Ukulele Heroes (1)
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Codebreaking

THE UKULELE, like the banjo, is a child of colonialism, an appropriation of the expropriated. But while the banjo conjures a nineteenth-century golden age of ramshackle porchfronts and happy pickers, the ukulele’s evocations are both more contemporary and more fey. It’s a trade good and a hack job, a folk craft reimagined as a factory product, a tool for transforming the unheimlich rites of savage islanders into gemütlich choruses of pleasant, lei-bearing maidens. The instrument of strumming, smiling islanders at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Fransisco quickly became the harmless axe of the Vaudeville second banana. Serious players know that you can pour an astonishing amount of music out of a ukulele; for the rest of us, listening to a well-played uke brings about a feeling not unlike what Dr. Johnson said of a talking dog: it’s not what it says, but that it says anything at all, that impresses.

So the ukulele attracts the desperate and the marginal. It promises an instant of attention — but such fascination comes at a price. For the ukulele brings with it the unmistakable taint of quirk, of eccentricity — the cozy middlebrow quality we call quatsch. And quatsch, while a perennial fan-pleaser, is also a destroyer of souls.

Take the case of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. Born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1895, he seized the least expensive of musical instruments with the hopeless tenacity of his generation, riding the uke from the Vaudeville circuit to a Jazz career with Pathé Records to Hollywood. He gives this musical odyssey a much wackier spin, however, in the 1933 film Take a Chance, furnishing a bizarre take on the uke’s origin myth:

Edwards’ popping eyes, Missouri twang, and scatty vocal fry were in high demand when talkies hit the silver screen. And the ukulele had a role to play, too: one of the few musical instruments white principals play on-screen, its cozy, telegenic presence offered an antic prelude to full-on musical numbers, as Edwards demonstrates in this scence from the doughboy comedy Marianne (1929):

But if the ukulele brought Cliff Edwards screen stardom, it was of the wacky, harmless, defanged variety. In Starlit Days at the Lido, a fluffy 1935 revue made to advertise Technicolor, he plays second banana to an uncredited starlet-cum-prestidigitator:

Soon, Edwards was reduced to hamming it up in the endless B-western Durango Kid series — now exhibiting a precursor of the strange ukulele palsy that Tiny Tim would make famous:

Ukulele Ike would die a penniless alcoholic in 1971— but not without a measure of lasting fame. Edwards furnished the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s 1940 version of Pinocchio— the most recognizable Disney voice next to that of Mickey Mouse himself. Edwards could only escape the clutches of the ukulele by playing a cheerful and conscientious insect. It’s a powerful lesson in the quatschy power of the tiny stringed instrument.

First in a series of four posts on the uncanny power of the ukulele in twentieth-century culture.

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.