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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Playing ukulele the Gracie Allen way

Two separate newspapers reported on the Gracie Allen method of learning the ukulele. Having watched Ms Allen play, it’ll be good advice to follow:

The Evening Independent (8 November 1938):

Gracie Allen, who is learning to play a ukelele for a scene in “Honolulu,” explains the ease in learning to play the instrument. “All you have to do,” says Gracie, “is to scratch your tummy for a while and then put a ukelele there.”

A more dignified report from The St Petersburg Times (16 November 1938):

Visiting on the “Honolulu” set, I found Gracie Allen strumming a ukelele — and doing a masterly job of it. “It is hard to learn?” I asked and she grinned like a Cheshire Cat. “Dead easy,” she said. ” “You just scratch your stomach rhythmically — then insert the uke!”

I think she was refining the joke as she was improving her strum.

Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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American 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 recognition that the ukulele was in fact a musical instrument. A report on her failure in this attempt appeared in the Herald Journal of 3 January 1932.

When she arrived with lawyer, testimonials and most importantly, her $125 (about $4000 in today’s dollars) ukulele, the powers that were would not even listen to her play. The AFM, represented by Joseph N Weber, said that the ukelele was a fun toy which isn’t allowed in orchestras, and anyone can make a noise on it in a matter of days [ed., I suppose anyone could make a noise on a piano in a much shorter time]. The ukelele would, in his opinion, never be recognised as a musical instrument — it was simply a novelty contraption which Ms Breen could play, he had been told, remarkably well.

I understand that the AFM has changed its mind on this important matter.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 6:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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A ukelele and a mental health scare

The New York Times of 16 July 1922 reported on a fellow who was chased by railroad detectives, captured and send to a Chicago “psycopathic laboratory”, all because he went for a walk carrying a ukulele; he wasn’t even playing the thing. Maybe there was prohibition on ukeleles after all.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A lady with a ukulele at war

On the 7th of December, 1919, The New York Tribune ran a feature on Lady Astor, who was elected member of the British parliament for Plymouth (I think) to take the place her husband had to surrender due to his translation to the House of Lords. But during the war (the First World War) she was active in nursing and cheering soldiers.

Her husband went into the army and became Major Astor. She went to work for the soldiers. The magnificent Astor estate of Cliveden, Taplow, one of the finest along the Thames, was turned into a hospital and rest cure, and she did not spare herself at nursing and visiting and cheering up the sick and wounded soldiers. After America went into the war, she could be found two evenings a week at an American officers’ club and two other evenings were passed at club for enlisted men, where she could be seen sitting on the floor playing the ukulele. She is said to be the only member of the British peerage who has mastered that instrument.

Lady Astor -- She's no flapper

… and Lady Astor was for prohibition.


Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Keep the booze, dump the uke

The St Joseph Observer of 18 March 1918 observed this from the Editor of the Hannibal Post:

While the government is considering prohibition for the Hawaiian islands, it might not be amiss to put some sort of ban on the ukuleles.

Prohibition, for those of you born closer to the beginning of this century than of the last, was the outlawing of the manufacture and sale of alcohol (it was very popular with gangsters during the 1920s and 30s in the United State of America).  I can just imagine how it would have run with a prohibition on ukuleles, with underground clubs and speak-easies selling their bootleg booze and ukes. The trouble is, they wouldn’t have been able to smuggle their drinks or Thompson machine-guns in ukulele cases, as that might have suggested a contraband ukulele to the authorities.

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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Ukulele tour leaves them breathless

The Hawaiian Gazette of 11 September 1906 reported that members of the Hawaiian Royal Band and Glee Club were almost asphyxiated near Louisville, as they travelled by train. When they passed through a tunnel, the porter in their special car forgot to close the ventilators and windows in the carriage, and it was filled with ‘noxious gas and smoke’ (love those steam trains). It was thought that a minute longer in the tunnel might have reduced the band by half — as it was, several of the Hawaiians had to be helped from the carriage at Union station.

As to their musical performance the previous day:

The versatility of the Royal Hawaiian Band was shown yesterday by the ease with which they slipped from Strauss to Sousa, from Linke to Moret, from “Nakiri’s Wedding” to “The Wearing of the Green.” The Glee Club, with its quaint native instruments, the ukulele and taropatch, its superb fully blended voices and its superb tenor, John H. Ellis, caught the popular fancy at once and received encore after encore.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 7:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Entertainer (on ukulele)

Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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?]

Did he marry her for her money, or for the Ukulele?

Hawaiian Gazette, 12 September 1911, reports the elopement of Miss Warren Mills (Toots) with Mr James J. C. Haynes, and their marriage — ill advised, according to Miss Mills’ family.

… friends of the family say the [the new] Mrs Haynes will not be allowed to touch a penny of her fortune. Mrs L. T. Garnsey, mother of the bride, and her aunt, Mrs Sarah G. McMillan, are shocked and indignant that there should have been an elopement. They are opposed to Mr. Haynes … and Mrs McMillan asserts that “never, never will there be a reconciliation as long as Toots is living with that man.”

[As for the young couple] “We are as happy as can be, and of course we do not regret what we have done,” and the bride glanced shyly at her husband standing beside her, who was emphatic enough in reply to that glance to please even an American girl.

On the night of the elopement, the door of Toots’ room was heard to open and close, and later, when it was investigated, her ukulele, and little red hat that had been on her bed, were gone.  A sure sign of impending marriage.


Toots’ aunt gave the marriage three months — “Why, Toots spent more every week, yes, double as much, as her husband’s salary amounts to in a month. He cannot support her as she has been in the habit of living all her life”.

As far as I can find, there is no indication in the news — one way or the other — as to the result of this prophecy.

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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