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Monday 24 Jun 2024

The Ukulele Spiel
David Simmonds

The big wave has finally crested. The humble ukulele has had its day as the go-to instrument for musical beginners and recreational players. What triggered this monumental change?

► Prince Philip likes ukulele music, as he drives.

Prince Philip, 97, had an automobile accident. A report, earlier this week, that at the time of his accident, in which he flipped his Land Rover and injured a couple of peasants, but was fortunately unhurt himself, Prince Philip had ukulele music playing on his stereo system, in the vehicle. “It’s not hard to put two and two together,” said a police source said anonymously.

“Most people can’t stand the ukulele music, myself included,” said our source; “it irritates them to no end and fuels road rage. Yet, a significant minority of people find it entrancing; ukulele music lulls them into a kind of stupor. I expect that’s the defence that the Prince will mount. Either way, we’re going to have to ban ukulele music from automobiles,” which, the source concedes, could mark the end of the ukulele as a popular instrument for beginners.

Rumours of the impending decline of the ukulele met with widespread approval. “For a while there, you couldn’t venture down the street without hearing a ukulele orchestra plunking out ‘Red River Valley,” complains one Wellington, Ontario, resident. Said a Picton man, “I started having nightmares in which I saw a picture of Louis Armstrong strumming a ukulele instead of holding a trumpet when he played “What a Wonderful World.” A Hillier senior also noted, “I was sick of feeling like I had to do a hula dance every time I heard ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow.’”

The ukulele was initially a breath of fresh air. It had advantages over the guitar. It was cheaper and easier to carry and tune. As well, you could go into a music store and be reasonably certain that no one was sitting around trying to play “Stairway to Heaven” on the ukulele or enter a public square without worrying that some Bob Dylan wannabe was strumming “Like a Rolling Stone” to the strains of a ukulele.

► What will replace the ukulele?

If the time is up for the ukulele, what is going to take its place? The guitar, again, might claim a top spot. No, people are still tired of guitars. The mandolin: mandolin orchestras abounded during the early part of the last century. No, it will have to be something fresher. What of there was more interest in the recorder, melodica or harmonica? The problem with these instruments is that they all use the mouth, making it difficult and in some cases impossible to sing and play at the same time.


So what else does that leave, the autoharp, shruti box or banjo? Not if I can help it: I’d take the ukulele as my poison of choice if faced with any of those alternatives. To put the point politely, I don’t think the drone of the shruti box would enhance any rendition of “You are my sunshine.”

I think the instrument that is the up and comer is the glockenspiel. The glockenspiel has had a bum rap, earning most of its reputation as a hammering toy for a child. Serious musicians have employed it. Bruce Springsteen used it on his famous “Born to Run,” as did the Beatles on “Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite.” Radiohead and Rush have used it too. The glockenspiel is evident at many US college football games when the band strikes up between plays.

In its most basic form, the glockenspiel consists of one set of eight or twelve notes, comprising a scale and a scale and a half respectively. Although that sounds limiting, the full dress glockenspiel used by a marching band can span some three and a half octaves.

I think it’s safe to say the full potential of the glockenspiel is unrealized. Blues artists, for instance, are taking notice. Chicago blues artist, Mad Dog Higgins, is reported to have investigated the glockenspiel and ordered one with a custom flattened 7th key. He said, “You start to play that thing, you really feel blue immediately.” Canadian hip-hop entrepreneur, Duke, is considering licensing a series of glockenspiels that will bear his imprimatur. A serious revival of John Philip Sousa marching music is underway, which would doubtless boost the demand for glockenspiels

► No more plunkety-plunk.

For me, the day can’t come soon enough when the fresh tones and hammered bells of the glockenspiel replace plunkety-plunk sound of the ukulele. I can picture the County glockenspiel band marching in the Pumpkinfest parade, even if it has to follow behind the Wellington ukulele ensemble. Louis Armstrong would only have to turn over in his grave once.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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