Happy National Ukulele Day!

Sure, February 2 is Groundhog Day but it also happens to be National Ukulele Day, and for reasons that should be obvious, that will always take precedence where I live. Uke ’til ya Puke! That’s my motto. This year, I thought I’d offer up this little truncated post based on the talk I gave to Danno Sullivan’s audience on Play It Daily Ukulele last National Ukulele Day a couple of years back.

The Uke comes from Hawaii of course. The peak of the original American craze seems to have been launched in the wake of the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where there was a Hawaii exhibit amidst all the pavilions. Hawaii had only been annexed in 1898, so this was all new stuff.

Famous vaudeville performers who have especially been associated with the instrument have included the Keech Brothers, Uke Hanshaw, Ukulele Ike (Cliff Edwards), Roy Smeck, George Formby Jr, Tom Patricola, and Ming and Toy, among dozens, hundreds of others (just follow the links to learn more about these ones). The portability and ease of learning to play the uke, meant that nearly every vaudeville performer had rudimentary skills on the instrument. Comedian Joe Cook played one in his “Four Hawaiians” bit. Buster Keaton plays and even sings along with it in some of his talkies of the ’30s. In the ’40s the uke went back to being a novelty instrument in kooky bands like Spike Jones’, rather than a universal craze.

Tiny Tim revived it in the ’60s, and kind of OWNED it while he was alive.

At present the uke is having a kind of Renaissance that’s been going on for decades, and it’s been my pleasure to know and perform with dozens of uke-ists over the past quarter century. After decades of punishing guitars, I picked up the uke in the wake of the 2005 release of my book No Applause, and it’s been my weapon of choice ever since.

In honor of the day, we share one of the earliest songs performed by Groucho Marx in vaudeville, later trotted out by the Marx Brothers at social events, with lyrics tweaked by moi. This Covid lock-down home performance was recorded for the online 2022 Fredonia Marxonia Festival, organized by Noah Diamond. Starts out tentative but gathers a little steam, and if you stick with it ’til the end you’ll see a UFO outside the window! Anyway, it’s something of a rarity, difficult to find even on the internet. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the notorious, elusive “Peasy Weasy”!

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