By David L. Coddon
Even if you don’t remember the La Jolla Ukelele Christmas Parade a few years back, you probably have fond memories of warm summer nights on the beach, huddled around a bonfire, listening to someone playing the ukulele.
It turns out memories are still being made. In fact, the “uke” is more popular than ever, distinguishing albums by everyone from Jason Mraz to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and finding its way into more and more people’s homes. “It’s a rare day when I don’t sell at least one,” said DeForest Thornburgh, proprietor of The Blue Guitar music store in Mission Gorge.
Thornburgh, a guitar and ukulele player himself, says there’s a simple reason why the uke is beloved. He demonstrated by strumming one in the store. “Whenever I play,” he said, “everyone smiles.” Besides that, “they’re cute as a button. They’re just fun.”
For three years, 2008-2010, local members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars paraded down Girard Avenue at Christmas time, playing ukuleles. According to “Ukelele Fred” Thompson, one of those players, their part in the parade was discontinued because of weather concerns in December. He was particularly protective of his prized uke, which he says is worth $15,000. Thompson would like to see the La Jolla Ukelele Christmas Parade revived. “It’s a very happy, very uplifting instrument,” he said.
The ukulele has a long and storied history. It was brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira.
The early version of the instrument was known as the machete. It was renamed the ukulele, which translates to “jumping flea.” The Hawaii connection was responsible for initially popularizing the four-stringed mini-guitar.
“Here was an instrument that was small and easy to play and best of all, if you had any experience on a guitar, it took you half an hour to orient yourself on the uke,” said Jim Beloff, author of “The Ukelele: A Visual History.”
“It was also a way to get your children into music that was their size. And it didn’t hurt that the ukulele has all of these wonderful associations with one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Hawaii. It has this colorful history and it’s very easy to learn to play a few chords on it.”
DeForest Thornburgh says the transition from guitar to uke is a snap. “If you play guitar, you already play ukulele – you just don’t know it,” he said.
Thornburgh is wary of the notion that the ukulele is experiencing a newfound renaissance in popularity – “We’ve been hot and heavy into ukes for the last 20 years” — but he does acknowledge that recent cultural and societal developments may be heightening the attraction to the little instrument that is linked not only to the Hawaiian Islands but to vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley.
“Times are stressful,” he said, “and people are looking for ways to escape.” The gentle sound of the ukulele transports the player and listeners alike to another place or time. The increased popularity “also coincides with Hawaii rediscovering its own culture,” Thornburgh suggested. “The rest of America is following along.”
Beloff, whose Connecticut-based company Fleamarketmusic.com publishes a line of songbooks for ukuleles, believes that the emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s coincides with the renewed interest in the uke. “The Internet helped to create communities and groups that ultimately led to the fostering of uke festivals and the like,” he said. “The other key ingredient is that George Harrison on ‘The Beatles Anthology’ is heard playing a ukulele.
“Here is George, the lead guitarist of the Beatles, the band responsible for every kid wanting to play a guitar, playing a ukulele. It turns out he loved playing the ukulele and was very outspoken about his affection for Hawaiian music. All of a sudden (the ukulele) is getting a lot of endorsement from cool guys who play guitars.”
One of those cool guys, Eddie Vedder, made the uke the focus of his 2011 solo album “Ukelele Songs.” The ukulele was also prominently heard on the Train hit “Hey, Soul Sister.”
“At its heart,” said Beloff, “all things go in waves. Just as you think something’s going to disappear entirely, somebody seizes upon it.”
As long as we have beach parties and picnics, the ukulele will have a place at the party. “It’s a small, personal device that doesn’t require batteries,” said Beloff. “It allows you to take your music everywhere in the true sense of the word.”