Ethnomusicologist Timothy Cooley’s Surfing About Music, is a serious book about a normally laid-back subject. Merging his two lives as a writer-scholar and surfer-musician, Cooley takes a professorial look at his sport from pre-contact Hawaii to the first “surf film” with a soundtrack – that would be 1958’s Slippery When Wet – to modern GoPro culture. His research, splashing off the California coast and scrolling through Jack Johnson’s personal playlist, gave the lifelong wave rider a chance to reflect on the ways in which surf culture transcends local culture.
Cooley spoke with Men’s Journal about his work.
Why did you decide to write this book? Surf songs are a bit different from Polish highland fiddling, your previous subject matter.
I came to Santa Barbara from Boston in 1998 to teach at the university. I was so thrilled to be on the ocean again. I grew up in Virginia and Florida and that’s where I learned to surf. This was in the seventies. If you looked at surf magazines then, Southern California and Hawaii was where the scene was. To suddenly find myself there was amazing! I brought my surfboard on the airplane and went to the closest surf shop on the way in and bought a wetsuit. I caught the first wave I paddled for and have been surfing ever since.
You challenge a lot of the myths about surfing history and the relationship between surfing and music.
When you say music and surfing, a lot of people think immediately of The Beach Boys and Dick Dale. “Surfin‘” was recorded in 1961; Dick Dale‘s “Let’s Go Tripping” in 1961. That was a big year for surf music. I remember spinning the records in my bedroom with my surfboard leaned against my wall and imagining that Southern California lifestyle. But, looking into this now, I see that it was also a problem for surfing musicians to overcome. By a problem I mean, if you’re a surfer and a musician and you try to put them together, people almost expect you to be an instrumental rock guitar player.
Jack Johnson didn’t want to be limited, pegged to the beach. The Beach Boys, by 1965, they were stuck with their name but were moving beyond that. On the Good Vibrations album, Pet Sounds, there’s no mention of surfing. They got caught up in their own bottleneck that they helped create. One of the things I wanted to do was remind people that there was music associated with surfing way before, starting with Hawaiian chants, or meles, in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
You talk about surfing as not only a sport, but also a “tribe” or an “affinity group.” Does musical history reflect that?
If one of the questions of the book is what music people are associating with surfing across time, the other question is why do surfers need music? I found it almost doesn’t matter what kind of music, but surfers need it as a way of creating, defining, and limiting their community.
The wakeup moment was when I was on Kauai. I went to a ukulele shop and this guy says, ‘Surfing and music are the same thing; sound and ocean waves are the same thing.’ It was beautiful, and it kept coming up. In the book, I cite a wonderful writer named Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who wrote a book called The Wave Watcher’s Companion, and he says the same thing – light waves, sound waves, and ocean waves all really act on the same principle. That really helped me understand what these surfers were talking about.
Being a surfer and knowing about the history of surfing, where do you think the sport is going?
One great thing is the resurgence of women surfers. One of the things I know from looking at pre-contact surfing in Hawaii is that old people surfed and women surfed. Sometimes at my local breaks there are as many women as there are men. The other change is the cold-water frontier. There’s been a huge improvement in wetsuit technology that allows us to surf in Ireland, Scotland, and Alaska. So that’s the new frontier. We’ve populated all the warm-water, equatorial areas – we’ve colonized all of them. There’s good and bad about that, but one positive thing is, now we can go surf really big waves without other people there.
What are some of your favorite places to surf?
A few weeks ago I went to County Donegal in Ireland for a conference and book event with Empire in Waves. There was a woman on one of the panels, Easkey Britton, the five-time Irish female surfing champion. Her father was one of the first surfers in Ireland in the sixties. He took us out to a very good, secret spot on the west coast of Ireland: some of the biggest waves I’ve ridden this year.
It was very cold, amazing, and scary. We were paddling out with this guy who was the ultimate local – this white-bearded 60-year-old man, one of the pioneers of Irish surfing. And the surf was even bigger the next day.