Two days ago on Maui, we wandered into a second-hand store in Wailuku and I saw a beautiful ukulele hanging on the wall. In the grip of musical hubris and hopefulness, I asked to see it and improvised a simple Thirties single-note riff, impressing the Beloved, who said, “I didn’t know you could play!” “I didn’t either,” I replied.
Since I was quite young, I have made half-hearted attempts at learning a number of musical instruments. Some of those nstruments ornament my apartment, although I am cautious lest it turn into a one-bedroom version of a music store / pawnshop.
The ukulele has appealed to me for a long time, because I had the notion that it might be fairly simple to play — four strings rather than some more intimidating number, and not a great deal of aesthetic ambition attached to it (unlike, say, the violin). It also has a Jazz Age history — on all the Twenties and Thirties sheet music I collect, the line above the treble clef has chord diagrams for imagined ukulele players to read off the page — and the diagrams are just my speed, a diagram of the four strings with a dot on each string to show where the novice should place his or her fingers.
I haven’t bought the ukulele yet, although we visited the Mele store, where Peter (the resident self-taught virtuouso) tried to teach me to play YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE, with middling results. (I am a recalcitrant, stubborn pupil.) The second-hand store was closed today, and I refuse to pay full price unless I am compelled to by circumstances. I also don’t plan to turn into Arthur Godfrey, Don Ho, or Tiny Tim, never fear. My aesthetic model is Cliff Edwards. I don’t aspire to starring in Technicolor, being the voice of a Disney character, or dying penniless, but his swinging insouciance is immensely appealing.
There are many wonderful Ukulele Ike clips on YouTube — too many to up or download, so you might want to investigate them on your own. I’ll report back about the results of my four-string quest.
(On YouTube, you can also see a brief clip of Buster Keaton at home in 1965, happily croaking his way through “June Night,” accompanying himself on a tenor guitar with a fair deal of skill. Who knew?)