Harry Bridges and the ukulele — a worker’s story

Harry Bridges was born in Australia, but became a prominent union official in the USA. The Herald Journal (21 July 1937) has a tale to tell from his youth…

In a sleazy back-street novelty shop in Melbourne, Australia, there was a skinny little clerk, a solemn chap, with little to say to anybody, slouched over the counter reading sea tales when there were no customers. They sold ukeleles, among other odds and ends. The lad had to learn to tune them. He picked up a few chords, got interested and began whamming away in the back room. His had been a rather meagre life. Music stirred and agitated him. He longed for wider horizons.

One day the youth packed his sea stories, a pair of dungarees and his ukelele in a duffle bag and went to sea. He rode ketches between Melbourne and Australia [sic]. It was hard, dirty work, but he found time to sit on the forward hatch and bring up the Southern Cross with his ukelele improvisations.

A hurricane in the middle of the night set the ketch on her beam ends. The lad jerked loose his pajama string and tied the ukelele around his neck with it. Naked, he dived overboard and fought the boiling sea for hours. Time and again he was sinking, but the uke provided buoyancy to help him keep afloat.

At daybreak, Harry Bridges, dressed only in a pajama string and uke, was thrust ashore by a last sullen push of the storm. It seemed quaint that a wet, naked little man with a ukelele, even in this elemental Wagnerian setting, should get a nod from Destiny. But he did. He clothed himself, first with fresh dungarees, and then with power. At 36, he stirs left wing labor ferment, and angry and bedeveliped ship owners will tell you that’s nothing trivial.

One never knows what a ukelele might do for a person.

Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 8:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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