The Ukulele and US Baseball Players

At least three US baseball players have had their names linked to the ukulele.

Joe DiMaggio’s photograph (with ukulele and a number of young women) appeared in Life magazine of 1 May, 1939, page 67. But it’s ok, he only pretends to play.

Baseball Digest revealed, in March 1973, that Norm Cash, who played for the Detroit Tigers, was a “ukelele strummer and a singer of Texas songs” off the field, and that “he’s not averse to doing solo dances either.”

Babe Ruth is featured in the New York Magazine of 7 March 1983 (page 48). It was reported that, in his spare time, Babe Ruth used to drop bars of soap from his penthouse into a fountain below, hoping to splash those passing by. “When he wasn’t bombing strangers, Ruth liked to party with friends … entertaining them by playing his ukulele (badly).”

If he had to do something badly, it might as well have been ukulele playing.

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Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 8:11 am  Comments (1)  
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The History of the Ukulele (or Commercial Humour in 1926)

From “Tom Foolery” in the Music Trade Review 83, 6 (1926), p. 13:

This is a comparatively new instrument, but its origin is already somewhat obscured, 4,739 different persons claiming the honor of having introduced the instrument to America. We have investigated it thoroughly and find that the discover of the ukulele was Christopher Columbus, who found some Indians (Red Men, as he called them) playing ukuleles in Florida in 1492. The Indians said that they purchased the instruments from C. Bruno & Sons. (Inquiry reveals that Bruno is still selling ukes in Florida.)

The next appearance of the ukulele in American history was about twenty-five years later when Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for a ukulele. To-day it would take more ukuleles than you could shake a stick at to buy it back.

Another story that sheds light upon the place of the ukulele in history  deals with Sam Beugeleisen, who was traveling for Tonk in 1851. He made such a fast trip to the Pacific Coast and was burning up the territory making sales that he was unable to stop in California and kept right on to Hawaii before the four-wheel brakes in his Buick would stop. On the beach at Waikaki he discovered a quaintly garbed native girl wearing a dress of some shredded material strumming an instrument which we know to-day as the ukulele.

“How much for the what-do-you-call-it?” demanded Mr. B.

“$5.”

“Too much. I can get ’em made in Chicago for $4.99.”

“All right, go to Chicago,” the maiden said. And he did.

Following the introduction of the ukulele to America Harry Hunt of Ditson’s began a campaign to have the poor little instrument called by their proper name, which sounds like “ookelellie,” but he has not had much success, even his New York Dealers’ Association insisting upon coming right out in the open and referring to them in Mr Hunt’s presence as “you-kelaylays.”

Reproduced courtesy of The International Arcade Museum and the Musical Box Society International.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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A brief chat about ukuleles…

Here is a slightly adapted extract from my book:

The ukulele is a small guitar with four nylon or gut strings. Its strings are tuned in a similar way to the first four strings of a guitar, but at a higher pitch. A significant difference is that its tuning is re-entrant, that is, the fourth string is tuned high rather than low as it would be on a guitar – but more about that interesting fact in my book.

Many books trace the recent origin of the ukulele to Hawaii in the late nineteenth century. Stories tell of Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii who developed the ukulele in 1879 from a instrument called a Machette.[1] I like to think of this as a rediscovery. One type of sixteenth century guitar was ukulele-like. These guitars were small, had four courses of strings that were sometimes tuned, respectively, G C E A – a popular tuning for modern ukuleles.[2]

The first western reference to the word ‘ukulele’ that I can find is by the Rev. Henry T. Cheever. Cheever tells how his sleep was horribly disturbed by ukuleles – not the musical instrument, but the insect – fleas![3]  The name somehow was given to the small guitar around 1879. The instrument (and, I suppose, the insect) is pronounced ‘Oo-coo-lay-lay’, but I still say ‘You-ku-lay-le’ myself.

Around 1915, the ukulele (the instrument) was introduced to mainland USA, at least this was the time the ukulele was really noticed there. By the 1920s it had become very popular, being promoted around the world by professional entertainers. During the 1920s, if a man was serious about a woman, he might have bought her a ukulele.  And, if there were no serious men about, a woman could always buy a ukulele for herself.[4] People like May Singhi Breen (died 1970) and Roy Smeck (1900-1994) played intricate melodies on the uke, and encouraged others to see it as a solo instrument too. Jim Beloff notes that both Jesse Kalima (1920-1980) and Eddie Kamae are credited with developing styles of chord soloing – where the tune is played as the chords are strummed or plucked.[5]

 The little ukulele was ‘big’ again in the 1940s and 1950s, survived the surprise of Tiny Tim in the 1960s, and now, in the early 21st century, is becoming an instrument of influence once more. My little book is a humble effort to promote the playing of tunes on the ukulele.


[1] See, for instance, John King and Jim Treanquada, “A new history of the origins and development of the ‘ukulele, 1835-1915”, The Hawaiian Journal of History 37 (2003), pp.1-32.

[2] Eg., Michael Fink, “Renaissance guitar music for the classical guitarist”, http://www.lgv-pub.com/Essays/Ren_Guit_Mus_-_Class_Guit.pdf (accessed 5 April 2009).

[3] Henry T. Cheever, Life in the Sandwich Islands (London, 1851), p. 107 (see Victory to the Ukulele)

[4] The Library of Congress holds a photograph from 1926 of five happy young women with ukuleles, but I cannot say how they got them. Photograph at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.16039 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html (accessed 5 April 2009). I first found this picture on http://www.shorpy.com, a site that holds a wealth of vintage photography. (See Happy Girls with Ukuleles — 1926)

[5] Jim Beloff, The ukulele: a visual history (California: Miller Freeman, 1997), p.51.

Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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