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

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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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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Keystone/Getty Images

Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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