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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

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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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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