In the two decades between the end of World War One and the start of World War Two, the ukulele was arguably the most popular musical instrument in the Western world. It was small, relatively inexpensive, and with only four strings it was relatively easy to play. It was charming and not intimidating. Men and women played it equally.
Tens of thousands of ukes were sold in that period. Maybe even millions - no one really knows. And to cater to that market, most song books and song sheets of the era had uke chord diagrams in them.
Although they had originated three decades earlier, ukuleles had burst into the mainstream market in 1915 after they were featured at a display in an American west-coast exposition. But of course the rest of the world was at war and had to wait until after 1918 to join in the craze. Ukes didn't take long to capture the hearts of millions worldwide for the next two decades. Companies like Martin, Gibson, Harmony, Regal, National and Dobro made ukes not only for themselves but for other companies like Sears Roebuck, which simply sold them rebranded under their own logo.
By the mid-late 1930s, the guitar had started to muscle in and was taking over in terms of popularity. In part that was because the electric guitar (and its associated amplifying and recording technologies) had been improved enough that the guitar was increasingly able to be part of the bands and orchestras of the day, so it picked up momentum through popular music. Before that, unamplified guitar was lost in the sound and volume(the banjo was the popular stringed instrument in orchestras for its volume). Also the arrival of some talented jazz guitar players like Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt helped make it an increasingly popular instrument.
In 1936, the popular Gem series of music books changed from ukulele chords to guitar chords. Although uke chords would continue in some publications right into the 1960s, by the end of WWII, the number of publications featuring the uke was greatly reduced. For me, the change in the Gem folios marks the beginning of the end for the uke's popularity. In WWII GIs took guitars with them, not ukuleles. And when they came back home after the war, the guitar was starting its ascendancy as the most popular instrument for the new sound - R&B, rock & roll, and pop. Ukes were on the way out, at least as a popular instrument, although they would continue as a Hawaiian instrument (at one point in the late 1950s, there was apparently only Hawaiian uke manufacturer left).
Now we're undergoing a ukulele Renaissance and there are dozens of manufacturers. Ukes sell in a wild range from $30 to $5,000, and some custom instruments are even higher! Thanks to performers like Jake Shimabukuro, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and the late John King, coupled with YouTube and the Internet's ability to create communities of like interest across disparate geographical zones, the uke has again become a force in music, unlike anything since the 1930s. Not to mention selling like proverbial hotcakes these days, especially to a new audience of younger, talented players who are looking for something novel.
I've been trying to build a collection of that old ukulele music from the between-wars period. I've been buying song books and song sheets on eBay, as well as haunting every local yard sale, garage sale and shop that might have something for sale. And I've been scanning all of them so I could share them with modern uke aficionados Not that the young kids appreciate it it a lot, although we old codgers do.
But that could change. It's difficult to find any radio station that plays songs from this era. Even on the vaunted satellite stations they're rare, usually just the odd jazz piece, not the popular songs. Without airplay it's difficult to revive this music and get new players for it.
It's a complex attraction for me. In part it's seeking intimate connections with my parents and their world (especially after discovering my father used to play the banjo and my grandmother played the uke in that period). In part it's trying to understand and appreciate (as well as play) the music of that era for myself. And in part it's my desire to keep alive the past and the popular culture of that day, and share it with others.
I started playing the ukulele only in early 2008 (after 45 years playing the guitar). I was immediately drawn to the older songs, although the vast majority of today's younger players want to perform the music they know - pop stuff that's on the FM airwaves now. Yet despite changes in rhythm and voicing over the years, the songs of both eras really express the same emotions. They're mostly about people, about love, about relationships, friends and sorrows. You might be surprised how modern a song from the 1920s will sound if phrased in modern rhythm and voicing.
I have also found, when reading over these scores, I recognize songs I heard my father sing when I was a child. I didn't know the songs then, not by name, and only realized I could still recall some of the lyrics or the tune when I was browsing the material I had collected. It's an odd, but welcome, recognition, an aural palimpsest, a tune that peaks out under my collected memories of my own pop age - the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Donovan.
I also had the pleasure of having a working 78 player and a collection of old 78s to listen to, in our family cottage, until I was about 12. We had no electricity at the cottage, so a wind-up Victorola provided the entertainment at night when we sat around and read to the light of a kerosene lantern. We listened to singers like Rudy Vallee and Mario Lanza doing songs. I can still remember some of the lyrics to two of my favourites, The Donkey Song, Hernando's Hideaway and others.
Over the last two years of gathering these scores, I've collected more than 100 pieces, and scanned almost 1GB worth of PDF files, which I offer online for a price aimed at recovering my costs, but not at making a profit. My goal has been to share and to resuscitate this music. I offered them online free for a while, but my current server, Hostpapa, revealed that the "unlimited" bandwidth I had purchased was really "very limited" and open to be be reduced in any arbitrary manner they chose. They choked my bandwidth so severely I had to pull the links and stop providing the free files.
The song sheets and books don't have a high intrinsic value as collectibles, despite the efforts of some eBay sellers to inflate their value. For sellers, the biggest problem is that out of tens of thousands of songs produced in those two decades, today only a very small handful are commonly known. Most of the performers, the bands and the writers have been forgotten. So the age of the piece isn't as relevant to its value as its recognition factor. Even some of the great performers and pop stars like Rudy Vallee are little more than a curious footnote in musical history to today's younger players (those few who even recognize the name).
A few sites online offer old 78 records converted into MP3, so with some diligence you can find a lot of these songs. I've downloaded several of them myself, trying to match the printed music in my collection with the songs to help me learn to play them. My contribution is in the collecting and scanning - in the hope some uke players will match up the two and revive some of that music. But again, it's tough without any airplay unless a particular song grabs the attention of the uke community and it spreads through that group.
Last week, I visited Joe's Music, run by Joe Connolly, on Highway 26 east (a wonderfully eclectic store, by the way). I found hundreds of old music sheets and books - unfortunately mostly for piano, but some going back to the 1890s. Great stuff (albeit some in sad shape) and I wish I was a more diligent collector, but I have my focus on music chorded for ukulele. I managed to pull between 35 and 50 song sheets with ukulele chords from the boxes. There were also faded and fragile newspaper sheets with news on one side and a ukulele tune on the other that I took. I have a lot more to scan in the next week or so, and really build up the collection with some tunes.
I'm still looking for more. I know there are a lot of these old scores in basements and attics, slowly falling apart, unused and ignored. If you have any, please let me know. I'd love to scan them and add them to the collection so they can be shared with others. I might be able to buy them from you, too, if you really don't want to keep them. Or if you're up to the effort, I can tell you how to scan them yourself at the right resolution and layout. Either way, I'd appreciate your help in keeping this music alive.
And sometime this summer I plan to try to start a local ukulele group for regular meetings, teaching, sharing and general uke fun.