Monday, February 17, 2014

My four-string Polynesian friend

“My Dog Has Fleas” is a little ditty used to tune a ukulele that even non-players know. It’s one of those infectious bits of music that sticks in your head and won’t leave. I used it for years to tune my mother’s ukulele, and I still hear my younger brother’s voice as he walked about the house adding his own (to the best of my knowledge) lines to the tune: “My dog has fleas, my cat has fleas, my dad has dandruff.”
My Uncle Ray bought that ukulele in Hawaii while living there for two years. He worked for Lockheed in Marietta, Ga., and lived for long stretches in places as far afield as California and Portugal, and I was insanely jealous when we received a Christmas card in the depths of winter showing Uncle, Aunt, and their three children wearing bright short-sleeve Hawaiian shirts. The other man’s grass is always greener, of course — Aunt told me years later that they hardly occupied their house until Uncle’s retirement after nine years in Portugal.

I never did much with that ukulele until I learned to play guitar. Two friends taught me three guitar chords when I was in ninth grade, and I took to it like a sailor to grog. I didn’t own a guitar those first few months of playing, and somehow I discovered that I could form partial guitar chords on the ukulele, which has four strings to the guitar’s six. I played that uke for hours and hours, developing my ability at strumming and the coordination required to place two or three fingers across several strings at the same time. I’m sad to say that my mom discarded her ukulele long ago, perhaps because it was damaged.
The ukulele differs from other string instruments in the layout of the strings. On the guitar or mandolin, for example, if you hold the instrument facing you, the lowest string is to the left, farthest from the floor and closest to the chest while playing, and each string is higher in tone, the highest string being farthest to the right. But the ukulele’s otherwise lowest string is its second highest: the next string is a fifth lower, the next a bit higher than that, and the last just a bit higher than the left string. That unusual tuning gives us “My dog has fleas” (or “My dad has dandruff”). It is called re-entrant tuning.
The ukulele enjoyed widespread popularity during the Hawaiian music boom of the early to mid-1900s but suffered a collapse in fortune as rock guitar gained a grasping hold on pop music. I speculate its fall resulted from the baby boomers’ rejection of everything their parents represented, which included their hopelessly square music. People listening to Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page blazing away sure weren’t interested in the quiet delicacy of the ukulele and the Hawaiian or pseudo- Hawaiian pop music it represented. And it didn’t help when Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury played the uke while singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in falsetto on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” the wildly popular, silly, irreverent variety show of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, the ukulele, being a quiet instrument, fared poorly in the increasingly loud wall of sound that has taken over modern music.
The ukulele also suffered from a problem that frequently hampers the success of many instruments — it was played with a certain style of music and so was limited in the minds of people to just that music. I see this all the time. Most people think of bluegrass when they see a banjo or mandolin, but the banjo was used for centuries in other kinds of music and even for classical tunes by players such as John McEuen, and a wealth of classical music was written for the mandolin, which was the reigning pop instrument of the turn of the 19th century.
But I am glad to report that the ukulele is seeing a turnabout in its fortunes and is being used in a wider variety of music. For example, my nephew Brian in Columbus has begun playing rock music with a woman who plays ukulele, and Elderly Instruments of Lansing, Mich., which sells dozens of ukuleles, touts it as “the instrument of the 21st century.”
The ukulele has a charming, delightful sound. It’s a diminutive instrument that tucks handily under your arm, carrying with you a four-string wonder connecting you to the history and culture of our far-flung Polynesian outpost.

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