Eddie Vedder and the Mighty Uke
The ukulele has had its ups and downs. The plucky little instrument, which has been experiencing a resurgence of late, was all the rage in the Jazz Age, when crooners like Cliff Edwards (aka Ukulele Ike) and George Formby popularized the inexpensive, portable and easy-to-play instrument.
The rest of the 20th century, however, was less accommodating. Tiny Tim stirred some interest in the late ‘60s with the novelty hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” but that brief moment in the spotlight was followed by a long stretch when it was treated as a bit of a joke. But no more.
A decade back, I subscribed to a late, lamented ukulele publication called the Ukulele Occasional, which opened my eyes to a ukulele-worshipping subculture. Pretty fascinating. Among the musicians who’ve cherished their ukes are Paul McCartney and the late George Harrison.
And plenty of contemporary artists have embraced it more recently, ranging from Stephin Merritt to Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, “the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.” Plus there’s a small army of collectors and aficionados. Warren Buffett is a devotee! Who knew?
Which brings us to Eddie Vedder’s new release, Ukulele Songs. Clearly a labor of love (the book-bound CD package is simply beautiful), it captures the Pearl Jam frontman indulging a longstanding affection for the instrument. (Vedder, incidentally, was interviewed in the first issue of the Ukulele Occasional, which was quite a get for a brand-new, small-circulation fanzine.) The album consists of 11 originals and a handful of smartly selected covers (a personal fave – the country chestnut “Sleepless Nights” with the Swell Season’s Glen Hansard singing harmony). It’s a sweet set you settle down with and savor. Call it the perfect June album – and the uke sets the tone.
These days, no one’s laughing at the ukulele. Smiling, yes, but not laughing.