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The ‘Ukulele

A History

Jim Tranquada and John King

Publication Year: 2012

Since its introduction to Hawai‘i in 1879, the ‘ukulele has been many things: a symbol of an island paradise; a tool of political protest; an instrument central to a rich musical culture; a musical joke; a highly sought-after collectible; a cheap airport souvenir; a lucrative industry; and the product of a remarkable synthesis of western and Pacific cultures. The ‘Ukulele: A History explores all of these facets, placing the instrument for the first time in a broad historical, cultural, and musical context.

Drawing on a wealth of previously untapped sources, Jim Tranquada and John King tell the surprising story of how an obscure four-string folk guitar from Portugal became the national instrument of Hawai’i, of its subsequent rise and fall from international cultural phenomenon to “the Dangerfield of instruments,” and of the resurgence in popularity (and respect) it is currently enjoying among musicians from Thailand to Finland. The book shows how the technologies of successive generations (recorded music, radio, television, the Internet) have played critical roles in popularizing the ‘ukulele. Famous composers and entertainers (Queen Liliuokalani, Irving Berlin, Arthur Godfrey, Paul McCartney, SpongeBob SquarePants) and writers (Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie) wind their way through its history—as well as a host of outstanding Hawaiian musicians (Ernest Kaai, George Kia Nahaolelua, Samuel K. Kamakaia, Henry A. Peelua Bishaw). In telling the story of the ‘ukulele, Tranquada and King also present a sweeping history of modern Hawaiian music that spans more than two centuries, beginning with the introduction of western melody and harmony by missionaries to the Hawaiian music renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s.

62 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Front Cover

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

In seven years’ work, we have incurred numerous debts to a large group of friends, scholars, family, and members of the ‘ukulele community. We have built on the work of pioneers, including George Kanahele and his collaborators, whose monumental 1979 volume, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, remains an indispensable resource for anyone exploring this field; Bob...

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pp. 1-4

When seventy-nine-year-old Manuel Nunes died in July 1922, the brief obituaries of the “inventor of the ‘ukulele” that appeared in Honolulu were quickly picked up by wire services and reprinted in newspapers nationwide. The ubiquity of the ‘ukulele, which had swept the mainland during the previous decade, ensured that...

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Chapter 1: These Little Instruments, of Which They Are So Fond

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pp. 5-19

In the summer of 1923, the newly formed Hawaiian Legends and Folklore Commission brought anthropologist Helen Roberts to Hawaii to collect and publish the ancient songs and chants of the Islands. Over the following year, she visited the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai, seeking out practitioners of the “old culture” and recording...

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Chapter 2: The Sound of Pa, Ko, Li

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pp. 20-36

When Frank Vincent Jr. sailed into Honolulu in 1870, he was surprised— and not a little disappointed—by what he saw: an American-looking city, with brick and stone warehouses, long lines of drays, crowds of newly arrived immigrants, and, through a half-open door, a glimpse of the inviting interior of a saloon. “We were...

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Chapter 3: The National Instrument of Hawaii

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pp. 37-54

On a warm August Saturday in 1879, a British bark out of Liverpool slipped into Honolulu Harbor, carrying the second shipload of Madeiran contract workers brought to the Islands. It had been a grueling fourmonth voyage of twelve thousand miles, during which the 427 passengers aboard the Ravenscrag endured eight straight days

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Chapter 4: Have You Seen the Bouncing Flea?

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pp. 55-73

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, few people had a better sense of the commercial potential of Hawaiian music—or were in a better position to exploit it—than Lorrin Thurston. Born in Hawaii to missionary parents, classmate of Theodore Roosevelt at Columbia Law School, politician, entrepreneur, and former minister of the interior, Thurston...

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Chapter 5: A Landscape Set to Music

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pp. 75-91

Theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco was hunting deer in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles when word reached him that his latest production, The Bird of Paradise, had flopped on opening night. Morosco raced back to town to discover that playwright Richard Walton Tully had not made any of the many cuts he had ordered during rehearsals. The...

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Chapter 6: A Craze of the Frisco Exposition

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pp. 92-113

Among the thousands of exhibits at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 was a koa table inlaid with the Hawaiian coat of arms, a gift to Queen Victoria from Kamehameha III. At the queen’s direction, it was placed on display “so as to shew to the vast assemblage of foreigners now in London the Beauty of the Woods grown in the Hawaiian...

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Chapter 7: The Height of Its Popularity

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pp. 114-135

Originally a hobby pursued by a small group of enthusiasts, radio’s explosive growth after World War I left contemporary observers struggling for adjectives. The Review of Reviews said it “has possibly not been equaled in all the centuries of human progress.” Radio Broadcast called it “almost incomprehensible.” Herbert Hoover, then...

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Chapter 8: Made of a New Gleaming Plastic Material

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pp. 136-152

In November 1948, as postwar consumer demand fueled an unprecedented economic expansion, the Honolulu Advertiser reluctantly printed an obituary for the ‘ukulele. Quoting Emerson Strong, vice president of the Brooklynbased Gretsch Manufacturing Co., the Advertiser reported that “the ukulele, outside of Hawaii, today is ‘deader than a doornail.’ ” Although..

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Chapter 9: The Growing Underground Movement

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pp. 153-166

Tiny Tim’s prime-time television debut—a medley of “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “The Good Ship Lollipop” while strumming a ‘ukulele fished out of a shopping bag—left Laugh-In cohost Dick Martin openmouthed in mock disbelief. “A little surprise for you there,” said his...

Appendix A: Chronological List of Early Hawaiian Luthiers

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pp. 167-172

Appendix B: Annotated Checklist of Selected ‘Ukulele Methods and Songbooks, 1894–1920

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pp. 173-178


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pp. 179-252


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pp. 253-270


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pp. 271-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865870
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835446

Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Ukulele.
  • Ukulele -- Hawaii -- History.
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