SURFING’S GROWING APPEAL

Early 1930s

In California, interest in surfing grew steadily into the 1950s and a local surf culture began to cohere as surf clubs formed up and the down the coast, and locales such as the beaches at San Onofre hosted crowds of young wave-seekers, who camped out for days at a time, forged bonds with one another, devoted themselves to their craft, and returned again and again. In 1928, Tom Blake’s Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship in Corona del Mar, launched California’s competition scene.  The growing California surf culture also stemmed from, and initiated, the production of, new, lighter-weight, “mass”-produced surfboards in the 1930s.  These boards replaced heavy solid redwood and other local woods with lighter, imported wood from South and Central America, making surfing possible for new arrivals.  (Ironically then, this emergent “local” culture emerged out of a dependence on a global economy to import materials.) Tom Blake’s hollow boards, first built in 1926 and modeled after an airplane wing, weighed between 40 and 70 pounds, a significant change from previously used boards that weighed between 90 and 150 pounds.  Manufactured by four builders, including the L.A. Ladder Company, the hollow board was adopted as a lifeguard rescue board and widely used into the early 1950s.  The mobilization of America’s young into the armed forces and factories during World War II, placed California’s surf culture temporarily on hold, but also introduced thousands stationed or passing through Hawai‘i to the sport.  After the War, and by the late 1950s, surfing increasingly acquired new converts and attention around the world, spurred on by new wartime technologies on the one hand, and popular culture on the other. [See Surfing Boom section, for more on these technologies.]

California surf culture further cohered vis-à-vis its documentation in photographs and surf films, first captured by surfing devotee and photographer John H. “Doc” Ball in the 1930s and ‘40s, and, later, in Bud Browne’s surf films in the 1950s and ‘60s.  Shared amongst a predominantly surf-aware audience, these documentarians alerted a growing audience to the emergent surf scene on California’s coast.  Their work celebrated the skill and craftsmanship of surfing legends and also provided a glimpse into a subculture that extended out of the water to define a particular look.  As these images revealed, surfers fashioned a unique style displayed in everything from clothes and hair, to a localized way of speaking.  In the context of early twentieth-century development of car culture in southern California (including the construction of Pacific Coast Highway), the beach youth culture also manifested in cars as surfers made their choices, motivated in part by the practical need to navigate the roads between beaches and home and accommodate a surf board.  The self-documentation initiated by Ball and Browne continued well into the 1960s (and still today), offering an insider’s look into surf culture that both paralleled and fueled the more commercial focus of mainstream surf music and movies.

1952 - L to R: Lorrin Harrison and Pua Kealoha playing ukuleles

Importantly, even with the rise of a distinctive surf culture, the California scene remained intricately connected to its roots and with contemporary developments in Hawai‘i.  Die-hard surfers continued to set their sights on Hawai‘i, making the pilgrimage whenever possible (and according to local lore, securing free passage by stowing away on cruise ships that launched from the southern California coast).  Others, like surfing legends Woodbridge Parker, “Woody” Brown, John Kelly, and others in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, moved to the Islands outright to immerse themselves in the sport and culture.  It should not be surprising, then, that the earliest music associated with surfing and surfers in California also took its cues from Hawai‘i.  We know from oral histories and from the photographs of Doc Ball and Don James that surfers were playing guitars and Hawaiian ukulele’s, and even dancing hula, on California’s beaches since at least the 1930s. This was particularly true at San Onofre, just south of San Clemente, where surfers still meet to play music, including Hawaiian language songs.

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