Man of song diedBy Burl Burlingame
GEORGE Helm was a young man, surfer, and a singer with a growing following for his sweet and aching falsetto. He was also a Hawaiian, an aspect of his life that eventually consumed him.
In the mid-'70s, as the Hawaiian music renaissance bloomed, the young people of Hawaii discovered their culture. Helm was an active and enthusiastic proponent of early Hawaiian sovereignty issues.
Kahoolawe became the public symbol of choice to illustrate Hawaiian issues. Used by the military to practice bombing, and denuded of vegetation by a runaway goat population, Kahoolawe was a totem of everything derided about Western civilization and imperialism. Hawaiian activists also were able to play on an anti-military sentiment raised by the shambling end of the Vietnam War.
Hawaiian activists began making sneak runs on Kahoolawe, paddling ashore under the noses of the Navy. The excitement of the deed, and the moral certainty that they were doing the right thing, proved irresistible to Helm.
One night, Helm and companion Kimo Mitchell set off on their surfboards on a Kahoolawe run, and were swallowed up by the trackless sea.
What had been political fun and games turned deadly serious. The Hawaiian movement had their first martyrs, and the state went into shock.
A huge search was conducted, ironically, largely by the military. The FBI continued investigating claims of Helm sightings into the 1980s. But Helm and Mitchell were gone, an unsettling mystery.
"Although George Helm was a fine musician, he became more of an inspiration in politics than in the arts," notes DeSoto Brown, Hawaii popular-culture historian. "He came to be known primarily as a martyr. In retrospect, it's unfortunate that his death turned out to be more significant than his life."
Says John Berger, Star-Bulletin music critic: "George Helm was one of the first artists to combine nationalism and music."