Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In search of the mountain ukulele

The announcement of a new Blacksburg and New River Valley ukulele get together reminds me to tell ukulele playing friends that they will not necessarily be met with scorn and derision if they show up at other jam sessions in the area, as long as they learn some traditional old time string band tunes. 

In fact, ukes have been infiltrating old time  music since John Hopkins' strumming his triplets  on a banjo ukulele loud and clear in the original "Hill Billies," 1926:

Blue Ridge Mountain Blues - The Hill Billies 1926!

Background from...

"Al Hopkins ... was the leader of his own band called the Hill Billies (also known as the Buckle Busters). The band members consisted of Al Hopkins (piano), John Hopkins (ukulele), Joe Hopkins (guitar), John Rector (banjo), and Tony Alderman (fiddle).

"The Hill Billies had been discovered by Ralph Peer a year earlier and had made some records for Okeh (a forerunner of Columbia). When Ralph Peer asked Al Hopkins the name of his band, Al responded “We ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. You can just call us anything.” Mr. Peer appropriately named them the “Hill Billies”.

More tunes, working links to be added...

I first heard the banjo ukulele played with a  fiddle and 5-string banjo in the late 1970s or early 1980s by a more contemporary band, the Horse Flies from Ithaca, N.Y. 

Alternating between guitar and banjo uke, depending on the tune, Jeff Claus provided a rock-solid rhythm for the band. I have seen an interview with him somewhere referring to the instrument as "a drum on a stick."

Another contemporary player, John Kelley, headed his web essay and instructional page about the instrument, "Banjo Uke -- the Tommy Gun of old time music!"

However, not all old time Fiddlers will appreciate having a Tommy Gun in their local jam session. It is best to ask, or be very sensitive to icy stares!