It's hard to believe that in this day of electronic music, and internet everything, the humble ukulele has returned. Returned with a vengeance.

This inexpensive four plastic stringed instrument makes its first appearance in Europe in the mid-1800's, but it wasn't until the "uke" made its debut in Hawaii in 1879 that it became wildly popular.

It arrived with the name of a braguinha, but because it was played so quickly, it was soon nick-named Ukulele, meaning jumping flea. Twenty years later it represented the sound of the island, and the Hawaiians called it their oo-ku-lay-lay. It became the instrument of choice to accompany the hula dance,  which in turn, lured over 17 million visitors to the island.

Twenty years after that, the Sears Roebuck and other department store catalogs offered ukes for just a few dollars, thus permeating the mainland with the music of the tropical paradise, an island many people would never see but could enjoy the ambiance, none the less, thanks to this little instrument.   

The Great Depression made the uke even more popular being about the cheapest instrument available when money was tight. Perhaps that was also the beginning of the bluegrass movement because both were at their peak during the 1930's.

Soon the popular radio and then television host, Arthur Godfrey, wearing his Hawaiian shirt on air, even gave lessons on the uke to millions of viewers in their living rooms.

Costing less than six dollars, over 1,700,000 uke players were born during that time. Helped along no doubt by Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and even Elvis Presley when they played their ukes in their movies.

An old saying that applies to the uke's recent popularity is "Everything old is new again," and it's undoubtedly true.

Ruthe Batulis along with her husband is only a five-year transplant from Minnesota where for the last ten years of her career life was the head of a large regional Chamber of Commerce, has brought her love of the uke to the Spooner area. If you attended the popular fall fashion show at the Trinity Lutheran Church several weeks ago, you would have heard her and several of her friends, play their ukes.

You probably wouldn't have known that she's only been playing for two and a half years and came to the uke sideways.

She and a friend from the Cities, who, unbenounced to Ruthe, had also moved to this area, met again when they were both shopping at a local grocery store which led them to attend a bluegrass fest together. They each bought a uke at the concert for less than fifty dollars each, and that purchased introduced them to an established group of ukulele players in Hayward.

The Hayward group, the Ukuladies, who meet Wednesday mornings at 9:00 am at the Hayward Wesleyan Church for practice, had been together for ten years and welcomed the women with open arms. Now they practice with them and accompany them when they play at nursing homes, libraries, and elsewhere.

The Spooner group has its own share of events playing at the assisted living facilities, libraries, churches, and at the Happy Days Club. They often take assorted pre-school instruments for the residents so they can play along with the music.

Ruthe, and Diane Hagler on their ukes, Deb Koehn on the mandolin and Julie Kittleson on the base fiddle, have enjoyed playing together at open mics, and jam sessions.

What is so interesting is the uke jam sessions are showing up everywhere; bars, restaurants. Wineries, lodges, and casinos. Locally there are open mike nights at the Corner House Pub in Spooner, Hub’s Riverbend in Trego and Pine Brook Farm. The Northwoods Music Scene on Facebook gives many locations and dates if you'd like to join in, or just spend a night of being entertained.

The La Crosse Cheeseland Uke Band sports over sixty uke players of all ages and their website gives times and dates of their performances and dates for the public to stop in and learn to play the uke.

Ruthe says “Don't be afraid of trying something new.” And she's willing to back that statement by inviting anyone who is interested to send an email to spoonerukes@gmail.com more information on learning to play the uke. “It's fun to play, easy to learn and is a truly joyful instrument.”

After all, join in with Spooner because why should Hayward and Stone Lake have all the fun?


About the Author

Diane is a features writer for DrydenWire.com. She started her fifteen-year career as a features writer for the Washburn County Register and has written for assorted newspapers and national magazines. She has also just released the third novel in her Chicago series of books – Scott Free in Chinatown. You can visit Diane's website at www.dianedryden.com or her facebook page at facebook.com/authordianedryden.


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