hawaiian songs to be successfully adapted into English (as Pearly Shells).” This can only be true if the sole criteria for “success” is royalties since Don Ho likely sold more copies of “Pearly Shells” than all other artists combined sold copies of their versions of “Pūpū A`o `Ewa.” A truly successful adaptation would have translated the original lyric content of the Hawaiian as closely as possible into English (even if the Hawaiian poetry were lost in translation). A truly successful adaptation would also have retained the call-and-response structure – not replace this with a somewhat dumbed-down echo response. And the snippet of melodic and harmonic concept of the original – the chorus – that was retained by the English-language songwriters was not even a traditional Hawaiian song to begin with but, rather, a haole Christian song form. In short, since the music form was never Hawaiian in the first place and since the English-language lyric is not a retelling of the original Hawaiian language lyric, after the adaptation the song is essentially no longer a Hawaiian song. That it is beloved by Hawaiians should not define the song as “Hawaiian.” “Sweet Someone,” “Blue Darling,” and “For The Good Times” are well loved by Hawaiians too, but that does not make them Hawaiian songs. By contrast, the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” – which I eschew in this space every opportunity I have – should actually be considered a far better adaptation of a Hawaiian song – “Ke Kali Nei Au” – into English. At least its composers retained 100% of the original melodic and harmonic structure (which was composed by a Hawaiian, Charles E. King), and the song that began as a love song in the original Hawaiian at least ended up a love song in English.  

And the final misconception… Hawaii Calls’ creator/host Webley Edwards is often credited for writing “Pearly Shells.” It turns out this was not a solo endeavor. The published sheet music (dating to 1962) credits both Edwards and Leon Pober (who composed the equally un-Hawaiian “Tiny Bubbles”). But according to Tatar, others had a hand in its creation including Hawaii Calls musical leader Al Kealoha Perry and composer Jack Pitman (of “Beyond the Reef” fame, among countless others). 

By his performance here, Ed Kenney – in his tongue-in-cheek way – indicates that he is not fond of the material either – putting on a little of his Broadway in the middle of the song with a mock Midwestern accent. And, not merely as an aside, not only are these shells not shiny in the way that oysters are, but these are, in fact, the cowries of which Ed Kenney’s mentor, Nona Beamer, wrote and Nina Keali`iwahamana sung in “Pūpū Hinuhinu,” another clip from the Hawaii Calls TV show in which the producers chose a completely different type of shell than the ones of which Beamer wrote. 

Next time: Ed Kenney sings a true Hawaiian classic…


Direct download: Ed_Kenney_-_Pearly_Shells.m4v
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 7:41am EDT