The ukulele in 1930s America

I’ve been watching a whole bunch of 1930s American movies lately and one of the things that is hard to miss is the omnipresence of the ukulele, exemplified by Cliff Edwards aka Ukulele Ike (presumably whence our own Ukulele Ike derives his monicker).

I don’t know much about this instrument so I’ll ask a few questions, if I may. The ukulele that they all seem to play (Cliff Edwards, a guy called Rue Tyler, etc) looks tiny. Is that the standard size or a cut-down version? When did it begin to be so popular? Even in the 20s when they show students they always sport a raccoon coat, a battered boater and a ukulele.

Then suddenly, late 30s/early 40s, the instrument vanishes and you only see it when you see a band, or a rural folk singer (unless that’s a banjo they’re playing, I’m not really sure of the difference).

Hawaii was stylish in the 20s and 30s, but all things hip have a shelf life.

A uke looks like a miniature guitar. A tiny one. That is their normal size, though I suppose you can get bigger and smaller ones. It is used mostly in Hawaiian music. A banjo has a big, white, round body and is used in country music. I don’t know why you can’t tell the difference.

Cliff Edwards is best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.

He SHOULD be best known for inventing scat singing.

Music historians really, really wanted for Louis Armstrong to the the inventor of scat singing, but there are recordings of Edwards doing it that predate Pops by a few years.

Wish I could be more helpful, aldiboronti, but I really don’t know much about the ukulele. I just like Cliff Edwards a lot. My main instrument is the saxophone, the OTHER instrument that got extremely popular in 1920s America.

My guess it that ukes were inexpensive, portable, easy to learn, and allowed the callow youths of the period to accompany their own singing as they romanced their flappers in a canoe.

I can think of some great 70s songs that use the uke. Ram On and Blue Red and Grey for example.

I don’t think there’s anything like a cut down ukelele. It’s a small instrument.

There was a mini boom in the instrument in the 1950s, when plastic ones were developed. Arthur Godfrey – massively popular at the time, and a ukelele player himself – endorsed it on the air. But it was considered a child’s instrument; teens would take up the guitar.

I wish my mom was on this messageboard. She is a ukulele maven - has a collection of over 50 from the 20’s on; runs the local Uke Group with several dozen members and regular gigs, etc.

The ukulele was, as has been mentioned, brought from Hawaii during the HUGE Hawaiian craze in the 20’s. To be clear - it was HUGE, and its biggest lasting influence has been music. The ukulele; the Hawaiian “slack key” slide guitar - a huge precursor/influencer on both rock/blues slide guitar and the invention of the pedal steel guitar. Most importantly, the uke single-handedly saved Martin Guitar. It nearly went out of business in the 20’s except it introduced a line of ukes which make much more money vs. guitars for years. It was only in the mid-30’s that modern-design guitars found their place in country and blues, and amplified guitars could compete with banjos. But the uke saved Martin through the depression, so thank you for that!

This is a book that my mom has and likes (on the cover is a picture of a Harold Teen uke - a Jazz Age equivalent of a well made toy, featuring decals of Harold Teen, a popular cartoon character of the Jazz Age - my mom has one in red - they are really fun). There are many sizes of ukes and back in the day there were uke orchestras. Concert, Tenor, Baritone are all very popular sizes. And back in the day Banjo Ukes were popular - my mom has two.

This is a Golden Age for Ukes - super popular up and down the age ranges and new ukes and fancy custom ones, etc. Jake Shimabukuro’s YouTube vid playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps - which is hugely badass playing - is often credited with the beginning of this new popularity.

Hope this helps.

This is going off on a tangent but while I was looking for recordings of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the British coronation anthem, I found it played on a ukelele. It’s really interesting.

Dorothy Lamour introduced a song in the 1939 film St. Louis Blues with the lyrics “You play the uke, you’re from Dubuque / I go for that…”

There was a craze for Hawaiian music on phonograph records as early as 1915. Songs like “Hello, Hawaii, How Are You” and “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula” were hits, and so were “O’Brien is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian” and “They’re Wearing 'em Higher in Hawaii”. Other songs directly referenced the ukulele, like “When Old Bill Bailey Plays the Ukulele”. Not surprisingly, the instrument itself became popular at the time. Cliff Edwards wasn’t the only ukulele player to make popular records; Johnny Marvin and Wendell Hall were also associated with ukuleles and had a number of hits.

Look through piles of records from the 1915-early 1940s period and you’ll notice a fair number of them are of Hawaiian music (whether authentic or sort-of authentic). Frank Ferera & Helen Louise, Sol Hoopii, Dick McIntyre and his Harmony Hawaiians – there was a lot of recorded music that featured ukuleles at least in part. As late as 1937, “Sweet Leilani” won the Oscar for Best Original Song of the year (managing to beat “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “That Old Feeling”, among others!).

In time, Hawaiian culture became a lot less exotic to most North Americans and Hawaiian music, including ukuleles, no longer held as much sway. What seemed thrilling and exotic in 1915 was often treated as kitsch in the later part of the 20th century, and it’s been hard for the pendulum to swing back.

The most commonly size Uke is a Soprano Ukulele. They come bigger (alto, baritone, etc…). My 5th grade teacher played one. You can even get single cutaway ones now.

Yes, for some reason beyond me, Hawaiian music was popular in the 20s and 30s. I’m sure it has something to do with 1) the cost of cruises to HI, B) the introduction of clipper airliners, and III) US Navy personnel returning from assignments to HI.

The first solid body electric guitar was the Rickenbacher (later they changed the spelling to “Rickenbacker”) Frying Pan introduced in 1932. It was a “Hawaiian” guitar ( lap steel ) and was the first to have absolutely no resonance chamber. So yeah, Hawaiian music was pretty popular.

Right. And to illustrate the fad nature of things Hawaiian back then, look at how the Uke fad overlapped with another fad/big event:

If you go to that page on Johnny Marvin, you will see his signature uke, with an airplane-shaped bridge - in honor of/to capitalize on Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic. Harmony made a series of instruments with airplane bridges. So, yeah, fads but really fun. My mom has one of those, too :wink:

Ranger Jeff, smart to add. A pivotal innovation in stringed instrument technology that emerged from Hawaiian music. Because of the innovations with solidbodies and the pickups used for lap steels, makers took the lessons learned and applied them to “Spanish” style guitars and the rest is history.

OK. Ukulele or ukelele? And why?

“Ukelele” is the British spelling.

Not really British. I’ve seen it spelled ukelele but ukulele is common over here too (I’m English).

It’s interesting seeing the various spellings in the OED cites for the word. Note that the oldest cite they have is for the ukelele form.

Ukulele is the American spelling. Another thing to realize about the early popularity of the uke is that there were no portable music playing machines such as Walkman/iPod/transistor radios. So if you went somewhere and wanted music you had to make your own. Ukes are great for sing-alongs and get-togethers and other hyphenated meetings, and much easier to carry around than a piano.
I have a solid body electric baritone ukulele, among others. I play a tenor in the story times I do at my library. Babies love it.

More than spelling, pronunciation matters. Most everyone non-Hawaiian pronounces it “YOU-ka-LAY-lee.” Many Hawaiians and uke-geeks pronounce it “OOO-ka-lelly.” (Sorta - tryin’ here! ;)).