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Blinkhorn: The ukulele revival

10/06/09 5:55PM By Tom Blinkhorn
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(HOST) Recent headlines have reminded commentator Tom Blinkhorn of his long love affair with an old, sometimes maligned, musical instrument.

(BLINKHORN)  I read a marvelous newspaper story the other day about a hot music group in Britain - an eight-member ukulele orchestra. The group recently performed to a sold-out crowd at the annual BBC proms music festival in London's Royal Albert hall. Several hundred audience members played along with their own instruments. The group apparently has bookings throughout Europe and Japan.

This astonishing story immediately sparked memories of growing up in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where my father played the ukulele in the Sydney Mines town band. His uke, as he called it, was a nifty, four-stringed beauty with a sleek black, figure-eight body, similar to that of a small acoustic guitar, and ivory keys to tighten the strings. He would play at home and sing some of the old favorites - "Tea for Two," "Shine on Harvest Moon," "Yes Sir, That's My Baby."

One of the first things he taught me is how to tune the uke. We didn't have a pitch pipe or a piano so the trick was to hum "my dog has fleas," usually starting with a G note, then C, E and A.

I really hit my stride in college where I spent more time practicing new tunes and singing with my roommates at parties than studying. One summer I earned enough tips performing at a Colorado resort to allow me to buy a couple of real prizes - a banjo uke and a baritone, which I still have.

The ukulele is said to have originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of a small guitar-like instrument brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. The name actually means "the gift that came here," from Hawaiian words "uku" (gift or reward) and "lele" (to come).

The ukulele became popular stateside in the 1920s and 1930s; it was an icon of the Jazz Age and was taken up by performers such as Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, who did the voice of Jimminy Cricket in Walt Disney's "Pinocchio."  Later, it was a signature prop on the Arthur Godfrey television show.

For many years, a Stowe, Vermont firm - the Green Mountain Violin Corporation - produced ukuleles made of native Vermont hardwoods. A fire destroyed the factory and the business never recovered.

I find it delightful that in this i-pod, Tweeting, cell phone world, the lowly ukulele is making a modest comeback. That plunka-plunka sound is music to my ears.
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