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 Hillbillies and Buckle Busters tunes...

(I could be wrong. You have to listen hard to be sure the uke is there, especially if the 5-string is playing rhythm on high notes)

Other Oldtime uke players...

The Four Virginians (with a uke-tuned 10-string tiple)

Contemporary Neo-Oldtime Power Uke

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!

My Firefly & Clawhammer Banjo-uke

First flights with Firefly banjo-uke