May Singhi Breen (the ukulele lady) socks it to ’em

Time records how, in December 1931, Ms Breen took on the American Federation of Musicians, an organisation that refused to recognise the ukulele as coming within the definition “musical instrument”.

We are told that Ms. Breen, a usually happy, laid back person, saw red at this rejection of her four-stringed pet, particularly as the AFM had already admitted the harmonica into the fold. She was determined that this mountain of prejudice would be moved, and that she would be the one to do it. Walter Damrosch, conductor, gave her his support, saying that the ukulele lady’s playing was like “raindrops in sunshine”. Another expert thought that the ukulele was at least as deserving as the triangle and snare drum — both recognised by the union.

[Update: It seems that Ms Breen was not successful at that time, as the ukulele was used as a substitute during a strike called by the AFM, 1942-1944, which called on musicians not to play their instruments during recording sessions. As the uke was not recognised as a musical instrument, the Four Vagabonds — for instance — could play that instead! But now Jake Shimabukuro has a page on the AFM site. Does anyone know when the AFM saw the light?]

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. go get em ukulele lady!

  2. […] Federation of Musicians socks back at ukulele In an earlier post, I mentioned May Singhi Breen’s preparation to take on the AFM union to get their […]

  3. People like May Breen should never be forgotten and we owe her a great big ” Thank You ! ” every time we pick up our ukes. Great article.

  4. I’ve been puzzeled by the same question. If May Singhi Breen did convince the AFM that the uke was a proper instrument how come that uke players were alowed to play during the strike (if they were?)
    I found this Time article suggesting that different locals of the AFM may have had different views on the instrument. And that the AFM in New York decided that it was a professional instrument in 1950:

    “New York City’s American Federation of Musicians’ Local 802 had long been un decided about the ukulele. The question: Is it 1) a non-professional musical toy or 2) a professional musical instrument? Union banjo and guitar players, who have been complaining of losing jobs to non-union “uke” players, plunked for No. 2. Last week, after pondering the complaints and listening to a demonstration uke performance of Liszt’s Liebestraum which struck them as professionally impressive, the executive board of Local 802 made its decision. Henceforth, all practitioners of the uke in 802’s jurisdiction who appear commercially on television, radio or other programs…”

    Read more:,9171,805575,00.html#ixzz1mpUNgxB2

  5. In “The Ukulele, A History” by Tranquada and King, their footnote #62 in Chapter 7 on pg 235 says, “Breen ultimately achieved some success; in 1942 Cliff Edwards was required to join the musicians union in Los Angeles …” and in the same footnote, “New York Local 802 did not require membership for ukulele players until 1950. … By 1954 Breen was a member of Local 802.” They list the source for the first quote as Los Angeles Times (May 8, 1941) and for the second as Billboard (May 1, 1954)

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