BY JIM TRANQUADA | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal and her ukulele won the 2016 season of America’s Got Talent, it’s safe to say no one was anticipating how the young artist might end up contributing to ukulele literature. In fact, the idea that there is such a thing as ukulele literature would draw a blank stare from most people.
But earlier this year, VanderWaal made her acting debut in the Disney production of Stargirl, the movie version of Jerry Spinelli’s bestselling 2000 young-adult novel about Stargirl Caraway, a tenth grader at Mica High School who wears outrageous outfits, defies social convention, and plays her ukulele everywhere.
Stargirl isn’t the first ukulele-focused book to be made into a movie (more on that later). And while there are no references to the ukulele in Shakespeare or Keats—the ukulele is a modern phenomenon, after all—its recurring role in novels, short stories, and poetry is almost as old as the instrument itself. Over the last 130 years or so, it has drawn the attention of such distinguished authors as Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Malcolm Lowry, among others.
Regardless of the author, over the decades, literary treatments of the ukulele have largely mirrored society’s attitude toward the diminutive instrument—initially as an exotic novelty, then as a symbol of youthful rebellion, next as a musical joke, and more recently as a quirky tool for the expression of individuality. Looking back, it’s remarkable how the same small instrument could play so many disparate roles.
The ukulele’s earliest known literary appearance came just four years after the first ukulele makers opened up shop in Honolulu. In Olivia Lovell Wilson’s “A Knight of the Garter,” in the July 1888 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, Frank Ralston encounters Nina Gillespie on the deck of a Lake Ontario steamer holding “in her hands a curious little guitar, ornamented with a bow of yellow ribbon, and playing a tinkling accompaniment to the song she was humming.” Of course, Frank’s curiosity is piqued, and he later has a chance to ask her about it as he is rowing her back to the hotel where they are both staying.
“And now let me ask, Miss Gillespie, what is that little instrument you have in your lap?”
“This,” she replied, running her fingers over the strings and emitting a sweet chord, “is a taro-patch fiddle, brought from the Sandwich Islands where I spent last winter.”
“Why is it called a fiddle? It is like a guitar. And why ‘taro-patch’?”
“Taro is a weed that the natives cultivate. It grows like a beet in marshy land. The people live in and about their taro patches and use this little instrument, and so it is called a taro-patch fiddle. This is one of the native songs.” And touching the strings, she sang softly some unintelligible syllables to their accompaniment.
Subsequent appearances by the ukulele in this early period were in stories set in Honolulu. In “Kumalea,” an 1893 syndicated newspaper piece by Richard Hamilton Potts, tourist Frank Balfour is enchanted by Kumalea, the attractive daughter of a wealthy Hawaiian, who “would sing her pretty native songs to the accompaniment of her ukulele bringing out all of the sad, weird charm of which they were capable.” The ukulele also provides local atmosphere in a series of badly written novels set in Hawaii, including Ellen Blackmer Maxwell’s 1896 offering, Three Old Maids in Hawaii; Isobel Strong’s The Girl From Home: A Story of Honolulu from 1905; Jessie Kaufman’s 1912 novel, A Jewel of the Seas; and Fanny Heaslip Lea’s 1914 novel, Sicily Ann: A Romance. Such efforts didn’t sell well in Honolulu. “Booksellers have abandoned the endeavor of pushing the sale of the several Hawaiian romances written by Sunday authors within the last few years,” Paradise of the Pacific noted in 1906. “They fail to find the essence of Hawaiian life and therefore their works carry an insipidness that renders them unsalable.”
It wasn’t until 1897 that ukulele literature claimed its first major author, although it’s likely that Rudyard Kipling had no idea that he was making such a contribution at the time. In Captains Courageous, 15-year-old Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled son of a railway tycoon, falls overboard from an ocean liner and is rescued by Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman, in the mid-Atlantic. It turns out Manuel is from Madeira, and one evening pulls out what Kipling describes as “a tiny, guitar-like thing with wire strings, which he called a nachette” and sings a song in Portuguese. Apparently while doing his research for the novel among the fishermen of Boston and Gloucester, many of whom were Portuguese, Kipling heard “nachette” instead of “machete”—which was the immediate ancestor of the ukulele, brought to Hawaii by Madeiran plantation workers in 1879.
The ukulele got a much more substantial role in Jack London’s 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon—a role that reflected not only his visit to Hawaii six years earlier, but the growing popularity of the ukulele among young people on the West Coast. London’s novel chronicles the lives of Oakland teamster Billy Roberts and his wife, Saxon Brown, a laundry worker who learns the ukulele from Mercedes, a neighbor. Exoticism is still the rule, as London describes Saxon’s introduction to the ukulele this way: “Softly throbbing, voice and strings arose on sensuous crests of song, died away to whisperings and caresses, drifted through love-dusks and twilights, or swelled again to love-cries barbarically imperious in which were woven plaintive calls and madness of invitation and promise.”
When Saxon and Billy leave Oakland on a search for a new life in the country, they eventually wind up on the beach in Carmel, California, with a group of young bohemians. Here, we see exoticism replaced with youthful enthusiasm. “The girls lighted on Saxon’s ukulele and nothing would do but she must play and sing,” London wrote. “Several of them had been to Honolulu, and knew the instrument. . . . Also, they knew Hawaiian songs she had learned from Mercedes and soon, to her accompaniment, all were singing ‘Aloha Oe,’ ‘Honolulu Tomboy,’ and ‘Sweet Lei Lehua.’”
The publication of London’s novel coincided with the first outbreak of ukulele poetry—surprisingly, in England. In his 1913 poem “Waikiki,” poet Rupert Brooke—who tragically died just two years later while serving in the British Navy during World War I—immortalized his trip to Hawaii with the lines:
Warm perfumes like a breath
from vine and tree
Drift down the darkness.
Plangent, hidden from eyes
Somewhere a eukaleli thrills and cries
And stabs with pain the night’s brown savagery.
The same year as Brooke’s death, 1915, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which made the ukulele a national sensation, thanks to the crowd-pleasing music featured daily at the Hawaiian Pavillion. It was at this point the ukulele began to shift from being a piece of tropical exotica and instead became a ubiquitous Jazz Age phenomenon. In popular fiction, the ukulele moved from the hands of demure young ladies to the hands of high school and college men—the result of the instrument’s popularity among American soldiers during the war, which reversed the gendering of the ukulele.
The new stereotype emerged as early as October 1919, when P.G. Wodehouse’s Damsel in Distress portrayed “the handsome sophomore from Yale sitting beside her on the moonlit porch playing the ukulele.” A month later, Booth Tarkington, in his short story “Girl, Girl, Girl,” had his two protagonists—both college sophomores—mooning after an attractive girl and sitting on the porch playing the ukulele and mandolin. One month after that, in Donn Byrne’s novel The Strangers’ Banquet, reference is made to “the curly-headed ukulele-players just unloosed from college.”
And so it went through the 1920s, with the ukulele inescapably identified with youthful rebellion, jazz music, and sex. In one classic scene from Ernest Pascal’s 1924 novel The Dark Swan, Wilfrid, the New York bohemian, “picked up his ukulele and flung himself on the divan. Strum, strum, strum, and the half-sung line of a song . . . He remembered the first afternoon Eve had come over there . . . and he remembered her pirouetting about in her underclothes . . . Strum, strum, strum, strum. . .”
Sinclair Lewis targeted the ukulele in Babbitt, his 1922 satire of modern commercial culture in America. A music school pitch for ukulele lessons makes a brief but memorable appearance as an example of the kind of modern instruction Ted Babbitt prefers to what he calls the “old-fashioned junk” that they teach at his high school—washed-up has-beens like Shakespeare and Milton.
The enormous popularity of the ukulele in the 1920s bred an equally powerful reaction reflected in an extensive literature of ukulele disrespect. Consider this excerpt from Thomas Ybarra’s 1916 poem “Hawaii,” which appeared in the New York Times at a time when the uke’s explosive popularity was already beginning to wear thin on some people:
Oh, my Hawaiian fay,
I’ll serenade you daily,
Having learned to play
Upon the ukulele;
It certainly is more than queer
That I should journey over here
To advertise my passion,
And be irrevocably bent
On twanging this freak instrument
But, maiden, it’s the fashion!
Two years later, Ring Lardner, the syndicated sports columnist and short story writer admired by Hemingway, took issue with the ubiquitous magazine advertisements that proclaimed that “popularity follows the ukulele. If you play quaint, dreamy Hawaiian music or the latest songs on the ukulele, you will be wanted everywhere.” Lardner’s take: “We hate to disagree with paid advertising, but we tried that ukulele proposition and our music was quaint to say the least. We found we were not wanted anywhere. In fact, we received many high-class invitations containing the clause, ‘Please tie the uke outside.’”
Sarah Lee Brown Fleming, the Black playwright, poet, and novelist, wanted the ukulele tied outside for a different reason. She urged Black people to turn their backs on the ukulele for what she regarded as a more genuine expression of Black culture in her 1920 poem, “Put Away That Ukelele”:
Don’t you hear old Orpheus
calling to you, Alexander Poe?
He says just quit that ukelele
and play on the old banjo.
Those Honolulu jingles,
like the dog, has had its day,
Go put the faithful banjo down,
put the ukelele away.
By 1930, the ukulele took on a positively sinister aspect in Agatha Christie’s short story, “The Bird with a Broken Wing,” in which an attractive young woman is murdered mysteriously and no trace of the weapon can be found until the brilliant Mr. Satterthwaite deduces that she was strangled with a string from her own ukulele.
But most people were content to just not take it seriously. It was in 1928, for example, that the humorist and author Will Rogers compared President Calvin Coolidge to a ukulele: “Coolidge is the only presidential candidate nobody ever knew when he was acting and when he wasn’t. He was like a ukulele. You can’t tell when somebody is playing one, or just monkeying with it.”
That was also the year that Viña Delmar published her bestselling first novel, Bad Girl, in which Dot Haley uses her ukulele to meet future husband Eddie Collins on a Hudson River ferry—just as Olivia Lovell Wilson used a ukulele to bring her characters together on a lake steamer 40 years earlier. Delmar opens her novel with an embrace of flapper ukulele culture: “Someone had brought a ukulele. Someone who hit the strings with a gay discordancy, a gleeful insolence that seems to say, ‘Sure, it’s out of tune. Who cares?’” Almost 90 years before Stargirl went Hollywood, Bad Girl was made into the 1931 movie of the same name. Starring Sally Eilers and James Dunn, it won Academy Awards for best director and best adopted screenplay.
By the time the movie version of Bad Girl was released, the world was in the grips of the Great Depression and youthful rebellion was no longer in vogue. In his 1930 essay “The Reaction of the Intellectuals,” G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown mysteries, targeted the ukulele as he welcomed what he saw as the growing reaction against the excesses of the Jazz Age and a return to more conventional values. Chesterton hailed what he saw as “the joyous spectacle of smashing the gramophones and saxophones and the ukuleles, hurling away the cocktails, wrecking the racing cars, and generally showing that there is life in the old dog yet.”
Ukulele literature reached a nadir, albeit a well-written one, in 1934 when P.G. Wodehouse published Thank You, Jeeves. The plot turns on Bertie Wooster’s enthusiastic embrace of the banjo ukulele and the complications that ensue when Jeeves, his faithful butler, gives notice rather than listen to Bertie strum and sing such tunes as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “I Want an Automobile with a Horn that Goes Toot Toot Toot.” Jeeves’ announcement follows on the heels of a visit by an irate Sir Roderick Glossop, who blasts Bertie as a public menace. “For weeks, it appears, you have been making life a hell for all your neighbors with some hideous musical instrument. I see you have it with you now. How dare you play that thing in a respectable block of flats? Infernal din!”
While ukulele literature fell on hard times during the Depression, it did not disappear entirely—although it took on an uncharacteristically grim cast. When Francis Gardens played his ukulele in front of the fire in British novelist Stella Gibbons’ Enbury Heath (1935), the songs he played were “poor little jerking tunes without line of joy or hope . . . written to a formula by three extremely vulgar and rather wicked men.” Mick Kelly, the tomboy in Carson McCullers’ 1940 bestseller The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, struggles to make a violin out of a broken ukulele. At least in Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” her 1941 debut, when the narrator prepares to leave her family home, the ukulele is one of the items that she thinks is worth claiming, together with all of her watermelon-rind preserves.
After World War II, ukulele literature reverted to a kind of ethnic literature, as in the stories Elma Cabral wrote about the Portuguese experience in Hawaii published in Paradise of the Pacific—today’s Honolulu Magazine—in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Her 1946 telling of the introduction of the ukulele in Hawaii, “Grandpa Was a Troubadour,” has been anthologized several times since, most recently in Honolulu Stories (2008). Novelist Katherine Vaz, like Cabral the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant, reimagined the introduction of the ukulele to Hawaii in her 1997 story, “The Remains of Princess Kaiulani’s Garden.” Vaz carefully notes, however, that any similarities between her characters and historical figures are purely coincidental.
The international ukulele revival of the last two decades has not been accompanied by a similar surge in ukulele literature. Like Stargirl, electrical engineer-turned-writer Mark Peter Hughes’ best-selling 2007 YA novel, Lemonade Mouth, also features an unconventional heroine whose ukulele playing sets her apart and creates all kinds of complications. Stella Penn, Hughes’ protagonist, describes herself as “a ‘ukulele-playing maverick.” Also like Stargirl, Lemonade Mouth was transformed into a Disney movie—alas, with the ukuleles written out.
While many authors have included the ukulele in their work, none was more closely associated with the instrument than Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957), the English novelist, poet, and author of Under the Volcano. Lowry learned to play the ukulele at 16, serenaded his first love with a ukulele, traveled with it everywhere, and played it in the Footlights Revue as an undergraduate at Cambridge. It seems fitting to close with his 1940 poem “Epitaph”:
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily
And died playing the ukulele.