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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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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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