The Meaning Behind the 1878 Hawaiian Folk Song “Aloha Oe” by Queen Lili’uokalani

Before Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), the last ruling monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1893-1895, became the Queen of Hawaii, she saw a young woman giving her male lover, said to have been Colonel James Harbottle Boyd, a lei flower as they parted ways at Maunawili Ranch in Kailua, Hawaii. That moment prompted Lili’uokalani, who had already penned national anthems for Hawaii and other songs, to write “Aloha Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”), a mele ho’oipoipo (love song) capturing the tender goodbye she had witnessed.

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All the lyrics to “Aloha Oe,” along with its English translation and a hand-written note by Liliʻuokalani, dated 1878, are preserved by The Hawaiʻi State Archives. Lili’uokalani’s note on the song reads: “Composed at Maunawili 1878. Played by the Royal Hawaiian Band in San Francisco August 1883 and became very popular.”

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“Aloha Oe” became Lili’uokalani’s most famous song and was covered by Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and several other artists.

Behind the Meaning

In the opening verses of “Aloha Oe,” the lyrics set the scene in the aftermath of the lovers’ separation along with more natural Hawaiian imagery.

Haʻaheo e ka ua i nā pali
Ke nihi aʻela i ka nahele
E hahai (uhai) ana paha i ka liko

Pua ʻāhihi lehua o uka

Proudly swept the rain by the cliffs
As it glided through the trees
Still following ever the bud
The ʻāhihi lehua of the vale

The chorus goes deeper into the meaning of the song, centered around a very sorrowful goodbye, a last embrace, and hopes to meet again one day.

Aloha ʻoe, aloha ʻoe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace, A hoʻi aʻe au
Until we meet again

Farewell to thee, farewell to thee
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace, ‘Ere I depart
Until we meet again

Further into the lyrics, the couple’s longing for one another can be told from the perspective of the man or the woman.

ʻO ka haliʻa aloha i hiki mai
Ke hone aʻe nei i
Kuʻu manawa
ʻO ʻoe nō kuʻu ipo aloha
A loko e hana nei

Sweet memories come back to me
Bringing fresh remembrances
Of the past
Dearest one, yes, you are mine own
From you, true love shall never depart

Maopopo kuʻu ʻike i ka nani
Nā pua rose o Maunawili
I laila hiaʻia nā manu
Mikiʻala i ka nani o ka liko

I have seen and watched your loveliness
The sweet rose of Maunawili
And ’tis there the birds of love dwell
And sip the honey from your lips

Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Les Paul Cover “Aloha Oe”

The song was also covered by a number of artists from the 1910s through the ’60s, including Nani Alapai and Henry N. Clark’s rendition in 1911 for Columbia Records, and Frank Ferera’s in 1924.

Bing Crosby later recorded “Aloha Oe” in 1936 with Dick Mcintyre and His Harmony Hawaiians, and Les Paul and His Trio following in 1946. By 1961, Elvis Presley also took on the song for the soundtrack to the film Blue Hawaii.

Lili’uokalani’s Story

Ascending to the thrown on Jan. 29, 1891—nine days following the death of her brother the King—the Hawaiian monarch was soon overthrown after Liliʻuokalani drafted a new constitution strengthening the power of the monarch, enforcing expanding voting rights, which was seen as a threat to American interests, namely in the sugar trade. John Leavitt Stevens, the U.S. minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom sent 300 Marines to Hawaii in 1893, and Liliʻuokalani was forced to abdicate the throne in 1895 for her alleged coup of Hawaii. She was placed under house arrest, first in a single room on the second floor of Iolani Palace before being transferred to the Greek Revival palace, Washington Place, in Honolulu, where she would live out the rest of her life.

Liliʻuokalani was pardoned on Oct. 23, 1898, and continued to write, living in Hawaii as a private citizen. In 1898, the U.S. annexed the islands of Hawaii.

That same year, Lili’uokalani published her autobiography Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, which was published in 1898 and written after her attempt to appeal on behalf of her people to President Grover Cleveland, a personal friend, for her reinstatement as Queen.

On Nov. 11, 1917, Liliʻuokalani died at the age of 79.

Lili’uokalani’s Song Book

An accomplished songwriter and author, Lili’uokalani’s song catalog was fairly lengthy, with many of her songs written prior to “Aloha Oe.” Before she was Queen, Lili’uokalani wrote the fourth national anthem of Hawaii, “He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi” (“The Song of the Hawaiian Nation”), along with “Ahe Lau Makani” (“The Soft Gentle Breeze”) in 1868, “Ka ʻŌiwi Nani” in 1886, and dozens of others. Later compositions included “Ka Wai ʻApo Lani” (“Heavenly Showers”), a song about her hope to one day return to the throne, and “Hoʻokahi Puana” (“One Answer”), offering her views on the new government, the Republic of Hawaii.

A multi-instrumentalist, Lili’uokalani played ukulele, piano, organ, zither, and guitar, and could sing in Hawaiian and English. A compilation of her musical works, The Queen’s Songbook, was published in 1999 by the Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust, a foundation established in 1909 to help orphaned and destitute children, specifically those who are native Hawaiians.

Lili’uokalani’s compositions depicted the people of Hawaii and what was happening politically from her point of view. She even translated the Kumulipo, a narrative chant passed down orally by her great-grandmother, Alapaiwahine, which recorded her family genealogy as far back as the beginning of Hawaii.

“To compose was as natural to me as to breathe, and this gift of nature, never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation to this day,” said Lili’uokalani in her autobiography. “Hours of which it is not yet in place to speak, which I might have found long and lonely, passed quickly and cheerfully by, occupied and soothed by the expression of my thoughts in music.”

Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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