The Ukulele Revolution: page 1

In certain parts of the country there is now a resurgence of interest in an instrument which has achieved wide popularity in the past on at least two separate occasions. The instrument referred to here is the ukulele. Currently in California, Colorado and on the East Coast ukulele sales are reaching levels not approached in many years. There also seems to be increased interest in Japan. Ukuleles are appearing in TV commercials and movies. And even Kurstin Dunst the star of the Spiderman movies has sung to ukulele accompaniment as the credits role in a movie she made called The Cat's Meow. The damage done to the reputation of this instrument by Tiny Tim has been long lasting but the people who remember him are fading from the scene and have moved away or retired in many instances. Younger people have never heard of him and therefore might reasonably consider taking up the instrument.

The ukulele developed from a Portuguese instrument known as the braguinha, a four-string instrument strung with wire strings. Manuel Nunes, a Portuguese Cabinet Maker was the first to make ukuleles in his own shop in Honolulu in 1880. The ukulele is tuned completely different from the braguinha which is tuned in fifths. The ukulele is tuned in thirds similar to the highest four strings of a guitar. This results in an entirely different sort of instrument. In 1880, the guitar was already an instrument that was familiar to the Hawaiians, having been introduced by Mexican cowboys who came to Hawaii in the 1830’s. If you take a guitar and remove the two lowest strings and then put a capo on the fifth fret, you have an instrument that is tuned like a ukulele. (For those who do not play the guitar, a capo is a bar which is strapped across the strings to hold them all down in one place.) Thus, the ukulele is really more like the little brother to the guitar and relates to a guitar the way a violin relates to a cello. In the 19th century, the Hawaiians had already been introduced to European-style music by missionaries. Because of this their folk music, which must have consisted mainly of shouts and drums and rattles, was superseded by a more sophisticated type of music which made use of melodies and harmonies as well as using rhythms and shouts. After being invented at around 1880 the ukulele soon became Hawaii’s most popular instrument.


In 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco there was a pavilion hosted by Hawaii. The Hawaiian legislature appropriated a large amount of money for the pavilion to promote Hawaiian products and tourism. One of the main attractions of the Hawaiian pavilion was a show which featured hula girls in grass skirts playing ukuleles. This show also featured a hit song called “On the Beach at Waikiki”. Such a large impression was made on so many people by the Hawaiian show at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that a craze for Hawaiian music and ukuleles spread across the country. Soon the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley in New York were writing dozens of songs referring to Hawaii, and instrument makers in the mainland U.S. such as the Martin Company began turning out lots of ukuleles.


Although the ukulele is generally described as a folk instrument, it is really more than this. I say this because from the beginning the ukulele has been used in professional performances with music that is probably written down. Folk music may be thought of as music which is played by mostly amateur musicians who learn it from other musicians or by ear and who do not read music very well or possibly who do not read music at all. While many ukulele players undoubtedly fall into this category, from the very beginning a very large number of ukulele players were professional musicians who could read music. As the ukulele craze spread and as more amateurs got more involved with the instrument, the publishers began to put chord diagrams for ukulele chords above the music. In the twenties and thirties most of the chord diagrams were for ukulele instead of guitar, but in the forties, the guitar diagrams began to prevail. The ukulele in the thirties was very popular with college students and we’re all familiar with the picture of the college boy in a raccoon coat and pork pie hat playing his ukulele.

” Four years ago, I began to play a ukulele which I had bought two or three years earlier in Hawaii. This led me to the intriguing discovery that the music scene has changed a great deal lately and not for the better. As I begin to acquire music to play that was written in the ‘20s and ‘30s, I noticed that the songs were more ingenious than those I had encountered previously and used chords such as augmented fifth, ninth, and minor seventh which were completely unknown to me. The words to the songs were often sophisticated and witty and incorporated sarcasm and cynicism which is today considered very politically incorrect. I had two ukulele books that I had bought in Hawaii that were compiled by Jim Beloff. I was surprised at how hard it was to play songs such as “Button up your Overcoat” and “Dancing in the Dark”. Not only do these songs have lots of chords, they have a fairly brisk beat so that you have to be able to change chords rapidly. This is where the ukulele becomes a superior instrument for the amateur player.


Most people today are completely unfamiliar with the ukulele and those who have some familiarity with it generally think of it as being sort of a toy version of a guitar. After having spent the last three years playing the ukulele, though, I am convinced that it is not only quite different from a guitar but is an entirely different sort of instrument for a different kind of music than that generally played on a guitar. As I explained above, the ukulele was developed in the 1880’s long after the guitar had been brought to its present form. The guitar is mainly a folk music instrument whereas the ukulele is more suited to playing the songs written by the Tin Pan Alley composers and the Broadway composers in the twenties and thirties. The guitar is mostly being used to play blues music, country and western music and bluegrass and other folk music. These types of music are usually performed without reference to written sheet music. They usually involve a lot of repetition of lines and use simple chords and not usually more than three or four chords per song. The emphasis is mainly on the words and some of these tell a complicated story.


The first ukulele craze occurred in the twenties. During that decade the Martin Guitar Company sold twice as many ukuleles as it did guitars. The hit songs of the twenties were almost all Tin Pan Alley songs or Broadway show tunes. Examples are “Margie”, “Whispering”, “Look for the Silver Lining”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, “I’m Nobody’s Baby”, “April Showers”, “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”, “Carolina in the Morning”, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, “Tea for Two”, “Nobody’s Sweetheart”, “Dinah”, “It Had to Be You”, “Manhattan”, “If I Could Be With You”, “At Sundown”, “Basin Street Blues”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Stardust” and “Putting on the Ritz”. These songs are easy to play on the ukulele and very suitable to the type of sound a ukulele makes. They are much harder to manage on a guitar.


The hit songs from the thirties were similar to those in the twenties and included “Sophisticated Lady”, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”, “Night and Day”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “What a Differece a Day Made”, “Blue Moon”, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, “Just One of Those Things”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “That Old Feeling”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “The Lady is a Tramp”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “Heart and Soul”, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, “We’ll Meet Again”, “All the Things You Are” and “Day In Day Out”. All these songs and hundreds more from the twenties and thirties are just right for the ukulele. For the guitar, they are not as suitable.


After the end of the thirties, the ukulele, to some extent, began to become less popular. The guitar started to achieve a greater popularity when in 1924, Vernon Dalhart recorded the “Wreck of the Old ‘97” and, on the other side “The Prisoner’s Song”. This record with guitar accompaniment became the first country record to sell a million copies. Vernon Dalhart was a Texan who studied voice at the Dallas Conservatory of Music and then moved to New York where he performed in operas and operettas. The song, “The Wreck of Old ‘97” was based on an actual train wreck. Vernon Dalhart listened to a record of this song recorded by another singer and from this made the hit record that was released in 1924. The other side of the record, as I stated, was “The Prisoner’s Song”. These two early country songs are definitely better suited to guitar accompaniment than ukulele.


Blues songs, which began to be popular about this time also, are more suitable for guitar accompaniment than for ukulele. Since country songs and blues songs have simplified chords for accompaniment and have repetitious lyrics they are usually played without sheet music and are memorized by the performers. This is also true of folk songs which became popular in the fifties such as those recorded by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. In contrast to these, the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs listed above require a lot of work if they are to be memorized because they have many chord changes and the chords frequently include those not used in blues or country and western music including minor-seventh chords, minor sixth chords, augmented-seventh chords, diminished chords and others.


Rock and roll songs can be thought of as pretty much an extension of the blues since these songs use the same chords and the same techniques but may have a more upbeat tempo. Obviously the electric guitar has been the main instrument for the rock and roll type music since almost the beginning. If you like the Broadway songs and the Tin-Pan-Alley-type music as well as Dixieland jazz, then obviously you should give the ukulele a try.


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