Making a strum-back: Ukulele sees rise in popularity in Pioneer Valley

  • The A-B-Cs of the ukulele: Stepanek gives Rosaleah Glantz, 6, a few tips on playing at a workshop at the Carnegie Memorial Library. Along with Rosaleah is her mother, Katy Kola. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • “OK, now strum!” Julie Stepanek leads the workshop at the Library. Here she shows Josh Matakanski, 14, and his sister Isabella Matakanski, 8, a few licks. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Julie Stepanek of Shutesbury leads a ukulele workshop at the Carnegie Memorial Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Using simple guides and songs, Julie Stepanek of Shutesbury leads a ukulele workshop at the Carnegie Memorial Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Pluck that chord! Julie Stepanek of Shutesbury leads a ukulele workshop at the Carnegie Memorial Library. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Tools of the trade for Stepanek, who offers students some different styles of ukuleles at her workshops. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • AEIOUkes, based in Northampton, meets weekly at Forbes Library and performs during special events. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2018 4:34:50 PM

In the 1950s, plastic toy ukuleles — decorated with insignia from the “Arthur Godfrey” and “Roy Rogers” TV shows — were favorite toys for children. But the ukulele’s popularity faded out along with those TV shows, and children dropped them in the 1960s for a much cooler instrument: the electric guitar.

But ukuleles have made a comeback, and they’re not just for children anymore. At a time when musical instrument sales have taken a downturn, ukulele sales have been soaring. They are finding their ways into hit records and, in school classrooms, they are replacing the recorder as a child’s first instrument.

Eager pupils

For musician and songwriter Julie Stepanek, teaching ukulele has become a nearly full-time job. This summer, when state libraries were promoting the theme “Libraries Rock,” Stepanek’s students were rockin’ one of the 20 or so ukuleles she brings to each of her 90-minute library workshops. The students are given a ukulele and a tuner for use during the workshop, along with a card that shows where to place their fingers on the instrument neck to make the most often-used chords. While teaching them how to tune the instrument, Stepanek shows a range of different sizes and styles of ukulele, and tells them a little history of the instrument.

By the time the workshop ends, even the youngest student has played at least one song.

At the first of three such library workshops in one day, Stepanek pulled a suitcase on wheels, filled with ukuleles, up to the second-floor of the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Those who attended the workshop ranged in age from 6 to 60 years old. The 6-year-old, Roseleah Glantz, toted her own pink ukulele in a pink carrying case. The others selected one of Stepanek’s.

She teaches the familiar ukulele tuning musical refrain, “my dog has fleas,” as “good cats eat anchovies” so that students remember the musical note for tuning each of the four ukulele strings: “G-C-E-A.”

When asked where to strum, close to the neck or close to the hole in the body, Stepanek replied, “Whatever gets you to play. If you’re uncomfortable, you’ll do it less.”

“You don’t have to know how to read music — you don’t even have to know how to read — to play ukulele,” she added.

Stepanek of Shutesbury started going to ukulele strum-alongs at the Jones Library in Amherst. Then, about 10 years ago, she was asked to give ukulele lessons at the M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, a venture that has since expanded to include libraries across the state.

An instrument with deep roots

At her workshop in the Carnegie Library, Stepanek explained that the prototype instruments for ukuleles were tiny four-string and five-string “branguinha,” tiny guitars made in Madeira, Portugal. The first ukuleles were made by Portuguese luthiers who came to live in Hawaii in 1879, she said. The instrument fascinated the Hawaiians, whose music was primarily percussive.

At the Greenfield Public Library, Stepanek holds quarterly workshops, attracting some repeat participants. At a recent workshop, filled mostly with adults, Stepanek taught strumming techniques and enough chords to play dozens of two-chord and three-chord songs.

Stepanek’s classes have been so popular that the Greenfield Public Library now has two ukuleles to be loaned out to library card-holders. Library staff members say the ukuleles get borrowed almost as soon as they come back to the library.

According to Stepanek, Hawaiian King David Kalakaua loved the instrument, which became a local sensation. By 1900, the instrument was ubiquitous in the Hawaiian Islands. The ukulele’s popularity reached the mainland along with the hula and dozens of Hawaiian novelty songs.

By the 1920s, plastic ukuleles were made in the U.S. for about $5.95 and they were easy to bring along to parties and campgrounds, according to a 2015 article, “The Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele.”

Portable and easy to play, their popularity climbed during the 1930s Depression, when they were more affordable than other instruments. Cliff Edwards, known as “Ukulele Ike” in the early 19th century, introduced “Singing in the Rain” in “The Hollywood Revue of ’29,” and appeared in 47 movies during the 1930s and ’40s. According to the book, “Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites,” Ukulele Ike was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the 1939 movie “Pinocchio.” He sang “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

In the 1950s, Arthur Godfrey, a TV host, gave lessons right on his show.

But the electric guitar was king in the 1960s, and the ukulele became a fossil — a dated instrument upon which Tiny Tim recorded his 1920s- and 1930s-era songs, including “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

The “ukepocalypse” lasted about 20 years before the uke made its comeback. In September 1996, the Montague Bookmill hosted a large ukulele expo that brought Hawaiian uke-makers to Franklin County, along with antique ukes, Hawaiian shirts and even a ukulele owned by Elvis. The expo was followed by a ukulele concert at the Montague Grange, which featured Tiny Tim as the headliner. However, Tiny Tim had a heart attack on stage just before his performance and was rushed to the hospital, so Jumpin’ Jim Beloff — then a relatively unknown ukulele performer — did a vibrant set.

“I would say the biggest name in ukuleles is Jim Beloff,” noted Joe Blumenthal, founder of the ukulele music ensemble AEIOUkes. “That’s one of the reasons for the resurgence. He’s written so many books.”

A ‘gateway drug into music’

Blumenthal owns Downtown Sounds in Northampton, and teaches “Introduction to Ukuleles” at Greenfield Community College.

“The uke is very popular,” Blumenthal said. “Ukes have been really helpful in keeping me in business for the last five years. We sell dozens and dozens.”

AEIOUkes has been meeting weekly since then, and about 25 to 30 people come to play in a song circle together on Saturday mornings, from 10 a.m. to noon at Northampton’s Forbes Library. There is also a more advanced, guided session that Blumenthal leads on the third Wednesdays of the month. The group’s biggest show of the year is Northampton’s First Night New Year’s Eve celebration.

While AEIOUkes might be the first instance in which many local people try playing a ukulele, for Beloff, his interest in the instrument came when he bought his first one at a flea market in 1992. Since then, Beloff and his wife, Liz, have founded Flea Market Music, have traveled throughout the country teaching the instrument, and have written several music books that include ukulele chords and songs of all eras, contributing to the resurgence in the instrument’s popularity.

The introduction to Beloff’s “’60s Uke-In Songbook” was written by former Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who loved ukuleles, too.

“Everybody should have and play a uke,” Harrison wrote. “It’s so simple to carry with you, and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh. I love them. The more the merrier. Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers.’ So get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves.”

Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was made into a ukulele hit through “Ukulele Weeps” by ukulele artist Jake Shimbukuro, who plays it in a classical guitar style. The YouTube video of the song has more than 16 million views.

Additionally, Beloff’s brother-in-law, Dale Web, started The Magic Fluke Co. in Sheffield. This Berkshire County business makes ukuleles out of a composite construction of wood and injection-molded thermoplastic. They sound very good, but are also budget priced.

“Until then,” Blumenthal said, “you either bought a piece of trash or a Martin ukulele for $1,000.” But because of the Magic Fluke and other new ukulele companies that followed, “It’s very accessible now.”

“Now you can buy a real instrument for a very affordable price. The ukulele is great for all kinds of music,” Blumenthal said. “I would describe the uke as a cheap gateway drug into music.”

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes West County. She can be reached at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 277.

Upcoming events

Workshops with Julie Stepanek will be held:

■Thursday (Oct. 18) at 6:45 p.m., Leverett Library

Friday (Oct. 19) at 2 p.m., Bangs Community Center in Amherst

Sunday (Oct. 21) at 3 p.m., Jones Library in Amherst

■Monday (Oct. 29) at 7 p.m., M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury

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