All Things Ukulele: Summer of uke


Sisterhood of Uke

Music is a way of life for many families. In my family, it wasn’t unusual for my dad to spend the better part of a Sunday afternoon picking tunes on his guitar, strumming hymns and teasing us with a little Johnny Cash. If more friends and family stopped in for a visit, it wasn’t unusual to find ourselves in the midst of an impromptu “singing”. In my dad’s family, every male played banjo, guitar, mandolin or all three. It was always the men I recall seeing unpacking their instruments at family reunions.

Geoff Davis’s family was exactly the opposite. Until he came along, it was the women in his family who fueled the musical heritage. And, the instrument of choice wasn’t guitar, banjo or even piano. It was the ukulele. You can listen to folklorist John Kay talking to the Geoff Davis about the ukulele tradition in his own family here:

He says one of the songs his grandmother played on the ukulele was OH BY JINGO. I have my own fond memories of that song; I’m still trying to figure out how a song about a girl from San Domingo could have such Middle Eastern rhythms, but that’s how it goes. Here’s the incomparable Spike Jones orchestra showing how it’s done:



New families can be built around music. A person would be hard-pressed to find a better substitute for a family in the works than the group that is evolving around Indianapolis musician Cara Jean Wahler’s latest brainchild, Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band. Whenever the group gathers at Cara’s house, there are pastries served on her grandma’s china, lemonade in a punchbowl, girly aprons, and, finally: music.

When she asked me to play ukulele in the all girl band that she was putting together for the Indiana State Fair, I had no idea that I would find myself amidst so many amazingly talented female musicians. There are plenty of times when I find myself just sitting and smiling as the rest of the girls show their terrific stuff; I fear I might be slightly out of my league here, but the other women are helpful, supportive and nonjudgmental. The group includes not only the amazingly talented Ms. Wahlers on guitar, but also gifted musicians such as Stasia Demos, fiddler Holly Smith, Miss Nora Spitznogle on typewriter, Tammy Lieber and the one and only Ms. Jude O’Dell.

Jude O’Dell is a bawdy banjo player who can also squeeze the blues out of her ancient tenor guitar like no girl I’ve ever met. I am thrilled enough to just be around her, let alone have the opportunity to actually play music with a musician and performer of her caliber. She spends most of her time working as a visual artist and playing in Geoff Davis’ Third Satchel Novelty Jazz Band, and she simply bubbles over with gutsy female talent. She can slap and pluck and strum that tiny guitar while she is belting a Memphis Minnie tune, and every one of us is lost in another place for awhile. When she stops singing, we all declare that we want to be just like her. She warns us, Oh no we don’t, but the spell can’t be broken so easily.

There’s another girl who can belt the blues like Memphis Minnie. Ukulele playing Eden from Eden and John’s East River String Band shares Jude‘s affection for Minnie’s ME AND MY CHAUFFEUR BLUES.

East River String band, featuring the fabulous Eden on her resonator ukulele:


What started as a personal passion has blossomed into a family institution. When I first picked up the ukulele two years ago, I thought I’d fiddle around with it, learn Five Foot Two, Ain’t She Sweet and a handful of Beatles songs and be done with it. But, my enthusiasm couldn’t be contained; by the following Christmas, my cousin, Laura had a uke of her own.

My cousin and I have always been close. Throughout childhood, we shared many passions, took trips with each others’ families, read the same books and enjoyed the same movies and music; as adolescents, we fell obsessively in love with the Beatles and took Nashville and Disney World by storm. Our mothers bought us matching outfits and we wore them without shame. It only made sense that as adults, we would find something new to consume us.

Now uking time is critical time for us. Whenever we get together, we find a way for our four children to entertain themselves, then, out come the ukuleles. While we sometimes find ourselves strumming our own tunes in different parts of a room, there isn’t anything better than when we decide to build on a song together. Such was the case during our most recent visit, when we decided to explore TONIGHT YOU BELONG TO ME, an old 1920s song that was made famous to a new generation when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sang it in THE JERK.

We tried the song in three different keys and puzzled over second position chords. In the end, we were strumming it on her screen porch, singing uninhibitedly and harmonizing, too.

Here’s the clip that made the song famous. You need to know that, although Steve Martin is a gifted musician in his own right, he is not playing the ukulele in this scene. That job was given to ukulele jazz pioneer, Mr. Lyle Ritz.

Of course, this all-in-the-family business isn’t reserved just for the girls. My cousin’s husband, inspired by her love of the uke, decided to teach himself how to play guitar. And, my own husband has taken up the ukulele, completely on his own. Armed with a few chords that he learned from our son, and a stack of chord charts, he finally found the song that made him want to give it a try: WILDWOOD FLOWER. It’s a song that is close to my heart: my Kentucky father played it Carter Family-style on his guitar when he was courting my mother.

Our version simply includes the chords (C, F, G7), but it’s the thrill of being able to play a well-loved recognizable song that finally got to my husband. Here’s the fantastic ukulele player, Ken Middleton, playing his own interpretation of the traditional song:

With that one sweet song, family things keep coming back to us.

One evening, not too long ago, as we sat around, holding our treasured ukes, my cousin said: “Here we are, approaching our mid 40s, and all of us trying something new. I think we should promise ourselves that 40 years from now, we’re going to try something else that is new and different, too.” I think that’s a great idea.

In the spirit of all this ukulele playing in our 40s, and in honor of anyone who is bold enough to pick up a new instrument and give it a try, here’s a delightful original song from my Ukulele Underground pal, Mike (a.k.a “lambchop):



Indianapolis Ukulele Fans will meet next on Saturday August 7 at the Sam Ash store in Castleton, from 10 AM to 12 noon.

Tuesday, August 10 is Blue Stone Folk School Day at the Indiana State Fair. You’ll get to experience Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band as well as Geoff Davis’s own Third Satchel Novelty Jazz Band and possibly a performance by Pholly. It will be like old time/ukulele heaven, right in the middle of August! Best of all, it’s also Turkey Hill's get in for two bucks day, so there’s really no excuse not to get there early and stay late, just print this voucher from Turkey Hill’s website:

The Blue Stone Folk School Ukulele Society meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month, from 7-9 PM. The next meeting will be Thursday, August 12, at the Judge Stone House, 107 South 8th Street, Noblesville. Bring a uke, a friend and a song.