I am teaching myself to play the ukulele. I have always wanted to play the uke. I loved Tiny Tim on variety shows as a kid. (That could have been the freakish hair and popeyed look about him, though. You never know with me.) In one of my favorite movies as a teen, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the sadsack Mia Farrow begins to see the beauty of life when matinee idol Jeff Daniels comes down off the screen and picks up a uke to sing her a little song. The ukulele seemed like an instrument that could cure all ills, and let's face it...there's a lot of sadness in this life so it's important to find hobbies that make it impossible to stay down. As far as I can tell, the ukulele is practically a miracle cure.
Name one sad, tear-jerking uke song. I dare you. You can't, can you? That's because the ukulele is fundamentally a happy instrument. It's in a high, happy tuning. Veritable sunshine in a string, I tell you. It involves strumming. Take a moment and mime playing a ukulele. Left hand up near your shoulder, right hand strumming between your heart and your left nipple. Come on. DO IT. Your head starts bobbing back and forth, doesn't it? You start to loosen up, don't you? That's because the action of strumming a ukulele is fundamentally a stress-reducing, happy-feeling behavior. (Plus you get to say the word "nipple" without being dirty or inappropriate, and how often do we get that chance if you're not nursing a child?)
Then there's the added bonus that ukuleles aren't just brown wood. They come in a myriad of funky colors and patterns. Mine's bright orange, and triangular shaped. It's called a Mango Fluke...the perfect starter uke for those ready to dabble. It's a cutie, I'll tell you what...and it sings like a little school girl.
When I'm sad, I play my uke. When I'm worried, I play my uke. When I'm bored, I play my uke. It's the perfect remedy for all bad moods. Plus, think of the hours of party entertainment I'll be able to provide in a year or so! Cabin weekend...it's time to sing along with Mindy. Dinner party? Howard and I will be happy to play a little after-dinner music.
My song repertoire is pretty small right now since I'm only proficient in the keys of C and F, but I'm working on it. So far I've mastered "Clementine," "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," "And the Band Played On,"and "Bill Bailey,"just to name a few. I'm working on "A Bicycle Built for Two." I've also been using the web to find transcriptions of guitar chords for favorite songs...I'm refining some Jonathan Richman and "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." (Thanks, by the way, to Pam Mandel, my uke mentor and idol, for the tips on expanding your song portfolio.) I'm also thinking I might try a little Beck or something if I can find the right song, but you have to be careful when you play the uke not to be too Weird Al. (Not that turning hit rock songs into polkas doesn't have its merits. You just don't want to step over the line.)
The accordion...that's another guaranteed party instrument. I believe one of the first quotes on our Seattle pizza box was, "Where there's an accordion, there's bound to be fun." Amen to that.
But back to the point. If you haven't heard the gospel of the uke, just ask my pal Ben Hippen about the persuasive powers of the uke. Ben was a skeptic, a bit of a music sophisticate, and when he visited me back in October you could tell he thought this was yet another of my personal quirks. (To be fair, he's seen a lot of them in the past 34 years, so it's a reasonable misunderstanding.) But Howard sat there winking at him from the corner, and he couldn't resist his siren song. He picked him up, and I think it took five strums before he was a convert. Ben, I know you're out there. Testify, my brother! Testify!
So if you're feeling a little blue, try stepping out to a local music store and try your hand on a Fluke or a Flea. Listen to Iz play "Somewhere over the Rainbow." Or send me your request. I'll learn your song, and give you a call with your own personal serenade.