UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 27–27 June 2020: “Popeye to Ukuleles to Whisky–The Art of the Tattoo”

Note: A couple of things about the YouTube videos that I include in my postings.  First, I don’t want to spend the money to purchase access to YouTube without ads.  So, gentle readers, for a few of my postings, you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Sorry.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  And, from time to time, a particular YouTube video might seem a bit too long.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make by including it.  Sometimes less is really more! 

On to this week’s musing!

Those of us who have come from well back in the relatively sedate Twentieth Century sometimes find ourselves a bit bewildered if not befuddled in our journey deep into the Twenty-first.  In this year’s exploration of ukulele lore and musical history I have often bumped into things that, to my eyes, may once have been seen as either salty or unsavory yet today are deemed as saucy or sophisticated.  We know, of course, that the rise and fall of the popularity of the ukulele parallels this path. But, there is another cultural and artistic phenomenon appropriate (to me, at least) for this week’s musing—not Popeye but “TATTOOS.” 

Tattoo” as the word for symbolic or decorative marking on the skin came into the English language in the Eighteenth Century from the Polynesian cultures of the Pacific Islands; Captain Cook’s journals are the first to record the word. This “art on a human canvas” has been explored by scientists, anthropologists, and even a few art historians from that time to today. Needless to say, it’s an acquired–or, shall we say, applied–taste.

I have not yet succumbed to this form of physical adornment myself.  But, needless to say, I have many friends and family—albeit decidedly much younger (most friends and all family) and more au courant (many friends and most family) than myself—who are well decorated.  Some discretely, others not so much.  And, as a caveat, no friends or family sources were harmed or used for illustrations in this posting. Or so I am led to believe . . .

But, on to ukuleles, here in “ink” rather than wood.

Tattoos have long been acquired as so-called “skin art” by sailors and seamen wandering ashore in exotic foreign ports or bored aboard a ship far asea.

Designs have ranged from the romantic to the ribald, from the homey to the homely, and—to many—from the tasteful to the tasteless, albeit sometimes felt to be necessary with changing circumstances. 

Moving on, the ukulele theme for tattoos has, as would be expected, gained in popularity over the years in all its forms and fashions. However, gentle readers, I shall muse herein only on the more tasteful (?).  Enjoy a peek!

Moving on . . . Since the subjects of my musings revolve around ukuleles and related musical themes, I find it fascinating to see tattoos used as decorative motifs on our favorite little instruments. 

There are some handsome examples out there based on those historical forms of tattoo design that come, mainly, from the aboriginal South Pacific and the Antipodes–or from the movie version of “Moby Dick.”

And then there are a few others based on more, shall we say, traditional nautical themes, particularly for those with a penchant for the popular “Sailor Jerry” rum.

Or even a banjo uke, this one appropriately from Australia!

The phenomenon of tattoo art was not limited to the chests, arms, and whatever of sailors and other burly, macho types. 

It was also a cosmetic phenomenon embraced by ladies—certain ladies. 

And this brings us this week to our songs.

By far, the most known and performed song of this genre is “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady,” a 1939 song written by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen–the same team that wrote all of the music for “The Wizard of Oz.” and a few thousand (it seems) other Tin Pan Alley tunes.  It first appeared in the Marx Brothers’ movie “At the Circus” and became one of Groucho Marx’s signature songs.

The complex lyrics—with clever rhymes such as “Lydia/encyclopedia” and “Amazon/pajamas on”—were inspired by the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan and made many references to contemporary events such as the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Click or tap on the next image for a view of the movie version of Groucho’s song and antics.

I must, of course, include a ukulele version of this tune with some stunning graphics and a new, Twenty-First Century ending!  Click or tap on the next image to go for it!

With such richly decorated inspiration to be found on nearly every vaudeville stage or carnival side-show . . .

. . . there were other “Tattooed Lady” songs out there.  It’s too good a musical subject not to explore (ogle ?) more intently. Tap or click on the next image for a peek-a-boo of a “hillbilly” take on this theme.

Now the version of this musical genre of which I am most familiar was the Kingston Trio’s song “The Tattooed Lady” recorded way back in my impressionable college days–the late 1950s. 

They sang this one in a broadly faked “Cockney” accent thus leading many to believe it to be a British music hall song.  Actually, the lyrics (in many variations both benign and obscene) originated as a fiddle and dance tune in Tennessee that the trio “harvested” and adapted.  The melody is the well-known and bawdy “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” which has been around dance halls seemingly forever. 

As an aside for you stringed instrument techies, Nick Reynolds–an original member of the trio–played a four string tenor guitar tuned DGBE just like a baritone uke. In this pic he has a capo at the fifth fret bringing it up to GCEA–ukulele tuning! Today, his tenor is in the musical instrument collection of the Smithsonian. Remember: “More than four strings is just showing off!”

Give a tap or click on the next image to hear this tune sung by this Hawaiian bred, California nurtured group who, in their own way, helped kickstart the mid-century popular (if not musicologically pure) Folk Song phenomenon in America.

For those of you who would like to give this one a try at home, sequestered of course as we must be (and with body art covered or uncovered as is your wont), here is a ukulele chord and chord/melody arrangement I put together for this tune a couple of years ago.  Enjoy!

There are those–not we sophisticated strummers, of course!–who think that ukuleles as well as bodily tattoos are, at best, an acquired taste. Here, then, is a more appreciated (again, by some) musical form of a“tattoo” heard if not worn around the world—the so-called “military tattoo.”   

This musical signal of sorts was sounded by drum or bugle to recall soldiers to their quarters in the evening.    The term comes from the early 17th-century Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe”, roughly translated as “turn off the tap.”  

It was the signal sounded by the garrison bugler to instruct nearby innkeepers to stop serving beer and for soldiers to return to their barracks. It’s totally unrelated to the island origins of an ink tattoo but, why not a skirl instead of a strum?

So, Let’s end this musing with this–one of the more spectacular military musical rituals in the world.   Get those tattooed ladies out of your mind, set your ukulele aside, pour yourself a wee dram of single-malt, crank up the volume, and click or tap on the next image for a treat—whisky and music!

Turn the volume back down, return to garrison, stay socially distanced, stay safe, and STAY TUNED!

Oh yes, if you do have a tattoo. Please be discrete. There are young strummers out there!

And, above all, stay covered up. One way or another!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

One thought on “UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 27–27 June 2020: “Popeye to Ukuleles to Whisky–The Art of the Tattoo””

  1. Hi Bruce, Amusing and interesting as usual! We will have a debut of June’s new uke tomorrow as we have a mini celebration at Brenna’s. I think you served as consultant on the decision. Stay well, Diane

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