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
Go Tell Aunt Rhody–$3.50
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
The Sloop John B–Free
Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho–Free