Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–The Dark Side of Collecting


At the halfway point of the year, I thought I’d take a break from my stroll through the backstories of songs found in our Yellow and Blue Books and look again at our favorite little musical instrument—the ukulele.  In particular, I want to focus on a few ukes in my collection that, as some purists might contend, are of a clouded ancestry—i.e., FAKES.  Or rather, to me, HOMAGES.

Since I began my personal exploration of ukulele lore and collecting a dozen or so years ago, I have managed to acquire, restore, and display a goodly number of vintage ukes—well over a hundred at last count—thanks to the tolerance and forbearance of my wife, to say nothing of empty spaces in our house suitable for display.  These have come into my hands via swaps, tag sales, antique shows, and—needless to say—the internet. 

A tiny part of my collection.

Many of these are, of course, nice examples of fairly common, so-called “novelty” ukes from the 1920s through the 1950s that, when I started collecting, could be had for just a few dollars.  Several others in the collection are much more uncommon.  When and if they ever come to market, these command a significantly higher price.  But all are fun to own, restore, display, and—at times—play. 

There are, however, a few ukuleles out there that, among serious collectors, are known as “Holy Grails.”  These are the ones that rarely show up on the market; but when they do, can command prices that are way, WAY beyond the reach of my impecunious fingers!  What to do? 

To be quite honest, being a craftsman as well as a collector, I FAKE IT.  Scratch that!  I PAY HOMAGE.  I do research, work out designs and patterns, gather bits and bobs of vintage instruments, and—Bob’s your uncle!— the result is what I call an “Un-Holy Grail” for my collection.   I don’t do this to fool folks with a “counterfeit”; all are clearly acknowledged and labeled.  Rather, these additions help me to study and tell in a hands-on way the often strange, always interesting stories of the “royalty” within the family of our favorite little musical instrument.

More from the collection.

Here are four examples from my collection, with pics of some originals.


Here’s an original with the S/V ad.

In 1927, America went gaga over the aeronautical adventures of Charles Lindbergh.  This coincided with the same level of craziness Americans were showing for the ukulele and the Stromburg-Voisinet Company of Chicago hurried to touch both bases. 

Expect to pay well over $1000 for an example in good, original condition—whew!  Here is my humble effort, mahogany with a spruce top in a concert scale.  No; the propeller doesn’t work. 

Here’s my take on this one. It sounds pretty good!


Before World War II, Hawaii’s Kamaka Ukulele Company made a variety of well-crafted, high-quality instruments.  One of their signature products was a vaguely oval shaped uke dubbed “the Pineapple.”

Made of locally harvested koa wood, some were decorated with a waterslide decal of—what else—a pineapple.  This caught the fancy of tourists flocking to the islands in those days, particularly those interested in bringing home a high-quality ukulele.  The decal was, so to speak, the frosting on the cake and a koa Kamaka Pineapple in good, original condition—with an intact decal, of course—can sell for around $600 or so.  

An original Kamaka Pineapple.

Here is my lower-case pineapple, of koa but by an unknown maker, with a decal made with the magic of today’s computer technology.  A fun project that’s a bit better than a wall hanger, it sounds pretty good. 

Never underestimate the power of a decal!  A future project will be to make a copy of the still rarer, and much pricier, hand-painted Kamaka Pineapple.       

My next project!


This fabric-covered uke was made by the Regal Company of Chicago back in the 1950s.  I can’t imagine that they sounded very good with that layer of leopard-skin fabric glued to the sound wood.  That’s probably why very few were sold and why fewer survive today. 

If you run across one in good, original condition, expect to pay at least $500. 

I started my project with a beat up, bottom-of-the-line Hilo soprano.  I found some fabric from a remnants bin at the craft store and, once again, made an appropriate decal.  No.  It doesn’t sound very good, but it does attract attention! 

This is my humble effort from the remnant bin.

The fringe is an added touch from the selvage of the remnant—a design step above the original!  I guess it’s a Style-2 Jungle!   


Back in the 1920s, the Gibson Company offered these as a special order and very few—probably only five or six—were made.   

This is a $10K original . . .

They used their higher-quality soprano uke models and had an artist on their staff hand-paint them with—of all things—a poinsettia theme.  My guess is that these were meant to be a Christmas thing but became a dud on the non-holiday market.  Nonetheless, there are only a couple of these that have survived over the years with the latest selling at auction for over $10,000! 

This is my $10 effort . . .

I had fun taking a beat-up mahogany soprano with a pearloid fingerboard and peghead (definitely NOT a Gibson) and, with a few tubes of acrylic paint and some gold and India ink pens, came up with this fun fooler.  Mele Kalikimaka!

So, for the purpose of transparency, I thought it worthwhile to discuss with you—my gentle readers—my drift to what some may call the “dark side” of collecting.  Done for fun, not for profit, I will keep at this as long as I have holes in my collection that only craftsmanship rather than cash can fill.  Alas, such is the life of one suffering from Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome! 

But I digress from my 2019 mission.  So, now, back to the Yellow and Blue Books for the rest of the year.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musings–“Ja-Da”


“Ja-Da (Ja Da, Ja Da, Jing, Jing, Jing!)“—found in our Yellow Book—was written in 1918 by a piano player, Bob Carleton (1894-1956), while he was serving in the US Navy during World War I. 

He was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, just north of Chicago, and performed with a trio on the base and in local bars. 

The simple tune became a jazz standard over the years and was recorded by just about every performer from that day to this—a simple 16-bar tune with a long, long life.    

In his definitive American Popular Songs, Alec Wilder writes about the song’s simplicity: “It fascinates me that such a trifling tune could have settled into the public consciousness as “Ja-Da” has. Of course, it’s bone simple and the lyric says almost nothing.  Perhaps the explanation of its success lies in the lyric itself—”That’s a funny little bit of melody—it’s soothing and appealing to me.” It’s cute, it’s innocent, and it’s “soothing.” And, wonderfully enough, the only other statement the lyric makes is “Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Jing, Jing, Jing.”  There are, however, more verses!

Sheet Music Verses:

Here it is again but this time for we Ukers!


Carlton went on to be a prolific songwriter/performer and published over 500 songs.  He wrote ditties like “Teasin'”, “I’ve Spent the Evening in Heaven”, “I’ve Got to Break Myself of You”, and “Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans.” 

 Ever hear any of these?  Thought not.  But, just for fun, here is Carlton himself at what he describes as his “Bar Room Baldwin”

Bob Carlton, Ragtime Piano:

At least we and the rest of the musical world still have “Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Jing, Jing, Jing!”  A simple song by a sailor.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo And Ukulele Musing No. 23: “We’ll Meet Again”


During the celebration this week of the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy landings during World War II, I would be remiss not to touch on one of the most meaningful songs of that era and one that is in our Yellow Book.  “We’ll Meet Again” is a 1939 British song made famous by singer Vera Lynn. 

The song is one of the most famous of the era, and resonated with soldiers going off to fight as well as with their families and sweethearts on the home front.  The nostalgic lyrics (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.“) were very popular during the war and made the song one of its emblematic hits.  Here’s her version:

Vera Lynn:

In 1941, during the darkest days of the Second World War, Lynn began her own radio program, Sincerely Yours, sending messages to British troops serving abroad. 

She also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas. 

Because of her work with the troops, Vera Lynn became known in Britain as “the Forces’ Sweetheart.”

Those were the days of parting and meeting and parting, hopefully, to meet again.  “We’ll Meet Again” became a standard finale on both sides of the Atlantic for musical theater and music hall performances, and even movie theaters with their “bouncing ball” sing-alongs.   

Vera Lynn is 102 years old today and still singing, if only in the hearts of those who remember those war years.

“We’ll Meet Again” lived on beyond the war years and found its way into many films and television shows, particularly as a “closer.”  Probably the most well-known version—if not the most depressing—was in the ending to the blackly satirical 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” The film ends with an ominous montage of nuclear explosions accompanying Lynn’s song of hope (?).  

Dr. Strangelove Finale:

Even Stephen Colbert used it to end his show “The Colbert Report” a couple of years ago.

Stephen Colbert:

Not to be outdone, there are a few dozen ukulele versions, plus the song in our book.


Lynn herself sang the song in London on the 60th Anniversary of VE Day in 2005 and it was sung just this week at the Normandy Invasion Anniversary Celebration in Portsmouth, England—the departure port for the many American, British, Canadian, and other Allied troops boarding their ships to cross the English Channel to land on the beaches of Normandy.

75th Anniversary:

So, let’s remember the boys and men, girls and women of the “Greatest Generation” who fought, lived, and sang throughout the war.  “We’ll Meet Again!”

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musings–“San Francisco Bay Blues”


Today’s the day many will gather to celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, one of our good ukulele friends who passed away a couple of months ago.  This is one of Steve’s favorites that we often played during our Saturday morning strum sessions at the Forbes Library here in Northampton. It’s a great blues tune written by a great performer.  Let’s give it a go one more time for Steve!   

A one-man-band rendition of the song—featuring a kazoo solo—was recorded by Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller (1896-1976) in 1962 and included in a Smithsonian Folkways compilation title “Friends of Old Time Music.”  

Jesse Fuller, One-Man Band:

“San Francisco Bay Blues” is considered an American folk/blues song and is the best known—and most often performed—composition by Fuller who first recorded the song in 1954.  The song was brought into wider popularity in the early 1960s by club performances by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan.  Covers have been performed by many artists including Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary just to touch on a few.

 Peter, Paul, & Mary:

Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, and, growing up, worked at numerous jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day; working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, and a rock quarry; working on a railroad and for a streetcar company; shining shoes; and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes.   By the age of 10, he was playing the guitar. In the 1920s he worked his way to California and settled in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked on the railroad for many years as a fireman, spike driver, and maintenance man.  During World War II he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to find work.  So, around the early 1950s, Fuller began to consider the possibility of making a living as a musician.

Up to this point, Fuller had never worked as a professional musician, but he was an accomplished guitarist and had busked for money by passing the hat. He had a good memory for songs and had a large repertoire of crowd-pleasers in diverse styles from blues to country.  He began to compose songs, many of them based on his experiences on the railroads, playing them in his syncopated style. When he set out to make a career as a musician, he had difficulty finding reliable musicians to work with. Thus, his one-man-band act was born.

Richie Havens:

Fuller could play several instruments simultaneously, particularly with the use of a headpiece to hold a harmonica, kazoo, and microphone. In addition, he would generally include at least one tap dance, soft-shoe, or buck and wing in his sets, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar as he danced.

His style was open and engaging. In typical busker’s fashion, he addressed his audiences as “ladies and gentlemen,” told humorous anecdotes, and cracked jokes between songs.

During those one-man-band years, Fuller also devised a new kind of instrument he called a “fotdella”, a big six string bass viol that he played with his foot via a system of pedals and levers.   To complete his rig, he had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo. While sitting down in the middle of all this, he also sang and played a twelve-string guitar.  Whew!  No ukulele, however.

Here, however, is a one-man-band version—with ukulele:

Ukulele, One-Man Band:

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Fuller became one of the key figures of the blues revival, helping bring the music to a new, younger audience. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s he toured America and Europe, appearing at numerous blues and folk festivals, as well as countless coffeehouse gigs across the U.S.  He continued performing and recording until his death in 1976.

So, let’s celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, his ukulele, and one of his—and our—favorite songs  . . .

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo Ukulele Musings


The Great Depression of the 1930s gave us many songs that touched on the hard times of the era, including the iconic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,”

and one from our Yellow Book, “Pennies from Heaven.” This was written in 1936 with music by Arthur Johnson (1898-1954) and lyrics by Johnny Burke (1908-1964).

 It was introduced by Bing Crosby in the 1936 film by the same name and recorded by just about every name in the book.    Johnston and Burke were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song that year for “Pennies . . ..”    Burke wrote the song “Swinging on a Star” that won the Academy Award in 1944—another great Crosby tune.  

Not only is this song a popular American standard, but two movies used this as a title—the 1936 Crosby film and one in 1981 with Steve Martin. 

The Martin film was actually based on a BBC Television series with the same title starring Bob Hoskins.

The earlier Crosby film had an offbeat story line of a wrongly imprisoned singer who promises a condemned fellow inmate that he will help the family of the inmate’s victim when Crosby is released.  (Whew!)  Needless to say, complications ensue with the best part of this tearjerker of a movie being our song.

The BBC Series and the later Martin film share a totally different and rather bizarre plot of sheet music and record salesmen in the 1930s (Chicago for Martin and London for Hoskins) who fantasize about the songs they sell while lip-synching and dancing to them, along with other characters in the film.  Here’s a fun one with Martin’s co-star Bernadette Peters and a bunch of musical kids:

Don’t watch these for the plot (which, in my opinion, is pretty dreadful!) but fast forward to the music and choreography—much fun! 

Here’s a down-and-out street musician, just given a free meal by Martin, and his take on the title tune.

Here’s the same scene from the BBC:

The best version of this song I ever heard, however, was a couple of years ago when our own AEIOUker David Juno played his uke and sang the song as the offertory hymn at a Northampton Unitarian Society service—truly, pennies from heaven!  Sorry, no U-Tube of that one!  But here is another ukulele version just for fun.


Almost as good as Dave!


Noho Banjo & Ukulele Musings



One of the songs hidden in the back of our Yellow Book hasn’t been asked for that often–”On the Good Ship Lollipop.”  This might be a good tune when we have children in the audience.


Anyway, “Lollipop” was the signature song of child actress Shirley Temple (1928-2014) who first sang it in the 1934 movie “Bright Eyes.”


The song was composed by Richard A. Whiting (1891-1938, composer of “Hooray for Hollywood,” and “Ain’t We Got Fun”) with lyrics by Sidney Clare (1892-1972, credited in 1934 with the earliest usage of the term “rock and roll”).  In the song, the “Good Ship Lollipop” travels to a candy land.


Contrary to general belief, however, the “ship” referred to in the song is an airplane—for your aviation buffs, it was an American Airlines DC-2.


Shirley Temple:

In addition to Temple’s film performance, 400,000 copies of the sheet music were sold and a recording by Mae Questal (the cartoon voice of Betty Boop)

download (2).jpg

sold more than two million copies—a quintessential kid’s song from two or three generations back.

Mae Questal:

We often forget that Shirley Temple Black served her country in vastly different ways. As a child star in the late 1930s, she cheered up a nation suffering the effects of the Great Depression, making 20 movies by the time she was six years old.


As an adult she became a businesswoman and then a diplomat when President Nixon appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations.


President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana in 1974, and later as his Chief of Protocol, the first woman to hold that job.


In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia—quite a career move up from the good ship Lollipop!

Now for the hard part. 


In the 1935 Civil War themed film “The Littlest Rebel,” six-year-old Shirley Temple  appeared in blackface briefly.  Not enough, in my opinion, to tarnish the reputation of a beloved child star who became a respected diplomat in adulthood—certainly not enough to tarnish a tune–from a different, earlier movie–as innocent as “Lollipop . . .”   


Also, in my opinion, Tiny Tim—while forever tarnishing the reputation of the ukulele as a serious musical instrument—gives us this falsetto version of “Lollipop.”  

Not as bad as you might imagine:  

Tiny Tim:

Back to ukuleles for those of us with a sweet tooth.



Stay tuned!