Surf’s Up: Catch the Wave & Celebrate International Surf Music Month

Did you know that June is International Surf Music Month? In honor of this, today’s post is going to be about surf music. This is a very distinctive style of music. You may recognize it by its particular electric guitar sound and amplification settings.

And because of its origins in Southern California, I think in some ways it captures a particular slice of post-WWII America. The period right after WWII was incredibly prosperous in the United States. This was especially true in California and there was this sense of optimism about the future “space age.”

Celebrate International Surf Music Month

I find it interesting to reflect on the history and worldview of society through the medium of music. Through music, you can hear the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of a culture through the creative and expressive arts. How were the cultures and traditions of Californians blending together and co-existing during one of the most prosperous times in American history? At a time when “youth culture,” or even “popular culture” was just becoming a thing. Yet at the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was just getting started.

Are you curious to know more? If so, get ready to catch the (sonic) wave with me!

Origins of Surf Music

Broadly speaking, surf music comes in two forms. These two forms are instrumental surf and vocal surf. Vocal surf is sometimes referred to as the “California sound.” However, both forms originate in Southern California, although some musical purists consider instrumental surf music to be the “true” surf music.

The Popularity of Instrumental Rock

I know it can be hard to imagine a time when rock and roll didn’t exist, but it’s true. There once was a time before the 1950s. Let’s step into our time machine.

During the 1950s, instrumental rock came on the scene and was especially popular in the late 1950s. After the war, electric instruments such as guitars and basses, along with amplifiers for these instruments, were coming out on the market. And there was an available market for buying such devices.

These electric instruments made sounds that acoustic instruments from the past couldn’t. These sounds include the distinctive instrumental surf music style. To me, these sounds also capture perfectly an optimistic, upbeat, yet laid-back vibe that seems to have been part of the California culture of that time. A sound that is both retro and space-age.

Instrumental Surf Music

The development of surf music from instrumental rock has been attributed to guitarist Dick Dale. With a Middle Eastern and Mexican family background, he brought some of these influences into his playing. Along with this, he incorporated a spring reverb (you can hear and see one here). As well as utilizing rapid alternate picking, which you can hear on his song, “Let’s Go Trippin’.”

Dick Dale’s group, the Del-Tones are an example of instrumental surf music. Other instrumental surf musicians include:

Vocal Surf Music

Yet, when many people think about surf music, their thoughts may immediately turn to the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. Their particular style of surf music is sometimes called “vocal surf.” As I mentioned earlier, some people don’t consider this to be “true” surf music.

Instead, it might be more accurate to consider this kind of music as part of the “California sound.” Because these songs were about other aspects of California youth culture besides surfing. For example, hot rod culture is one of these. Such songs led to the development of “hot rod music” or “hot rod rock.”

The Value of Understanding Culture & History Through Music

As I’ve said, I think that it’s interesting to look back at American culture and history through music. Doing so provides a unique snapshot of a time, place, and people. In the United States, the late 1950s and early 1960s are sometimes seen as a golden time in our history where everything was coming up roses.

California, in particular, seemed to represent something about the American psyche at that time. Here was a place that had beautiful weather, beaches, and the appearance of unlimited possibility and prosperity. Plus, Disneyland!

Next week I’m going to continue looking at American society, culture, and history through music by looking at some of the African-American musical roots of American music. Make sure to come back here next week!

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