No, she wasn’t planning a different type of approach to the AFM to get the ukulele recognised as a musical instrument; she was doing her bit to prepare US industry against potential fire hazards. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published (4 May 1943) a picture of the Ukulele Lady without ukulele but holding a magnesium bomb — it was a dud. She was telling people at the AWVS Motor Corps how to prevent fire during an air raid. By 1943, some 66,000 women had been trained to deal with fires. Of course, people who play ukulele know an awful lot about fire bombs.
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.
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?]
Looking for old ukulele stuff can lead to interesting discoveries. A few examples follow:
UKULELE PLAYER GETS SUSPENDED SENTENCE; Neighbor Tells Court She Called Police at 2 A.M., but the Noise Increase When They Came. The New York Times, 25 October 1927. (Was he hanged?)
Jazz Tunes on Ukulele Lure Canadian Deer to Parked Car. The New York Times, 25 June 1928 (Then what?)
PRACTICE UKULELE IN JAIL, SAYS JUDGE. Hartford Courant, 9 October 1925 (Oh dear, was it that bad?)
Suspect Held to Answer in Ukulele Death. Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1926 (not of the ukulele — case of murder)
JAIL UKULELE THIEF? COURT PREFERS NOT. Los Angeles Times. 13 May 1923 (It’s ok to steal ukuleles!)
WRATH SHOWN BY UKULELE IKE. Los Angeles Times. 2 May 1931 (Divorce court)
MAN BEATEN UP WITH UKULELE. Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1930
Someone was beaten into unconsciousness with a ukulele following an argument with three strangers in a Los Angeles. (Now, that’s some ukulele — made in USSR?)
Ukulele Ike Is Bankrupt. New York Times, 18 March 1933 (Remember that divorce?)
May Breen Sues to Make Union Recognize Uke. Chicago Tribune. 8 November 1931 (Serves them right)
So be careful you ukers, or we’ll see you in court.