CLOSE

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?

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
music
Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
iStock
iStock

Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Terror Vision
arrow
Pop Culture
The Unsolved Mysteries Soundtrack Is Coming to Vinyl
Terror Vision
Terror Vision

If you never missed an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, just listening to the opening theme of the series may be enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Now, you don't need to wait to catch reruns of the show to experience the haunting music: The original soundtrack is now available to preorder on vinyl—the first time it's been available in any format.

Terror Vision, a company that releases obscure horror scores on vinyl, has produced two versions of the soundtrack: a single LP for $27 and a triple LP for $48. Both records were compiled from the original digital audio tapes used to score the show. Terror Vision owner and soundtrack curator Ryan Graveface writes in the product description: "The single LP version features my personal favorite songs from the ghost related segments of Unsolved Mysteries whereas the triple LP set contains EVERYTHING written for the ghost segments. This version is very very limited as it’s really just meant for diehard fans.”

Both LPs include various iterations of the Unsolved Mysteries opening theme—three versions on the single and five on the triple. Customers who spring for the triple LP will also receive liner notes from the show's creator John Cosgrove, composer Gary Malkin, and Graveface.

Over 30 years since the show first premiered, the theme music remains one of the most memorable parts of the spooky, documentary-style series. As producer Raymond Bridgers once said, "The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on.”

You can preorder the records today with shipping estimated for late June.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios