Influenced by the Portuguese and hailing from Hawaii in the early 20th century, the ukulele represented the tropics and was quickly adopted by performers Stateside because well, who (especially during the Depression) wouldn’t want to think of a tropical paradise?
By mid-century, the ukulele hit its hey day. There were Hawaian songs of the World War II era (“Christmas Island”, “Civilization [Bongo, Bongo, Bongo]”); 1950’s hits like “Mele Kalikimaka”; and then the 1960’s with The Beatle’s “Obladi Oblada”, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”, Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” and Tiny Tim’s “Tip Toe Through The Tulips”.
After that, the ukulele was played out and relegated to the nursery. Having been mass produced as a plastic child’s toy in the 1950s and 1960s, it was no longer a serious musician’s instrument.
But all is not lost for the tiny stringed instrument. As of late, the ukulele is experiencing a renaissance. UK schools are using ukuleles instead of recorders to teach basic music skills. Hits like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” have taken radio play by storm; the Internet is rife with how-to’s; and even Apple champions the cause with ukulele apps and podcasts.
And if you still need proof that an ukulele performance can be impressive, check out Jake Shimabukuro, the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, on YouTube.