Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Ukulele Part 2: On the Mainland


My last blog entry ended with the introduction of the ukulele to the United States mainland, and I thought I would pick up the story where I left off.

After the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, there was a flood of Hawaiian music with vaudeville performers. This meant that the ukulele (and the lap steel guitar) was in greater demand because things were the same then are they are today: when famous musicians are playing an instrument, the demand carries over to the public too. So, sales giants Sears and Montgomery Ward started selling ukuleles via mail order.

And people really liked that the instrument was easy to learn, and in just a few hours they could start making basic music. There was even a popular method book, the “5-Minute Ukulele Course” which sold for 5-cents.

Martin Guitars of Nazareth PA saw this demand and did not want to miss out on the trend. They came out with an inexpensive (under 10 dollars) uke which brought them a lot of business. Martin had enough new business that they had to expand their factory 3 times between 1917 and 1926 to meet demand. By 1926 they were making 17,000 ukuleles a year, which is quite remarkable considering that 10 years before they were selling just a few hundred instruments (guitars and mandolins) per year.

The craze continued on through the 1920s and 1930s, and Martin, Regal and Harmony made a lot of money selling ukuleles. Most transcriptions of popular music included ukulele tablature.

World War II did little to dampen enthusiasm for the ukulele. Maccaferri cranked out about 9 million cheap plastic ukuleles between the war and the late 1960s. Perhaps the high mark (or low mark) of the uke was the 1968 hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, as performed by Tiny Tim.

After this time, demand for the ukulele crapped out, and there was about 20 years where ukulele music moved to the back burner.

The start of the re-emergence of ukulele popularity can probably be best attributed to the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (IZ), a Hawaiian musician that recorded touching versions of “What a Wonderful World” and “Over the Rainbow.” I have heard his renditions in quite a few movies and TV commercials over the years.

Since the late 1990s I have seen increasing numbers of ukuleles in music stores, and there are now displays in Sam Ash Music and Guitar Center locations across the country. A new generation of musicians are learning the instrument, and I think that is terrific in this age of Guitar Hero fake musicians.



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