The uke is much maligned. This humble little instrument has had more than a few uncool moments, and it’s hard to recover from the triple whammy of George Formby, Tiny Tim and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.
Generations of Americans returned from their Hawaiian vacation with a plastic one. Cutesy kitsch from the Pacific islands. For Americans a visit to Hawaii was the dream trip during the 30s and 40s, and the appeal of the islands as a faraway tropical paradise had an appeal that’s lasted right through to Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Millions of cheap plastic uke-shaped things were sold mail order during those days; it’s hard to say how many of these were actually played rather than hung on the wall.
Blue Hawaii was Elvis’s biggest box office hit (number one album for five months!), and with Bing Crosby and Betty Grable joining in the ‘fun’, showing everyone how easy it was to play the thing, it was no wonder so many were sold.
The uke soon had a brasher cousin, the banjolele, which combines a ukulele tuning with a banjo’s resonant body. It was a big hit in vaudeville, where the extra volume made it a hit in large venues. George Formby combined his monologue style songs with complex solos and breakneck flailing. This instrument was perfect for tin pan alley style songs – songwriters in the twenties turned out dozens of pseudo-Hawaiian ditties which sold like crazy as sheet music – there’s more than a little roaring twenties about it.
A fine exponent of the art of the banjolele is Rose Collis, a gender historian, story-teller and raconteur from Brighton, England. Her recent one-woman fringe hit Trouser Wearing Characters featured her trusty banjolele, Bud.
“I’d bought it for £25 from a friend who got it at a jumble sale, and I took to it like the proverbial duck. (I’ve since discovered it was made in the early 30s). Its tone and resonance are remarkable for such a small instrument – it rarely needs amplification! – and I find it inspires me to create more challenging arrangements and solos than the guitar, my previous instrument of choice. I returned to the professional stage 4 years ago, and ‘Bud’ the banjolele is central to my solo shows.”
The banjolele features in a classic P.G. Wodehouse novel, where Jeeves and Wooster are introduced for the very first time. Bertie’s relentless playing of the aforesaid instrument caused what Wooster called “a situation fraught with embarrassing potentialities.” The ukulele was frequently a fall guy too…
Back in vaudeville days it was a genuine force to be reckoned with. The ukulele was a doddle to play; four strings and you can learn the three chords pretty quickly. Even if you clang bang bang the open strings you’ve got yourself a nice major 6th chord. Many entertainers could accompany themselves – best of it all was is that banjo ukuleles are loud! Watch Marilyn strut her stuff as Sugar Kane…
It was Elvis again, this time with his buddies Little Richard and Chuck Berry who took the wind out of the ukulele’s sales. Suddenly the humble ukulele was a child’s toy compared to those amazing sunburst Gibsons and fireglo Fenders. In America the uke was most definitely consigned to history when the Fab Four burst onto the screen. Over in England the uke had been indelibly linked with music hall, thanks to the endless entendres of George Formby, while in the states the spectacle of Tiny Tim doing Tiptoe Through the Tulips was enough to put anyone off their mele hula.
A 20-year-old from Hawaii, Jake Shimabukuro, uploaded one of the first YouTube videos to go genuinely viral, as his uke version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps swept all those kitschy cobwebs away. It was an appropriate tribute, as Harrison had wielded the ukulele on quite a few occasions (watch one memorable one here)
From here on things got a little better for the ‘umble uke, as the instrument found its way into the pop charts thanks to Train, the Californian rockers known for Drops of Jupiter and unexpectedly amazing Led Zep covers.
Take Me, I’m Yours
Another fabulous YouTube moment came thanks to a South Korean guitar genius Sungha Jung who taught Jason Mraz how to arrange his song I’m Yours. I’m not kidding – check this video for a very cool moment from Jason’s visit to Korea recently.
Camp it up
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder tells a story of a campfire jam, where a big guy with huge hands picked up a ukulele and offered up a cover of Elvis’s I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You. Vedder called the uke an activist instrument. In recording a whole album he was hoping that listeners might put down their cellphones and computers and try to create some music themselves. He reckoned that the instrument was great for sparking off singalongs. “It’s such a small instrument,” he told PBS. “People are like, ‘Let’s help it out!'”
It was inevitable that we’d bring it all back home to Hawaii, and who better then our favorite surfer turned shoreline crooner Jack Johnson. His homespun campfire songs are easily transferred to the little guy, and he’s not averse to bringing out the tenor ukulele for acoustic numbers.
There’s now some great Indie takes on the old u, thanks to folks like Noah and the Whale and Panic at the Disco, but this one is particularly good. The band are indie-folk band Beirut, who were one of the first to introduce east-european / gypsy styles into the hipster scene.
Take care of those you call your own
The rock band Queen used the banjo ukulele a few times over the years, including the song Keep Good Company. Guitarist Brian May explained that his father used to play it all the time, and it was how he got into learning and playing guitar.
Bye bye George
The ukulele seemed a wonderful expression of Beatle George’s upbeat attitude. It seemed to his friends the perfect way to memorialize him; Joe Brown closed the Harrison tribute concert at Royal Albert Hall with his own ukulele hit I’ll See You In My Dreams, and Paul McCartney remembered his friend in 2009 by strumming Something on a ukulele at New York’s Citi Field.
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