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The ‘Ukulele: A History, by Jim Tranquada and John King

June 14, 2012

link to University of Hawai'i Press page

This looks like a really cool book.  I’ve been curious about the similar cultural trajectory of the accordion and ukulele (I like kazoos and jew’s harps too).  They get treated with disrespect by some but they’ve had a large impact, with the accordion reaching into music all over world, and the uke having several massive global waves of popularity.  (I haven’t seen the research on kazoos yet, who’s doing that?)

From this interview with co-author Jim Tranquada it looks like their research turned up many similar dynamics with ukuleles to what I’m finding in the history of the accordion.  I liked this very much:

Looking back over the past 130 years, one thing that has fascinated me is not a particular moment in time, but the repeated role that technology has played in popularizing this little acoustic instrument.  After the turn of the century, phonograph records played an important role in building a fad out of the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music, first on the West Coast and then nationwide.  After 1922, the ‘ukulele was a major beneficiary of the explosive popularity of radio, which made is possible for it to be heard effortlessly in a way that wasn’t possible on stage.

In the early 50s, it was the new medium of television that Arthur Godfrey used as a platform to spread the gospel of the ‘ukulele. (The ‘ukulele was associated with TV from the very beginning: the first public demonstration of television in 1928 featured radio announcer Louis Dean strumming a ‘ukulele and singing “Ain’t She Sweet?”)  And today, it’s the Web that has helped fuel the so-called third wave, giving the international ‘ukulele community a tool to build that community. John and I met each other online, and it wasn’t until we had been collaborating for more than two years that we met in person.

Here’s the spiel on the book from the Univ. of Hawai’i.  This looks so fun!

Since its introduction to Hawai‘i in 1879, the ‘ukulele has been many things: a symbol of an island paradise; a tool of political protest; an instrument central to a rich musical culture; a musical joke; a highly sought-after collectible; a cheap airport souvenir; a lucrative industry; and the product of a remarkable synthesis of western and Pacific cultures. The ‘Ukulele: A History explores all of these facets, placing the instrument for the first time in a broad historical, cultural, and musical context.

Drawing on a wealth of previously untapped sources, Jim Tranquada and John King tell the surprising story of how an obscure four-string folk guitar from Portugal became the national instrument of Hawai’i, of its subsequent rise and fall from international cultural phenomenon to “the Dangerfield of instruments,” and of the resurgence in popularity (and respect) it is currently enjoying among musicians from Thailand to Finland.

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