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First Person: Ukulele Memories

Teach a boy to play the uke, and he’ll have songs to sing for the rest of his life.

When I was a boy, I played the ukulele and sang songs.

In 1934, I had an afterschool job at a laundry. During idle periods while we waited for the machines to do their work, my boss, Lucy, played the uke and sang sweet tunes with words of longing. I was the best audience she ever had.

At night I went to bed humming “Red River Valley,” “New River Train,” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?”

Lucy began to teach me two chords. It was hard because I was left-handed and the uke was a right-handed instrument, but Lucy taught me to play backward.

She said, “Mista John, when y’all plays these two chords, y’all be able to play half the songs ever made, providing you knows the words. A uke’s just noise ’less you knows how to sing.”

Two chords? The world opened. Maybe I couldn’t play half the songs ever written, but I could play parts of half the songs I had come to know in my 11 years.

Other chords fell into place as my fingers became accustomed to the attention and intimacy required to play my little tunes. A bond, another sense, developed between fingers and ears. If I heard it, I could play it.

For the next few years, I favored “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” “The Darktown Strutters Ball”—jazzy songs. Through junior high, baseball, model airplanes, diphtheria, and the never-ending Depression, my relationship with the ukulele grew.

I had affairs, but they didn’t last long. There was a Hawaiian guitar and a four-string tenor, but neither provided the comfort of my undemanding uke.

I was in high school when I met her. She was responsible for my becoming attached to “moon songs”—“Shine On, Harvest Moon,” “Wabash Moon,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”

Those years when we were far from each other, when we couldn’t touch or speak, I imagined she and I might look up at the same moment and share the same yearnings. I’d strum the uke and softly lament:

Shine on, shine on, harvest moon

Up in the sky,

’Cause I ain’t had no lovin’ since

January, February, June, or July… .

Finally, we married and raised a family—a girl and two boys. It was hard to play the uke or sing moon songs because my children thought it was great sport to ridicule my talent. They’d run from the room shouting, “Oh, no, Pop’s going to sing!”

It wasn’t until the grandchildren came along that I was able to play again. They’d stand in a row with their mouths open in awe as I crooned “Blue Moon” or “Jamaica Farewell.” I tried to teach each of them two chords. Maybe I helped; three of the five grew up playing instruments.

I’ve worn out five ukes. I bought the first one on DC’s Ninth Street, Northwest, near Jimmy Lake’s Gayety Burlesque Theater, when Franklin Roosevelt was president. The last was purchased in Naples, Florida, when Ronald Reagan was top dog. Three came from Veneman’s Music in Silver Spring—they had the best tone.

When it’s my time to move on, I’d like to think the call won’t come from Gabriel blowing a trumpet. I’d prefer to look toward the bright light and hear Lucy playing the uke while her voice tenderly croons, “Baby, won’t you please come home?”

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