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Ukulele and Veteran: A Brief History

Ukulele and Veteran: A Brief History

Ukulele has an extraordinary power that brings happiness and hope. This sweet little instrument is popular among people of all ages and occupations. Veterans, in particular, are its raving fans. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, ukulele songs are played in many events and church services to honor the heroes of our nation. How did ukulele gain popularity? Why is it favored by veterans? Let’s look back into history to explore the rise of this sweet instrument.

Once a hobby of a small group of enthusiasts, ukulele became a national phenomenon after World War I. In the book The Ukulele A History, the author attributes the rise of ukulele to the explosive growth of radio after World War I. This communication breakthrough made it possible for ukulele songs to be heard effortlessly like never before. Ukulele soon became a staple of radio entertainment. Cultural critic Charles Merz acclaimed: “It is the brass bands, the harmony boys and the ukuleles that have made the radio famous. And it is to the brass bands, the popular airs, the harmony boys and the ukuleles that the radio gives most of its treasured time.” The widespread influence of ukulele songs on the radio paved the way for its popularity.

However, in November 1948, as postwar consumer demand fueled unprecedented economic expansion, the Honolulu Advertiser reluctantly printed an obituary for the ukulele - the ukulele, outside of Hawaii, today is ‘deader than a doornail.’ Apparently he based his dour opinion on the disappointing sales of Gretsch’s own frankly unappealing postwar model with a ‘warp-proof, crack-proof body of laminated hardwood in an attractive two-tone shaded lacquer finish.’ Yet one week later, the Long Beach Press Telegram reported a remarkable increase in ukulele sales and millions of instruments would be sold over the next decade. What kicked off a new ukulele revival after World War II? The convergence of two new technologies—television and modern plastics.

According to the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, no other single person has been directly responsible for the sale of as many ukuleles as Arthur Godfrey. As an enormously popular television star at the beginning of the 1950s, Godfrey single-handedly initiated the second great wave of ukulele popularity in the United States. He played his ukulele regularly on his radio and television shows, and even had a show where he gave ukulele lessons to his television audience. With the endorsement of Arthur Godfrey and other TV celebrities, as well as the growing presence of television in American households, ukulele soon enjoyed a revival.

Another technological breakthrough also played a key role in the ukulele’s rise - the modern plastics. The plastic industry came of age during World War II, as chemical research was heavily subsidized by the government in support of war efforts. After the war, the new material made its way into consumer products, including ukuleles and other instruments. As a result, ukulele became more affordable and more appealing for children, who accounted for 90 percent of sales in the 1950s. As the baby boomers grew up, they were eager to pick up their childhood fascination with ukulele.


strumming the uke

Ukulele soon became popular among variable groups of people, and especially, the veterans. A little anecdote illustrates this. In Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, an American television comedy-variety show, co-host Dan Rowan introduced Tiny Tim, an ukulele singer. He sang a medley of "A Tisket A Tasket" and "On The Good Ship Lollipop", strumming his ukulele pulled out of a shopping bag. Dan Rowan asked “You searched high and low for that one, didn’t you?” Martin said with a grin, “It kept him out of the service.” Rowan replied a reference to the Vietnam-era military draft that drew a big laugh.”

Why is ukulele popular among veterans today? The lively melody and sweet sound of ukulele have great healing power. Tom Boardman, a World War II hero said in an interview, “we needed something to take our minds away from the reality of war.”

Ukulele is also easier to learn than other instruments. Veterans can have fun with ukulele at all skill levels. Geno Muzzin is a World War II hero who served in Army during the military occupation of Korea in 1946. Now, as a 90 years old “young boy,” he is catching up the new things. Mr. Muzzin recently decided to learn how to play the guitar. But it is too difficult to learn, he switched and started to a ukulele.

In addition, ukulele gives a touch of aloha from home to veterans and the people who currently serve our nation. In 2005, 100 ukuleles were given out as gifts to 29th Brigade Combat Team members in Iraq. And, as the reporter described “one hundred ukuleles are strumming up smiles.”

On this Memorial Day, we commemorate heroes who died while serving our nation’s armed forces. Meanwhile, we honor and send our love to veterans and those who are serving currently. Let the soldiers be honored, let the flowers bloom and let the strings sound.

Do you have veterans in your life whom you want to thank and honor? Consider Populele, the world's first smart ukulele. Give your loved ones the gift of music and joy.