Strumming up a Storm

I sat on my bike looking up the highway for the paper truck. Normally I would be watching for birds, cool cars, and pretty girls passing by; anything but the bundle of papers that launched my daily paper route. But this day there might be more than the paper bundle, the truck might have my reward for selling subscriptions to the paper, and behold there it was; a rectangle unpretentious gray box without even a label to proclaim itself. I grabbed it from the driver’s hands and hurried back to my bike to peak inside. The content was an equally unpretentious bone white plastic hollow curved body with a neck and strings attached. I pulled it out and examined it with curiosity.

A mad woman exploded from a house nearby. “I haven’t seen one of those for decades!” she shouted. Out her gate and down the side walk she galloped. “Can I tune it for you?”

“Sure.” I don’t argue with crazy people.

She twisted the pegs, stretched the strings, cocked her head, twisted some more, then burst into a sunshine smile as she flogged the strings with her thumb and launched into “Five foot two eyes of blue…”, “Tiger Rag,” and several other classics from the basement of her memory. She handed it back to me, “Not a bad tone. I’ve never seen one made of plastic before.”

She cruised back to her house in her imaginary 1922 Bearcat Roadster, dressed in her imaginary raccoon coat, frolicking with her old college class mates and humming “Five foot two…”

“Let me know if I can help you learn to play it. You’ll love it,” she called back over her shoulder.

A ukulele will do that to you I found.

A couple of ukes later I was in a tent in the Idaho panhandle deep in the Kanicksu forest, miles from the nearest road. My uke and I were singing, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “The Last Waltz,” and “The Lovesick Blues,” while my fellow laborers, young men from the south, tapped their toes, hummed along and wiped their eyes. Nobody ridiculed them. For one thing the group included The Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champ of Oklahoma; for another, a ukulele to tired men on a quiet night can turn the most sophisticated jazz fan into a melancholy country boy.

In the 1940’s and 50’s my mother and every other mother in America except maybe those whose hearing aid batteries had gone weak, would never think of starting their day without the companionship of Arthur Godfrey on the radio. Frequently the high point of his low key homey talk and music show was Arthur, his baritone voice and baritone ukulele musically sauntering through “The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”

Meanwhile at the junior high and high school assemblies my friend Dick Davis and I were knocking them dead with Homer and Jethro’s country takeoffs of current hit songs. This was high society hill billy at its finest. Great lines like these from the country version of “Kiss of Fire.”

“I touch your lips that’s when the trouble starts abrewin’

I cain’t resist the brand tobacco you are chewin’”

And this saga of a love sick sheep;

“He followed her over the mountain to see what he could learn

But she disappeared in the bushes. He didn’t see that ewe turn.”

Our rendition of Stan Freiberg’s take off of the country classic, “Dear John” reflected more innocent days. Neither Dick’s crumpled army hat, nor my comely wedding veil nor Freiberg’s lyrics stirred up a moral indignation backlash or a backside full of buckshot from the National Redneck Association (I assume there is one.) The lyric ended with:

“I have always been your best girl, but tonight I’ll wed another.

I couldn’t wait, so I have married your father.

That’s all for now, love mother.”

Our ukuleles got us invited to lots of parties where we met lots of cute girls.

On the home front our kitchen rang with ukulele strums and family harmony. My Dad particularly enjoyed singing the ballads he had courted Mom with.

Golden age two of the ukulele passed into history alongside the flappers and gold fish swallowers of the 1920’s. Dick and I added two more strings and graduated to guitars. My siblings and I married and took our music with us.

But good things never die. My cool dude grandsons, seniors in high school just got ukuleles. Recently my wife, Sharon and I taught a fourth grade class of 35 enthusiastic ukulele wielding future balladeers including Marcus, another grandson. My charming, stylish, yoga-teaching sister Jeanie is shopping for a ukulele. Racks of ukes are appearing in the music stores. Sweet, hot and happy strings are flavoring music again on radios and I pods. The ukes are rising again.

I am certain we will see a corresponding drop in sales of migraine and ulcer medications. So here is my invitation to lower your blood pressure and lift your spirits. Get a ukulele, learn three chords, and join us in strumming for a happier world.