The ukulele — an instrument for serious musicians … behind bars.

Army News (Darwin, NT) reported on 28 February 1944 that the Red Cross had supplied some 8500 ukuleles to Australian prisoners of war in Europe over a three-year period.

The spokesman said that the Red Cross took ‘every care to look after the interests of prisoners’ who were serious about music.

In comparison to the ukulele, other instruments were not thought to be in as great demand by serious musicians.  Other prisoners (79 of them) received bagpipes, and several hundred of them got violins and other (lesser) stringed instruments.

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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More of Ethel Formby

The Woman’s Weekly of 16 October 1943 fills in some details omitted by the Argus of 2 October 1943. The first and most obvious point was that Ethel was better looking than older brother George.

Ethel Formby

Ethel was the youngest of the seven Formby (really Booth) children, and she was interviewed while playing the Melbourne Tivoli circuit. She had just spend a year in New Zealand with her husband, John Gibson, who flew fighters with the RAF. She met Johnny when she was 18 years old and married him after a five-day courtship. “He was so persistent”.

John Gibson

While in Australia, Ethel hoped to meet former members of squadron 457, in which her husband had been a flight commander. Johnnie had to bail out of his aircraft on three occasions during his war service, and once landed his plane on an unexploded German bomb. (It went off, destroying his fighter, about 20 minutes after he was out of it).

Ethel lost a ukulele during the Blitz, along with everything she had in the house. The lost uke was named Bertha (the one she had taken to boarding school), but happily her other ukes, Matilda and Ermyntrude were still ok.

She started on the stage as a dancer, but took up ukulele performances because it was much easier than dancing. She played the same sorts of songs as her older brother, only using her Lancashire accent for these performances.

Published in: on December 16, 2010 at 10:21 am  Comments (10)  
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May Singhi Breen trades uke for bombs

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.

May Singhi Breen with bomb
Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 7:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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The war and ukulele necessity — the parent of invention

On 10 November 1945, the Sydney Morning Herald told stories of inventive Australian soldiers who made instruments of necessity.

For example, a digger at Milne Bay was heading back to camp on the back of a truck, holding his ‘splendid ukulele’. It fell from his hands onto the road, and the truck following ran over said uke, leaving nothing but splinters.

To get by until a new instrument could be bought, he made a substitute from an empty emergency ration tin, a piece of bamboo and some left-over signal wire. The result, we are told, was a ‘fine’ instrument. 

There you go. A few bits and piece and Bob’s your parent’s sibling, a ukulele!

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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War and the Ukulele

A friend of mine in Brisbane pointed me to an ANZAC Square memorial of the South-west Pacific Campaigne, 1942-1945. 


Apart from its historic significance, it also has something for the ukulele players of the world, as can be seen from the photograph below.


I tried unsuccessfully to find a reference to a soldier in the field with a ukulele, but I did find a picture of Driver D. Dixon entertaining the staff of 112 (Brisbane) Military Hospital with his ukulele before Christmas dinner, 1944.085384

Used with permission of Australian War Memorial

An internet search on ‘ukulele’ and ‘kokoda trail’ only led me to ads by tour guides who take people along that famous trail today. The guides apparently refresh weary holiday trekkers at the end of the day by strumming ukuleles.

Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 5:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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