Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In search of the mountain ukulele

This page has been updated many times since 2015, when the announcement of a Blacksburg and New River Valley ukulele get together inspired me to look into the past of ukulele playing in the region's oldtime music communities... My goal was to tell uke players that they didn't need to look for uke-only events, that they would not necessarily be met with scorn and derision at mixed jam sessions in the area, if they were willing to listen, learn some traditional old time string band tunes -- and keep within the style.
As I eventually learned, while they took a minor supporting role, ukes appeared to have been infiltrating old time music recordings in a small way even before John Hopkins' started 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...
Ada Powers (notice her central position, with uke,  in this great old fiddlers convention photo)
The Four Virginians (with a uke-tuned 10-string tiple)
Price Goodson of Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters was only 12, according to the notes at YouTube, when he accompanied himself on uke and harmonica on Be Kind to a Man When He is Down in 1927, and provided uke rhythms behind the two banjos and fiddle on other songs. I'm keeping my eye open for the 1998 CD compilation of their recordings.

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

Update, August 2021:

This picture turned up in an oldtime radio discussion forum... I had no idea George Gobel started out as an adolescent radio-barn-dance ukulele player during his "Georgie" days! By the 1950s when I first saw him, he was much better known as Ernie Ford's "little bitty buddy" strumming orchestral jazz chords on an oversize Gibson Super 400 guitar along with the jokes and songs on TV.

That big Gibson was almost part of the joke itself, looking out of proportion strapped around the diminutive crewcut Goble. Result: Gibson even named a custom smaller, slimmer jazz guitar after him. (I haven't seen any archival clips showing him going back to the ukulele, but wouldn't be surprised if that didn't turn up in one of Gobel and Ford's TV comedy skits.)

But that's not all... Continued research (OK, a five-minute browse with Google) led to this fascinating claim about the ukulele as a way to dodge musicians' union dues:

"He was one of the favorites, as well as the youngest performer at the time on WLS' National Barn Dance, a homegrown program which was hugely popular from its inception in 1924 and enduring for over 50 years. George's era started with his debut in 1933. George played the ukulele, which was not a union instrument, thereby avoiding paying union dues."
(Or maybe that was just a punchline in George's transition from mostly-musician to mostly-comedian?