Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

My Dog Has Fleas


Without a doubt, the forty dollars I recently spent on a cheap Chinese ukulele is the best entertainment investment I have ever made. The ukulele is said by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the easiest musical instrument to learn to play. My own progress with it is evidence of that truth.

You should hear me play "Back in the USSR" on it.

Well, maybe not.

There's something irresistible about the little things. I left it lying around at home for a couple of days and in 48 hours, two of my kids figured out on their own how to play enough chords to get through most of the rock 'n' roll repertoire.

The ukulele has only four strings -- that's half the difficulty battle won right there. It's lightly strung with nylon, not steel, strings. The strings are tuned in the familiar "My dog has fleas" pattern that lends itself to maximally easy chord playing.

Everything about the uke -- starting with its price =- has a pleasing ease to it. You don't, for example, come away from your first encounter with a ukulele with your fingertips smarting the way you do with guitars or mandolins.

It's got a no-problem, take-it-easy feel to it that puts you in mind of a sunny beach in Waikiki back before hordes of tourists destroyed it.

The music historians tell us that the ukulele was inspired by a tiny four-string guitar that Portuguese cowboys took to the Hawaiian islands in the 1870s. History is full of this kind of weird occurrence.

Who knew that there were Portuguese cowboys, let alone Portuguese cowboys playing guitars in Hawaii?

But there you are. Their little guitar, called a "braguinha," was taken to heart by Hawaiians and named the ukulele. That means "jumping flea" in the Hawaiian language and is supposed to refer to the speed of the fingers of a really good player.

In 1915, the ukulele made its first appearance in North America, at a trade fair in San Francisco. Hawaiian music was an instant, enormous success -- ukuleles, steel guitars and slack-key guitars were the hottest things around. And young Americans took up the ukulele by the thousands.

In the Twenties, the demand was such that ukulele makers couldn't keep up. All the well-known guitar companies -- Martin, National, Dobro -- made ukes. They were small, inexpensive, and easy to play. The ukulele-toting college kid with his coonskin coat and boater hat became (along with the flapper) a symbol of that flaming decade.

In the Forties and Fifties, the British music-hall great George Formby and the American Arthur Godfrey kept the little instrument in view. Really great players like Roy Smeck and Eddie Karnae kept playing fabulous music with the uke but it sort of disappeared into the closet for a while.

Disappeared, that is, until the arrival of the bizarrely talented Tiny Tim in the late Sixties. Hard to miss him, I think you'll agree.

The other day I ran into John Foster, an accomplished local musician. He tells me that he's become a big fan of the uke too. He's got a banjo-uke, a cross between the traditional guitar-shaped instrument and the banjo. Vaudeville performers found that a banjo-style steel body and skin head gave the little instrument more volume and snap on stage.

John says it's the perfect instrument for songs from the Twenties and Thirties when just about all the sheet music published had little tab chords for the ukulele written in. And he likes its laid-back, unpretentious sound and ease of playing just as I do.

There's something of a revival of ukulele playing going on right now. In Hawaii, it's at the centre of a rising tide of new reggae-influenced Pacific music.

And in North America, the uke has become the symbol of a group of anarchist activists who sponsor an interestingly odd website called "Uke Riot." They call themselves the Ukulele Freedom Front, "a punk music promotion coalition proud to be free of ties to any corporate-music-industrial-Billboard-Rolling Stone thang." Members of the Ukulele Freedom Front were out in force, ukuleles blazing, at the WTO riots in Seattle last year.

"Music," say the uke anarchists, "should enrich the lives of the people, not the pockets of the music industry Fat Cats."

Well, right on! I say.

So be subversive. Go out and get yourself a ukulele.

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Copyright © 2000 Royal Orr/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.2000