Big hopes from a tiny guitar-like thingy

My niece wants a ukulele for her 13th birthday. When I first heard this I started, did a double-take, and glanced to the heavens. Then I thought: Wait, awesome. A ukulele. And I proceeded to volunteer to be the acquisitor of said micro-guitar, which is actually in the lute, not guitar, family, I now know.

Ukuleles are, of course, ridiculous musical instruments, hollow, fretted, fearlessly tiny objects with four nylon strings. One helplessly conjures Tiny Tim plinking a ukulele while bleating “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a fluttering falsetto in the late 1960s. Once heard, the song is hard to delete. Therein lies the tragedy. 

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Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Inordinately better, we cleave to what is regarded the most popular song on the ukulele, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. He was a massive man, with a massive heart and a massive talent. Though his doughy arms swallowed the instrument, his touch on the strings was caressing, the lilt in his high, quavering voice heartrending. Listen to his take on the “Wizard of Oz” classic here. It will destroy you.

Back to yuk-uleles — er, ukuleles. These lute-like things are a Hawaiian adaptation of an instrument from the Portuguese Azores called a machete, which gained wide popularity in the U.S. and spread internationally.

And then spread to my niece, a precocious green-haired gamine. This could be wonderful (Hawaii!), or calamitous (instant boredom, or worse, Tiny Tim). My niece and I share a heritage that goes back to the Portuguese Azores, so there is hope for her aptitude. She is a dexterous creature. She might be a born ukulelean. And the tiny guitar (lute!) that I’m getting her comes with a tuner and beginner’s songbook, plus a case. Extra promising: many of her friends play the Lilliputian lyre (lute!).  

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Tiny Tim. Help us all.

Yet I can’t help shake the instrument as somehow clownish, witnessed in circuses, bad stand-up and “Gilligan’s Island.” Perhaps I’m wrong. Just a few celebs who played or at least dabbled with the ukulele: Elvis, Marlon Brando, Adam Sandler, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Greta Garbo, Steve Martin, Taylor Swift, Elvis Costello, Pink, Barack Obama, and on it goes.

So there’s hope. And dignity. Even if the instrument is a mere 21 inches long with only four strings, like a guitar left in the dryer too long. I expect mighty sounds from my niece. One of her favorite bands is Twenty One Pilots, which at times deploys this mini-lute. I’m not a fan of the band, but I’m a fan of her, and that gives me confidence that this ukulele experiment, this dip into plinky-dinky ditties, will sing.

4 thoughts on “Big hopes from a tiny guitar-like thingy

  1. Sorry if this is overkill, but here’s another heartening story about George and ukes. I’ve taken it from the forum over at beatlesbible.com. It’s from a great thread about George stories from everyday folks who met him. Here’s the link if you’re interested in exploring: https://www.beatlesbible.com/forum/george-harrison/coolfunnylovely-stories-about-george/

    15 January 2013
    3.13am
    bewareofchairs
    Forum Posts: 161
    Member Since:
    18 December 2012

    “The visit came about thanks to meeting George’s friend and master luthier, Danny Ferrington, in January 1999 at that year’s NAMM music trade show in Los Angeles. That was the show where my wife Liz and I and my brother-in-law, Dale Webb, first introduced Dale’s Fluke ukulele to the marketplace. “At our booth, besides the Fluke, we were presenting several of our Jumpin’ Jim’s songbooks and my book, The Ukulele: A Visual History. Danny Ferrington happened to pass by our booth and saw the uke history book. He commented that George Harrison was his friend and that George had given copies of the uke history book to his pals as a gift that past Christmas. He also went on to say that George was in Los Angeles at the moment and would love to see our vintage uke collection. Naturally both Liz and I, who lived in Los Angeles, were thrilled with the idea that a Beatle might want to visit our home. However, because we couldn’t imagine such a thing actually happening, we didn’t tell anyone and pretty much put it out of our heads.

    “A couple of weeks later, on February 2, we were still doubtful even as Danny kept calling with hourly updates on the various stops he and George were making as they supposedly were making their way to our home. And then sometime in the early afternoon Danny and George Harrison walked into our living room. My first memory was that George grabbed a banjo uke resting on a stand and began to strum and sing the Formby song (and Herman Hermits hit) ‘Leaning On A Lamppost.’ And for the next three hours we talked ukuleles and sang songs. George sang and strummed several original songs that eventually ended up on his last CD, “Brainwashed”. “As it happened, at the time of George’s visit, Liz and I were putting the finishing touches on our Jumpin’ Jim’s ‘60s Uke-In songbook which was to include a number of Beatles songs arranged for ukulele. We were very excited about this book because it was going to be the first uke songbook to feature songs from the 1960s and we were especially pleased at how good these classic tunes sounded on the ukulele. As an example I pointed out the arrangement for ‘All My Loving .’ And then a moment later Liz, Danny Ferrington and I were all singing and strumming ‘All My Loving’ with George Harrison . Liz and I stole a look at each other while this was occurring as if to say ‘treasure this moment– this is about as good as it gets.’

    “There are two other moments that are worth sharing. The first came about towards the end of the visit when I asked George if he would be willing to write a short note on why he liked the ukulele. He sat at our dining table and composed the charming paragraph that became the ‘appreciation’ in the ‘60s Uke Insongbook. “The other great moment was an unexpected flourish as George and Danny were leaving. At the end of our goodbyes George ran over to the piano and grandly played the famous intro to his song, ‘Something .’ And with that he said ‘See you later’ and dashed off. After Danny and George were gone Liz and I were left stunned and amazed. The year before we had made the somewhat crazy decision to leave good jobs (I worked for Billboard Magazineand Liz was a highly regarded graphic designer in the movie biz) to go full time into the ukulele business. At that moment we became convinced that George’s visit was a blessing that we were on the right path. We still do.”

    As Harrison’s health deteriorated in 2001, his friends used the uke to lift his spirits. Longtime friend and musical collaborator Jeff Lynne said that, toward the very end of Harrison’s life, “I’d sit beside him and play some ukulele very quietly. He’d wake and smile. . . . I half expected him to tell me I was doing it wrong. George was passionate about the ukulele. He played it brilliantly, studied it, and collected hundreds of vintage instruments. There’s not much you can do with a ukulele that doesn’t sound happy. I think that’s why he liked it.”

    Liked by 1 person

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