I Love Uke: 100 Years After Its First Wave of Popularity, the Ukulele is Back

Zooey Deschanel plays one. So do William H. Macy and Mr. Schuester on Glee. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder accompanies himself exclusively on one for his latest album, Ukulele Songs. Meanwhile, every third TV commercial seems to feature a soundtrack of a strumming ukulele.

What's going on? Why is such an old-fashioned instrument once associated with Hawaii and boater-wearing dandies of the early 20th century popular again? Is it a kind of retro revolution? A bit of woody quaintness to counter all the smooth glassy tech of the future-world we live in? For the answer, let's look back at a little history.

"A Yellow Ukulele" illustration by Flickr user Jem Yoshioka (jemshed)

The Jumping Flea

In 1879, a ship full of Portuguese travelers arrived in Hawaii's Honolulu Harbor. Legend has it that one passenger was so happy to be ashore that he began singing Portuguese folk songs of thanksgiving. He accompanied himself on a small-bodied, four-stringed instrument called the braguinha. The islanders were enchanted by it. Soon, one of the Portuguese settlers had opened his own shop in Hawaii, making braguinhas.

Around this time, an English army officer named Edward Purvis was appointed assistant chamberlain in the court of Hawaii's King David Kalakaua. Purvis was a fine musician and became very adept on the braguinha, which he used to entertain members of the court. A small, energetic man, Purvis got the nickname of "ukulele," a Hawaiian word that means "jumping flea." Soon the nickname spread to the instrument he liked to play.

Another story says that the name ukulele came from the leaping motion of a player's fingers on the small neck of the instrument. Whatever the case, with the enthusiasm of Hawaii's royal family pointing the way, the ukulele [the correct Hawaiian pronunciation is "oo-koo-le-le"] was adopted as the islands' instrument of choice.

Hawaiian Punch


The Hawaiian pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915

The first stateside ukulele craze began in 1915, at an event in San Francisco called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was there that the relatively new U.S. territory of Hawaii got a chance to strut its stuff. At the Hawaiian pavilion, the shows featured hula dancers and musicians strumming ukuleles. For the millions of Americans who laid eyes on this charming little instrument, it was love at first sight.

One song in particular, "On the Beach at Waikiki," captured the exotic allure of the islands and helped ignite a ukulele craze across the country. Soon, instrument companies were manufacturing them, department stores were selling them, and music stores were offering lessons. The songwriters in New York's Tin Pan Alley, always sniffing for a fad, responded with dozens of Hawaiian-themed, uke-centered novelty songs. "My Honolulu Ukulele Baby," "I Can Hear the Ukuleles Calling Me," and the excellently titled "Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo" were just a few hits of the day that further promoted the little stringed instrument as a symbol of romance and the carefree life.

By the 1920s, ukulele-playing superstars like Johnny Marvin and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards (later the voice of Jiminy Cricket's "When You Wish Upon a Star") were taking the instrument onto the Hit Parade and the silver screen.

Ukulele Ike performs "Nobody But You" in The Hollywood Revue of 1929

The TV Pal

The uke enjoyed a popular resurgence in the 1950s, thanks to the television program Arthur Godfrey and His Ukulele. The show ran four nights a week and featured the folksy entertainer singing songs and giving lessons over the air. Godfrey-endorsed instruction books and ukuleles sold millions. Made of plastic, the ukes were called TV Pals.

Arthur Godfrey performing "For You," 1953

In the decades after, the ukulele had its moments: Tiny Tim's novelty tune "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," B.J. Thomas's hit "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," and the charming Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters seaside duet in The Jerk. But by the 1980s, the uke was relegated to a musty comic prop.

Navin (Steve Martin) and Marie (Bernadette Peters) sing "Tonight You Belong To Me" in 1979's The Jerk.

Comeback Special

In the '90s, the ukulele began to stage a comeback. In 1995, the Beatles Anthology TV special featured George Harrison playing the uke. Then in 1999, a ukulele version of "Over the Rainbow" by Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was used in a commercial for eToys, and it ignited uke fever in the advertising world. That recording alone has been licensed more than a hundred times to sell everything from lottery tickets to house paint. Like a hundred years before, the sound of a strumming uke invoked romance and a carefree life. And for advertisers, it carries the implicit message, "Hey, we're good folks."

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of ukulele-related videos on YouTube, while contemporary pop performers from Magnetic Fields to Nelly McKay to Train feature it in their shows. At the top of the heap, there's Jake Shimabukuro, a virtuoso on the instrument who became an internet sensation with his cover of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Shimabukuro performing "Ukulele Weeps"

One reason for the uke's mass appeal is its low price tag. Another is its portability. Most importantly, it's easy to learn. So easy, in fact, that it's almost impossible to play it badly. Out of tune, maybe, but that can even add to its charm.

Moreover, the uke has an ability to convey light-heartedness and lift spirits. I've been playing one for a few years, and I swear by it as a surefire cure for my own blahs and blues. Strum a few chords, and you feel better.

Finally, in an era of smartphones, iPads, and digitized entertainment, maybe the ukulele is simply a cheap, quick way to reconnect to our ever-vanishing past. A pint-sized totem that helps us hold on to our heart, humanity, and hot cha-ch-cha.

So do we have uke lovers out there in mental_floss land?

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Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?
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When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Facts About Louis Armstrong
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With his infectious smile and raspy voice, Louis Armstrong (who actually pronounced his own name "Lewis") won over fans worldwide. To untold millions, every note that he let loose made the world feel a bit more wonderful, and his music is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Here are 10 facts about the life of one of the 20th century's most important jazz musicians.

1. ARMSTRONG SPENT HIS ADULT LIFE CELEBRATING THE WRONG BIRTHDAY.

Armstrong used to say that he’d been born on July 4, 1900. Turns out, he was 13 months off. In 1988, music historian Thaddeus “Tad” Jones located a baptismal record at New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to this document, the performer’s actual birth date was August 4, 1901.

No one’s quite sure why Armstrong lied about his age, but the most popular theories maintain he wanted to join a military band or that he figured he'd have a better shot at landing gigs if he was over 18 years old.

2. AS AN ADULT, HE WORE A STAR OF DAVID PENDANT TO HONOR THE JEWISH FAMILY WHO HAD EMPLOYED HIM.

While growing up, Armstrong did assorted jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. “They were always kind to me,” Armstrong once reflected, “[I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.” Apart from monetary compensation, Armstrong was given a hot meal every evening and regular invitations to Karnofsky Shabbat dinners. One day, they even advanced him the $5 he used to buy his very first horn.

3. SOMETIMES, ARMSTRONG WOULD USED A FOOD-BASED SIGN-OFF.

Pops” had a special place in his heart for both Chinese and Italian food. But, as a Bayou State native, Armstrong’s favorite dish was always rice and beans. In fact, before marrying his fourth wife, he made sure that she could cook a satisfactory plateful. To grasp how much the man adored this entrée, one need only check out his letters, which were often signed “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.”

4. DURING A FAMOUS RECORDING, HE ALLEGEDLY DROPPED HIS SHEET MUSIC AND IMPROVISED.

At one point in “Heebie Jeebies”—a 1926 song released by Armstrong and his "Hot Five” band—the singer vocalizes a series of nonsensical, horn-like sounds. Music historians recognize this as the first popular, mass-market scat ever recorded. Ironically, Armstrong later wrote the whole thing off as a big blunder on his part. In a 1951 interview with Esquire, Armstrong claimed to have come prepared with printed lyrics that day. Midway through the recording session, he accidentally dropped them and scatted to fill the ensuing silence. “Sure enough,” he explained, “they … [published] ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the same way it was mistakenly recorded.” However, most biographers believe that Armstrong made up this anecdote and had planned on scatting all along. It's also worth noting that even though he brought it into popularity, Armstrong in no way invented the technique, which dates back to at least 1906.

5. HE USED TO GIVE AWAY LAXATIVES AS GIFTS.

Between 1952 and 1955, Armstrong shed 100 pounds. Losing weight proved difficult at first, but his luck changed once he learned of an herbal laxative called “Swiss Kriss.” The artist promptly went out, bought a box, and became a lifelong spokesman. After trying it, he said that defecation sounded like “Applause.” Enamored, the musician began handing out packets to admirers, loved ones, and band members. Though he was the product's biggest cheerleader, Armstrong neither requested nor received any payment from its manufacturers.

6. SEGREGATION LAWS DROVE HIM TO BOYCOTT HIS OWN HOME STATE.

The year 1956 saw Louisiana prohibit integrated bands. Outraged, Armstrong refused to stage another concert within the state's borders. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Nine years later—after this ban had finally lifted—he again took the stage in New Orleans on October 31, 1965.

7. WHILE PLAYING BEFORE THE ROYAL FAMILY, ARMSTRONG GAVE KING GEORGE V A NEW NICKNAME.

At His Majesty’s command, several of the biggest names in jazz took their talents to Buckingham Palace, and in 1932, Armstrong was requested for a royal performance. Evidently, the show went well. According to Armstrong, that night’s “biggest laugh” came right before his group started playing “You Rascal, You.” Without warning, he looked straight up at the monarch and hollered, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

8. HE WENT ON SEVERAL GOODWILL TOURS DURING THE COLD WAR.

Fresh off the wild success of his “Hello, Dolly!” cover, Armstrong made a trip to communist East Berlin in 1965, where he gave a two-hour concert that earned a standing ovation. While not officially government-sponsored, there are some who believe the concert was arranged by the CIA, which would make this just one of the many taxpayer-funded appearances he’d make abroad during the Cold War in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations overseas. Previously, Armstrong had performed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa—though he famously canceled a planned 1957 Soviet Union tour, citing the recent Little Rock crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” declared Armstrong, “the government can go to hell.”

9. “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED TO TONY BENNETT.

The song for which Pops is most widely remembered, “What a Wonderful World,” was almost never his song at all. After completing the optimistic anthem, songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss thought that Tony Bennett would eat it right up. He subsequently passed, so the duo contacted Armstrong in August 1967.

10. "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" DIDN'T MAKE A SPLASH IN THE U.S. UNTIL WELL AFTER ARMSTRONG'S DEATH.

The first recording of “What a Wonderful World” was produced by ABC Records, which made no attempt to advertise it domestically. Although the ballad topped the 1968 charts in Great Britain, American sales were abysmal. When Pops (who adored Thiele and Weiss’ masterwork) passed away on July 6, 1971, “What a Wonderful World” seemed destined for stateside obscurity.

Then along came a bare-knuckled comedy called Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The joyous tune perfectly and ironically clashed with the wartime horrors depicted in one montage, so director Barry Levinson added it to his film’s soundtrack. “What a Wonderful World” struck a chord with moviegoers and was re-released that year, becoming an oft-requested radio hit.

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