All history should be this visual. Gorgeously designed by Tommy Steele and Andy Engel, The Ukulele: A Visual History makes more of a seemingly mundane topic than you might think possible. Utilizing sheet music, advertising art, quaint archival photographs, and many, many loving and lovely closeups of ukuleles in their many, many forms, this book is the Godiva chocolate of literary eye candy.
Author Jim Beloff’s text complements the bright mood of the pictures nicely, with fascinating lists, sidebars, and surprising details. The associate publisher of Billboard magazine and a guitar player, Beloff says he discovered ukuleles only five years ago but quickly became hooked. He has since released several instruction books and albums of his original uke music.
Perhaps because it is small and has only four strings, making it unsuitable for windmilling, power-chording exhibitionism, the ukelele has rarely been taken seriously by “real” guitarists. Instead, the instrument has become, as Beloff puts it, a “symbol of fun and relaxation and Hawaii” (which is itself a symbol of fun and relaxation). After all, how smug can a player be when the mnemonic device for tuning is “My Dog Has Fleas”?
There are plastic ukes, amplified ukes, a “surf-a-lele,” andattention Scrabble playersthe “banjulele,” a combination banjo and ukulele. The best ukuleles are made from the wood of the Koa tree, which grows only on the island of Hawaii. An unexpected factoid: Half the workers at the only remaining Hawaiian ukulele manufacturing company are deaf. This apparently sharpens their ability to pick the best wood, which they do by feeling its vibrations.
Musician, musicologist, and uke fan Ian Whitcomb praises the instrument for its “jolly plangency [resounding sound].” Ernest Kaai, “Hawaii’s greatest ukulele player,” contends that you can get “more pleasure out of [a ukulele] in one month than a guitar or any stringed instrument in one year.” Indeed, there are very few ukulele blues tunes.
Surprisingly, the origin of the ukulele can be traced to a precise date and a precise person: On Aug. 23, 1879, a ship from Portugal, the Ravenscrag, docked in Honolulu harbor, and Joao Fernandez disembarked. He was carrying a braguinha, a stringed instrument popular, then and now, on Madeira. Grateful for a safe trip, Fernandez began singing happy folk songs for the crew and passengers, much to the fascination of the Hawaiians, who took keen interest in the instrument.
The interest spread all the way to King Kalakaua, who not only learned to play but designed and built ukuleles, held regular jam sessions, and inserted ukuleles into official pageants. Queen Lili’uokalani, composer of “Aloha Oe,” was a player, too.
The Ravenscrag also carried three other men who were to figure in the instrument’s development: Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo were musician/cabinet-makers and eventually became ukulele makers, while Manuel Nunes didn’t play but became the first to open a ukulele manufacturing business. The braguinha became the ukulele and an official part of Hawaiian music and culture, and as interest in the islands grew, ukuleles spread to the mainland.
There are two stories about how the instrument got its name, but both basically agree that “ukulele” is derived from the Hawaiian for “jumping flea.” Some credit a short, energetic English army officer and braguinha player with inspiring a nickname that was lent to the instrument. Another version equates the fast finger movements of uke playing with jumping fleas.
An odd instrument, the uke attracts odd characters. Among the major players Beloff profiles are people like Richard “Dick” Konter. (Why is “Dick” in quotes? It’s the common diminutive for Richard, isn’t it?) Konter was a member of the Byrd expedition to the North Pole. He smuggled a ukulele along, harboring a secret goal to introduce the instrument to the Eskimos. It wasn’t until he got there that the explorer discovered that there are no Eskimos at the North Pole.
Then there was Johnny Marvin, who was born in a covered wagon on the plains and wound up a member of the “Royal Hawaiians,” coloring his hair and skin to pass as a native islander. Roy Smeck, the “Wizard of the Strings,” admitted that he took a uke to bed with him. Judging by the pictures, that may have been his best bet.
If it can be said that there have ever been any ukulele players well known to the general public, three names would qualify, the first being Cliff Edwards. A star in the ’20s, the enthusiastic and likable Edwards performed as “Ukulele Ike,” though today he’s much better known as the distinctive voice of Jiminy Crickett. It is strange to hear Jiminy singing “Sweet Lelani” and “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.”
The second, Arthur Godfrey, went from radio success to being one of the early stars of television. At one point, he was responsible for 12 percent of CBS’s annual income. He had two top-rated TV shows on at the same time, as well as the 15-minute Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele, which entailed Godfrey playing songs and giving lessons to the home audience.
Beloff provides year-by-year statistics of ukuleles sold by one of the main manufacturers, Martin. The figures chart a fairly constant, if slow, rise, except for two dramatic sales bulges. The first came during the mid-’20s, at the height of Edwards’ popularity; the second uke explosion took place in the early ’50s, when Godfrey’s prominence sold a year’s worth of ukes in a matter of days. “If a kid has a uke in his hands, he’s not going to get in much trouble,” said Godfrey, a frequent lecturer on the moral turpitude of others.
(Edwards was also on television in the 1950s. His uke-centered program included a segment wherein he showed off his collection of hats. This diversion filled out the half-hour begun with the CBS Evening News. I say either give Dan Rather a ukulele, or have him wear more hats on the broadcast.)
But the artist most identified with ukuleles these days surely must be Tiny Tim. However, unlike Godfrey’s or Edwards’ moments of cultural influence, Beloff’s figures show that in 1968the peak of Tiny’s fame, the year he was married on the Tonight showMartin’s ukulele production fell from 1,425 to 75. Nobody wanted to be like Tiny Tim.
(Another bizarre factoid: Tiny Tim and Godfrey met for the first time at a 1968 roast for…Walter Cronkite (!?!). What was going on there?)
The jolly instrument does seem to be appearing more often in modern music. And though I have demonstrated no skill with stringed instruments, Beloff’s book made me want to go out and get a ukulele, if only to properly play “Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.” That just wouldn’t work on a Stratocaster.CP