Ukulelia

Well, it’s happened. I’ve finally committed myself to a musical instrument. I can sort of play the piano, but that was never a commitment–more like a shot-gun wedding enforced by my parents, the chief result of which was misery, avoidance and pain.

The pain was far-reaching; my friends suffered too as the only song I could really play by heart was a dumbed-down version of the “Ukranian Bell Carol.” And play it I did. Relentlessly and out-of-season. With foot pedals so it would reverberate like bells.

But, friends, guess what? I can now play eight chords on the ukulele and some 16 songs. I can play toe-tappers and tear-jerkers from “Little Brown Jug” (a blithe little ditty about alcoholics shacking up together) to the Streets of Laredo (a moderately strummed song about dead cowboys.) What I’m trying to get at is: me and my ukulele would be the perfect addition to any party, campfire or Sunday brunch. I hope you invite me soon.

My favorite song in my repertoire is “Cockles and Mussels.” That’s an Irish ballad about a shellfish-peddler on the streets of Dublin named Molly Malone. I’m not going to tell you what happens in the song but suffice it to say that somebody dies and somebody turns into a ghost and that if you listen real closely even now somebody might be heard to cry out “Cockles and Mussels!” in the Dublin streets.

My daughter’s favorite song is “Clementine.” She calls it Omydarlin and begs for it around the clock. In that song, *Spoiler Alert* there’s a miner and his daughter and something happens and someone dies and someone is dreadful sorry about it.

My least favorite tune, and one I’ll play only if you pay me, is “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”–a song wherein a pet goose bites it and this redneck family is all stoked because now they can stuff their mattress with its feathers. At least that’s what you think on the first go-round. If you read the rest of the verses though, you find that the everyone is real torn up about it; because it was a well-loved goose. Still, the goose does not turn into a ghost or die in a mining accident, and the tune is uninteresting.

So, why the ukulele? Well, it’s easy as sin and it’s also super hip, like everything that crested in the first half of the 20th century. Such are the nostalgic times in which we live. I personally, am not hip, but I’m pretty good at sinning, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

The predecessor of the ukulele (a Portuguese instrument called a machete) made its way to Hawaii from Portugal in the 1800s. The root of the word “ukulele” is debated. In Hawaiian it could either mean “jumping flea” or “gift that came here.” I suppose it depends who’s playing it, whether it strikes you more as the former or latter.

Americans got their mitts on ukuleles the same way they got their mitts on fresh pineapples, by colonizing and claiming Hawaii. Ukuleles were ALL the rage in the Prohibition era, far outstripping guitars as the instrument of choice for parties and fetes under piers and plum trees. It wasn’t until the 30s that the uke was supplanted by the guitar, and not until rock-and-roll in the 50s that ukulele chord diagrams generally disappeared from sheet music.

So isn’t that fascinating?!  That’s another thing I do for free at parties–give history lessons that no one wants to hear.

In closing, I’m leaving you with a price list.

Down in the Valley–Free

Cockles and Mussels–Free

Clementine–Free

Go Tell Aunt Rhody–$3.50

Tom Dooley–Free

Love Somebody–Free

The Streets of Laredo–Free

Michael Row Your Boat Ashore–$2.00 (this one also sucks)

Little Brown Jug–Free

Gimme That Old-Time Religion–Free

When the Saints Go Marching In–Free

Mary Ann–Free

The Sloop John B–Free

Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho–Free

Greensleeves–Free

Scarborough Fair–Free

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A Post in Which I Recommend a Brand of Fish Sauce and Don’t Talk about Arctic Animals Very Much

Hi guys.

Just popping in to assure you that I have not fallen off my bike or locked myself up with a dictionary and a crate of chocolate pudding. I’ve been busy! Too busy to blog.

Also I’ve haven’t been sleeping well. Also the internet signal I’ve been sharing with my landlady has faded to nothing more than whisper, so I, currently, have no interwebs at home. Also, Holly is back on our desert shores, fresh from saving the lives of babies and she’s been plying me with Chinese steamed buns. Also, I’m reading about narwhals–which I would be tempted to write about if I hadn’t promised to lay off the Arctic animals.

So, just three things this time:

1). If you’re going to spill fish sauce all over your kitchen rug, make it this brand! My apartment smells bad (marina bad), but I shudder to think how much worse if I had spilled a more pungent, fishy fish sauce.

2). I just read that Albuquerque may have the largest riverine cottonwood grove in the world. We’re talking the Bosque, people–the woods flanking the Rio Grande. Other Southwest cities have razed, tamed, and canaled their rivers and riverbanks, but in typical New Mexico fashion, we’ve allowed ours to ramble, which means we get to keep our trees. If any of you faraway friends or relatives come to visit me, I will take you to this grove and many more natural wonders!

3). Unicorns. Did you know that the practically priceless unicorn horn (worth twenty times their weight in gold), so sought after in the Middle Ages, was actually narwhal tusk brought to European shores by hapless sailors from Icelandic and Greenlandic waters?

What it boils down to is a failure to communicate. The horn buyers never said, “Hot damn, unicorn horns! And by unicorn I mean that magical horse that prances about in remote forest glens.” And the horn sellers never said, “Here’s your narwhal horn, and by that I mean that elusive sea mammal that rolls about in the Arctic waters until harpooned by natives.”

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that Gerhard Mercator, yes that Mercator, set the record straight. (I guess Mercator knew about the narwhal from his cartography pals.)

Of course, by then, unicorn horns had garnered such exorbitant value and such potency as charms against all sorts of evil, that nobody wanted to listen to Mercator’s buzzkill. “Go back to making your dopey maps, Mercator, and leave our unicorns alone!” was the general sentiment.

I really wish someone would make a movie about this starring Ryan Gosling.

Odell Shepard writes in The Lore of the Unicorn that by the mid-sixteenth century, only 50 intact tusks were to be found on the Continent and these were treated like holy relics, possessed by kings and plundered by Crusaders. (Apparently there is still one on display in San Marco Basilica in Venice, which nobody effin’ told me about when I was there.) In 1671, Christian V of Denmark was crowned on a throne made entirely of unicorn (narwhal) tusks.

So you see? Mercator was a real killjoy. But only if you can’t appreciate the narwhal as much as the unicorn for its utter rarity and strangeness.

Oh, how we cling to our precious illusions!

Let us close on that exclamation. Until next week, dear sensible readers.