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The ukulele was dead.

The island instrument made a modest mainland splash in San Francisco back in 1915, but only enjoyed periodic waves of exotic interest. It was, perhaps a difficult instrument to take seriously.

“Red River Valley” performed well on ukulele is heartbreaking, and although people tend to remember only the quavering falsetto and the Tonight Show appearances, Tiny Tim made stirringly beautiful music on the ukulele. And when the joke died, and so did the uke.

Or so we thought…

Not only has the ukulele risen from the dead, it has permeated mainstream culture, currently enjoying an ever-growing appreciation by amateurs and professional musicians alike.

Tracing the current revival of the ukulele brings us to the 1999 album ’69 Love Songs’ from Magnetic Fields. The album featured the ukulele heavily, and was quickly followed by bands like Beirut, Noah and the Whale, Mirah, and Dent May, to name a few.

1999 was also the year of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s now-famous version of ‘Over the Rainbow.’ If you didn’t hear it upon its release, you probably recognize it from an ad – the song was licensed well over a hundred times for a variety of national tv spots.

A decade later, the ukulele achieved mainstream success with the 2009 Grammy-winning hit song ‘Hey Soul Sister’ by Train. Sales of the instrument during this time skyrocketed…at least when compared to sales in the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s.

Neil Armstrong strums ukulele

Neil Armstrong strums a ukulele in quarantine after return from the Apollo 11 mission

Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer sees the instrument as a symbol, a reaction to the polished music industry of today. Palmer picked up a toy uke for twenty bucks to perform Radiohead‘s ‘Creep’ as a gag at one of her concerts, but the joke was on her. She was surprised by the instrument’s intensity, a relatively blank canvas that allowed her to strip the song to its elemental core. After incorporating it as a staple of her live show, she released the album ‘Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magic Ukulele’ in 2010.

Here we are, another five years later, and the craze hasn’t subsided. In fact, artists are finding ways to evolve the range of the instrument, repurposing it for new sounds.

Merril Garbus of Tune-Yards, while recording a recent album, said he wanted to make the ukulele sound different, using electronic pickups and overdrive to give it a ‘gnarly edge.’ This evolution will be essential to preventing the ukulele from falling out of public consciousness again.

With the rise of banjos and mandolins in indie-rock, it’s reasonable to believe that the uke is here to stay.

 


Peter Getty is a musician, producer, writer and philanthropist. Based in San Francisco, he was a member of the band Virgin-Whore Complex and founded the record label Emperor Norton.