Ukuleles in Fiction

I had a trawl through Project Gutenberg for references to ukuleles. There were a few passing references from people you might expect like F. Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse. You can read those – and plenty of others – on Backwards Ukulele Player’s posts on this subject.

But it’s obvious the writer most fond of the ukulele (and Hawaii) was Jack London. And it seems to have been reciprocated. Nalu-Music recounts how Ernest Kaai performed the Jack London Hula in his honour.

Here are some extracts from London along with tales of villainous ukulele-factory owners being foiled by folding-ukulele makers, boys referring to head-lice inspection as ‘playing the ukulele’, picking up chicks and rendering the twilight hideous (as if Twilight wasn’t hideous enough already).

The Valley of the Moon – Jack London

“The golden koa, the king of woods,” Mercedes was crooning over the instrument. “The ukulele–that is what the Hawaiians call it, which means, my dear, the jumping flea. They are golden-fleshed, the Hawaiians, a race of lovers, all in the warm cool of the tropic night where the trade winds blow”…

Little traffickings began between the two women. After Mercedes had freely taught Saxon the loose-wristed facility of playing accompaniments on the ukulele, she proposed an exchange. Her time was past, she said, for such frivolities, and she offered the
instrument for the breakfast cap of which Saxon had made so good a success.

The Turtles of Tasman – Jack London

There were days when Tom could not go out, postponements of outdoor frolics, when, still the centre, he sat and drowsed in the big chair, waking, at times, in that unexpected queer, bright way of his, to roll a cigarette and call for his ukulele sort of miniature guitar of Portuguese invention. Then, with strumming and tumtuming, the live cigarette laid aside to the imminent peril of polished wood, his full baritone would roll out in South Sea hulas and sprightly French and Spanish songs…

On an afternoon in the late fall all were gathered about the big chair and Captain Tom. Though he did not know it, he had drowsed the whole day through and only just awakened to call for his ukulele and light a cigarette at Polly’s hand. But the ukulele lay idle on his arm, and though the pine logs crackled in the huge fireplace he shivered and took note of the cold…

His voice ceased utterly, though his lips still moved. A look of unbelief and vast surprise dawned on his face. Followed a sharp, convulsive shudder. And in that moment, without warning, he saw Death. He looked clear-eyed and steady, as if pondering, then turned to Polly. His hand moved impotently, as if to reach hers, and when he found it, his fingers could not close. He gazed at her with a great smile that slowly faded. The eyes drooped as the life went out, and remained a face of quietude and repose. The ukulele clattered to the floor. One by one they went softly from the room, leaving Polly alone.

Sympathetic Magic – Paul Cameron Brown

Spanish ivy
is the pastrami
of this terrace —
thick, white walls,
Hispanic style,
unite with prim elasticity
to quicken
Picasso’s sunshine
like a ukulele
strumming the grave.

More ukulele poetry here.

Hints to Pilgrims – Charles Stephen Brooks

Then we have a kind of Peter Pan grown to shiny middle life, who makes ukuleles for a living. On any night of special celebration he is prevailed upon to mount a table and sing one of his own songs to this accompaniment. These songs tell what a merry, wicked crew we are. He sings of the artists’ balls that ape the Bohemia of Paris, of our genius, our unrestraint, our scorn of all convention. What is morality but a suit to be discarded when it is old? What is life, he sings, but a mad jester with tinkling bells? Youth is brief, and when dead we’re buried deep. So let’s romp and drink and kiss. It is a pagan song that has lasted through the centuries. If it happens that any folk are down from the uptown hotels, Peter Pan consents to sell a ukulele between his encores. Here, my dear pilgrims, is an entertainment to be squeezed between Ziegfeld’s and the Winter Garden.

Biltmore Oswald – J. Thorne Smith, Jr.

After supper we went up to another place for coffee, a fine little place for sailormen, situated on the south side of the square. Here we were received with winning cordiality and Fogerty was given a fried egg, a dish of which he is passionately fond. But even here he got into trouble by putting one of his great feet through a Ukulele, which isn’t such a terrible thing to do, except in certain places.

The House of Torchy – Sewell Ford

Well, everybody showed up. And as it happens, it’s one of the big nights at the Purple Pup. The long center table is surrounded by a gay bunch of assorted artists who are bein’ financed by an out-of-town buyer who seems to be openin’ Chianti reckless. We were over in one corner, as far away from the ukulele torturers as we could get, while at the other end of the room is Rupert with his two. I thought he looked kind of pallid, but it might have been only on account of the cigarette smoke.

Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis

Ted had collected fifty or sixty announcements, from annual reference-books, from Sunday School periodicals, fiction-magazines, and journals of discussion. One benefactor implored, “Don’t be a Wallflower – Be More Popular and Make More Money – YOU Can Ukulele or Sing Yourself into Society! By the secret principles of a Newly Discovered System of Music Teaching, any oneóman, lady or childócan, without tiresome exercises, special training or long drawn out study, and without waste of time, money or energy, learn to play by note, piano, banjo, cornet, clarinet, saxophone, violin or drum, and learn sight-singing.”

Possessed – Cleveland Moffett

This story presents the fulfillment of an extraordinary prophecy made one night, suddenly and dramatically, at a gathering of New Yorkers, brought together for hilarious purposes, including a little supper, in the Washington Square apartment of Bobby Vallis – her full name was Roberta. There were soft lights and low divans and the strumming of a painted ukulele that sang its little twisted soul out under the caress of Penelope’s white fingers. I can still see the big black opal in its quaint setting that had replaced her wedding ring and the yellow serpent of pliant gold coiled on her thumb with two bright rubies for its eyes. Penelope Wells! How little we realized what sinister forces were playing about her that pleasant evening as we smoked and jested and sipped our glasses, gazing from time to time up the broad vista of Fifth Avenue with its lines of receding lights.

The Smiling Hill-Top – Julia M. Sloane

Now, if years had not taught me some fundamental facts about my limitations, I should probably render twilight hideous with a ukelele, for a ukelele goes a guitar one better, and Aloha Oe wailed languorously on that instrument would make even a Quaker relax.

Missy – Dana Gatlin

The ukelele under his fingers thrummed out a soft, vibrant, melancholy accompaniment. It was divine! Here surely was a “harper passing all other!” Mr. Saunders looked something like a knight, too – all but his costume. He was so tall and dark and handsome; and his dark eyes were bold, though now so soft from his own music…

She took the ukelele from him. He showed her how to place her fingers – their fingers got tangled up – they laughed…

“The ukelele. Yes, Saunders is a wizard with it. But in spite of that he’s a good fellow.” (What did “in spite of that” mean? Didn’t Uncle Charlie approve of harpers?)

Merton of the Movies – Harry Leon Wilson

The girl seemed to be unaware that she had lost his attention. “And you see the villain is very wealthy; he owns the largest ukelele factory in the islands, and he tries to get me in his power, but he’s foiled by my fiance, a young native by the name of Herman Schwarz, who has invented a folding ukelele, so the villain gets his hired Hawaiian orchestra to shove Herman down one of the volcanoes and me down another, but I have the key around my neck, which Father put there when I was a babe and made me swear always to wear it, even in the bath-tub, so I let myself out and unlock the other one and let Herman out and the orchestra discovers us and chases us over the cliff, and then along comes my old nurse who is now running a cigar store in San Pedro and sheó” Here she affected to discover that Mr. Henshaw no longer listened.

The Hawaiian Romance Of Laieikawai – Anonymous

The boys in a certain district school on Hawaii call the weekly head inspection “playing the ukulele” in allusion to the literal interpretation of the name for the native banjo.

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9 Comments

  1. Alex D-uke October 26th, 2011 7:13 pm

    I’d like to be the first person to congratulate you on that very fine Twilight gag.
    Well done Sir.

  2. yuval October 26th, 2011 7:34 pm

    “It was the best of Ukuleles, it was the worst of Ukuleles”

  3. twillian October 26th, 2011 8:10 pm

    Let’s not forget Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, wherein Bertie’s banjolele provides an important plot point. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thank_You,_Jeeves

  4. Ron Hale October 27th, 2011 2:10 am

    Well then, Al, let’s add a few more words to the mix, shall we?

    Don Blanding – Hula Moon

    It stimulated the guests to song and dance, now that the serious side of eating had passed. A steady surf of sound, laughter, and chatter swept the groups. Boys started singing to the accompaniment of sobbing steel guitars and fretful ukuleles’…

    …..

    Cats, dogs, chickens and sometims a pig enlived the yard. Scraps of song or the endless twanging of ukuleles sounded from the lanais at any hour of the day.

    Hawaii – James Michener

    It was uncanny, at such moments, how the Hawaiian men who worked for Whip would sense his mood. In twos and threes they would appear mysteriously with ukuleles, strumming them idly in subtle island harmonies.

    …..

    “I’m sure Mrs. Henderson would like to hear some of the old songs,” and soon she had scraped together a couple of ukuleles and two guitars.
    The stately Hawaiian women preferred standing
    while they sang, and now along one side of the room they

  5. Ron Hale October 27th, 2011 2:18 am

    Oops…

    formed a frieze of giants, and after a few preliminary plunks on their instruments, launched into a series of the most cherished Hawaiian melodies.

    …..

    Standing vast like a monument with silvery hair, she soared into the sweeping lyric portion of the song [Hawaiian Wedding Song], and after a while mother and son combined in the final haunting duet. It was an unusually fortunate rendition, and as the lingering chords died away, Mrs. Choy banged her ukulele several times and cried, “I could sing this way all night.”

  6. Ron Hale October 27th, 2011 7:02 am

    Shark Dialogues – Kiana Davenport

    It was a huge crowd of several thousand, the haole elite, as well as locals and immigrants:
    anyone who loved horses and rodeos. Inside, an almost circus atmosphere prevailed, smell of sawdust and nervous animals, horse manure and beer, “shave ice” flavored with coconut juice,
    and something new called “hot dogs.” Clowns turned hurdy-gurdies, while painted midgets cartwheeled by, and strolling Hawaiians played
    ‘ukulele, guitars, mandolin.

  7. karl October 28th, 2011 10:49 am

    I did more or less the same in Dutch fiction, coming up with five titles (Reve, Mulish, Brouwers), each time in a depraising way and spelt like our dictionaries say and our methods books don’t (ukelele). With Mulisch, it’s the sign of a father becoming mentally unstable, with Brouwers it’s the accessory of an incompetent minister of culture.

    In French, there are two fiction books actually called ‘Ukulélé’, one a detective novel from the 1950s and the other the graphic diary of Joann Sfar.

  8. Woodshed October 28th, 2011 3:40 pm

    Ron and karl: Thanks very much for the extra info!

  9. Peter O November 6th, 2011 5:05 am

    I love Captain Tom’s death, with his ukelele clattering to the floor. What a way to go.

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