Plucky Ukulele Brings Upper Valley Musicians Together in Song (Video)

  • Picking up a ukulele for the first time, MaryAlice Wilson,17, of Unity, N.H. is helped by Bob Naylor, of Newport, N.H. during a gathering of the Sugar River Ukulele Club at the Richards Free Library in Newport, on Aug. 7, 2018. Wilson's mother Stepanie Zara brought her to the meeting because Wilson had asked for a ukulele. Her mother wanted her to try one before buying one. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gathering on the third floor of the Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H., on Aug. 7, 2018 the Sugar River Ukulele Club play songs together for a couple of hours. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Geraldine Moore, of Newport, N.H., is a beginner on the ukuele. Moore was at a gathering with the Sugar River Ukulele Club in Newport, on Aug. 7, 2018 at the Richards Free Library. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Joyce Davis, of Newbury, N.H., and Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the winter speaks with Gary Dickerman, of Claremont after playing for a couple of hours with the Sugar River Ukulele Club at the Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H., on Aug. 7, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Naylor, of Newport, N.H., left, helps George West, of Newbury, N.H. with his ukulele during a session for beginners during a meeting of the Sugar River Ukulele Club meeting at the Richards Free Library in Newport, on Aug. 7, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 8/17/2018 9:59:22 PM

In a world where pundits say politics is toxic, sociologists say people are isolated and parents say kids are being kidnapped by their cellphones, you can still step away from all that.

Consider the plucky ukulele, which has been making a comeback in recent years. With chunka-chunk chops and plinka-plink sweetness, it makes a case for making your own music, not alone, but in the strumming company of others.

Its revival has reached Newport, where the Sugar River Ukulele Club has been meeting twice monthly since May in the top floor of the Richards Free Library, a handsome former mansion with rich, gleaming woodwork that invites a visitor upstairs. The meeting room was once a private ballroom; one can imagine elegant waltzes there.

But seven ukulele players, among them absolute beginners, recently sat around a table with club leader Bob Naylor, of Newport, for a casual music session. There is nothing fussy about a ukulele.

“It’s a fun instrument. It just makes you smile even listening to it,’’ said Gary Dickerman, of Claremont, who took up the instrument in the spring after seeing the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at the Hopkins Center in Hanover. “That totally blew me away,” he said.

Naylor meets with beginners at 5:30 for half an hour; more experienced players trail in by 6. They take turns picking tunes from a songbook for all to play. Most sing along, but some quietly give their all to the ukulele.

There are few instruments more egalitarian. The ukulele is said to be relatively easy to learn to play, with four strings compared with six on a typical guitar. It’s small, generally ranging from 16 to 30 inches in length. You can keep one always at the ready in your car, or in a backpack, Naylor said. It’s inexpensive, about 20 bucks for a cheapo model, but Naylor recommends newbies spend $50 or more for a better instrument. He brings spare ukes to club meetings for anyone who’d like to give one a try.

The everybody-join-in spirit is a big part of the ukulele’s appeal, Naylor said. He played guitar in college but never with a band. These days, said the retired water and sewer superintendent, “There’s nothing I’d rather do than play music with other people.”

Finding them to play with isn’t as hard as it once was. Ukulele sales in the U.S. reportedly doubled from 2009 to 2012, reaching a million annually, and have climbed higher since. There are ukulele clubs in Burlington and Concord, and they have popped up both in Randolph and Hanover, at the Howe Library. Naylor has played in Hanover for about eight years; he started the Newport group so people in that area could join in without a long drive.

About six to a dozen come to the Newport sessions. Some have been “incredible’’ singers and some terrific instrumentalists, Naylor said. Beginners are embraced. One who attended recently said a friend told her, “Play the chords you know and skip those you don’t.”

At a recent meeting, songs sometimes started choppily, something like a rowing crew struggling to find its rhythm. But Naylor, a soft-spoken and friendly leader, just played a little louder to set the pace. Players generally crossed the finish line together, smiling and pleased. “Yahoo, I did it,” one woman called out.

They began with Coconut, by Harry Nilsson, which ukulele-wise and otherwise is simple as can be. Then it was on to tunes such as Under the Boardwalk, Crocodile Rock, Act Naturally, Freight Train, My Girl, Good Night Irene, Margaritaville, Me and Bobby McGee and You Are My Sunshine.

Not all is sweetness and light in the ukulele universe. They also played Amazing Grace and the dark and moving Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. The ukulele can take on any genre, said Naylor. “There’s no limitations … You can play sad music on it too,’’ he said.

The ukulele itself dates to the late 1800s, when Hawaiians made their own adaptations of instruments brought by Portuguese sailors. The name the Hawaiians gave it roughly translates as “jumping flea,’’ possibly because of the way a player’s fingers can hop over the strings. Tin Pan Alley and British music halls both took to the likable ukulele, and people of a certain age might remember popular entertainer Arthur Godfrey giving ukulele lessons to millions on national TV in the 1950s. Singers as diverse as Bing Crosby, Mele Kalikimaka, and Elvis Presley, Blue Hawaii, had ukulele hits.

An Atlantic magazine article recalled the time when Godfrey said the instrument had become American as apple pie. He declared, “If a kid has a uke in his hands, he’s not going to get into much trouble.”

Then came the 1960s, which was all about trouble. The electric guitar sounded a revolution and the agreeable ukulele faded.

The ukulele did not die, however. It was widely used for school music lessons in Canada and Great Britain. Musicians such as the Beatles’ George Harrison remained loyal fans. A resurgence of traditional music and instruments in Hawaii laid the groundwork for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World hit medley. Also from Hawaii, Jake Shimabukuro created one of the first YouTube viral videos with a complex version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. More than 16 million have seen it since 2006, some leaving comments such as “This guy is a god on a ukulele,’’ and “It’s like he is playing my heartstrings.” (Shimabukuro played at Dartmouth in 2015.)

But virtuosity isn’t what the ukulele’s mostly about. In Newport, Geraldine Moore, visiting from Bushnell, Fla., said her daughter bought her a turquoise ukulele for Christmas “so we can play together.”

Liene Coleman, of Newport, originally from Latvia, said she had tried learning on her own, but found “I really need other people to play.”

Among those at the Newport session were George West of Newbury, N.H., age 77, and MaryAlice Wilson, 17, of Unity. He sings in a doo-wop group but has never played an instrument. She was trying out a uke before deciding whether to buy one. “I love the ukulele,’’ she said after the gathering.

It seemed the decision had been made.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2019 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy