May 13, 2006

Mountain Ukulele Frequently Asked Questions

Today, I will be instructing a short class in Introductory Mountain Ukulele Playing to the "Healthy Living for Women" conference. The class will be held out on the ski dock, last approximately one hour, during which time I hope to get them all up to the level to play John Denver's classic "Rocky Mountain High". I am posting here the FAQs from my handout.

Q: Can I have this ukulele?
A: No. They were the generous gift of Helen Bing to the Stanford Sierra Camp, donated presumably for classes such as these. However, there are usually one or two ukuleles for sale at any guitar store ($20-50ish), although they are often bad quality. I do not recommend buying ukuleles from eBay, because I once got one that didn’t work. Your best bet for a nice one is some kooky used instrument store run by an old hippie. There are some cool instrument makers in the U.S., such as Maple Leaf Music in Brattleboro, Vermont, who are making good ukuleles.

Q: What is a ukulele?
A: Most of the members of the guitar family originate from Spain or Portugal, descendants of Turkish & Middle Eastern instruments. The ukulele was developed in the 1880s in Hawaii as a combination of the Madeiran Portuguese braguinha and raja. Its name roughly means “leaping flea”. There was a brief rave for it in the Continental United States during the Tiki-obsessed 1940s & 50s. Since then, it has been played mainly in mountainous regions such as the Sierra Nevada & John Denver-loving Colorado Rockies.

Q: How was the Mountain Ukulele Style developed?
A: Harry Smith, whilst compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music, found several old Appalachian recordings with instruments sounding like a ukulele, which he chose not to include in his famous collection. He proposed that the rapidly-strummed instrument on “Corn whiskey’s a-gone, so let’s transubstantiate, ma!” was some variety of saucepan mandolina with wimpy strings. I have my own theories about nomadic Polynesians, which remain difficult to corroborate with the facts. The recent resurgence of mountainous ukulele playing has been hard to account for, except that skiers & hikers prefer this inexpensive, light-weight instrument for its impressive convenience.


melinda said...

Don't forget the lua-lua-all-the-day song from Diry Dancing that Baby's sister sings quite off key for the talent show. If that doesn't have a ukelele, then it should!

James Welsch said...

I was trying to create a distinction between the Island style & the Mountain style. I pretty sucessfully taught eight ladies how to play "Rocky Mountain Hight" within an hour. Then, at breakfast today, someone played for me some fat Hawai'ian guy (Israel ______?) playing "Country Roads" on the ukulele. How come all of my best ideas (like having a class of middle-age women play John Denver on ukuleles) are variations on other people's lame ideas?

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