My grandfather owned a hotel in Newport Beach California. I don't remember
much about it, because he sold it when I was pretty young, but this is
where the ukulele story begins…
One of his on-again off-again tenants was a merchant marine, who must
have served in the Pacific, because he played ukulele. The last time this
fellow moved out, he left without paying his rent, but he left a lot of
stuff as collateral, including the Martin ukulele. As the story goes,
he never came back and so my grandfather gave the ukulele to my father.
Now my father had played the Hawaiian steel guitar as a child but never
the ukulele, so he learned three chords and always took it with us when
we went camping. He could play any song with those three chords, and I
grew up singing all the old song to the strumming of the uke.
The year I was born my parents joined the San Onofre Surfing Club. We
spent almost every weekend of every summer at the beach, surfing in the
day, camping at night. The location was idyllic, sandstone cliffs, a dirt
road and the beach. The cliffs blocked out any view of civilization. There
were shacks built on the beach to hold the surfboards, thatched with palm
leaves and there were giant tikis carved out of driftwood. San Onofre
was on the Marine's Camp Pendleton base, and so was untouched by the advance
of civiliztion in Southern California. I had my friends there. We surfed
when there was surf and hiked around or played cards when there was no
swell. I didn't pay much attention, or really care, what the adults did.
But every night after sunset there would be parties, and there was music,
and there were always ukuleles accompanying the guitars and voices. The
influence of Hawaiian culture was strong. Many of the surfers had served
in the pacific during W.W.II and had fallen in love with the "call
of the islands". They danced the hula and many of the songs were
hapa-haole, like Little Grass Shack and Hukilau. I probably know more
about this from stories and photos rather than from my memory. But for
some reason, I know all the songs. I spent every summer there, till I
was eighteen and went away to college in Santa Cruz.
My brother John is ten years younger than me. One day he showed up in
Santa Cruz with an old ukulele he had bought in a music shop in San Luis
Obispo. He said why didn't I get one too, and we could play along with
dad and make a Partridge family or something. I thought that was a great
idea. (I have left out the part about learning to play a little music,
guitar and bass, and being in a real loud rock band for awhile playing
teenybop-acid-pop music.) I was at the flea market and miraculously found
a nice Aloha Royal Hawaiian ukulele for only twenty bucks. I also found
an old instruction manual, and tuned the uke up to A,D,F#,B (what I now
call the mainland tuning) like it told me to do, then I learned the chords.
We never did form a family band, but my dad and I would play together
at family gatherings, songs like Moonlight Bay, Pretty Baby, and Dark
Town Strutters Ball. I began to fall in love with the ukulele and started
to bring it with me where ever I went.
How I became a book artist is another story and can be found in other
places (like our web site: http://members.cruzio.com/~peteranddonna/index.htm).
When I went on business trips, to lecture, teach classes or to book fairs,
I would bring my ukulele. But even thought a uke is small, it began to
become hard to justify taking up that much space for something I was not
going to try to sell. Especially when we went overseas. Then I got this
idea, I would make a uke into a book. Then I could try to sell it, and
have my justification.
The first book I made was a fanning book, using a Sunset Guide to Hawaii.
The uke I used was the one my brother had bought in San Luis Obispo. It
had broken and the bridge had pulled off, and he had given it to me. I
fixed it up, but it didn't play that good, so I didn't feel bad about
using it for a book project. In fact, it seemed a weird twist of fate.
I cut the pages of the Sunset Guide into the shape of the ukulele's body,
with pinking sheers so that they had the feeling of a pineapple. I attached
these pages to the back of the uke and made a cover bound with tapa cloth
to complete the effect. The first time I carried this "ukulele book" on a trip, I found the flaw in my plan; it sounded and played terrible.
I determined that every ukulele book after that would have to be able
I then got this idea to try to make a series of artists books out of ukuleles.
They would incorporate every book structure, every format or concept I
could think of, into a uke. I began looking for old and broken ukuleles,
but they turned out to be almost impossible to find. Then I found out
there was a guy in town, Rick McKee, who was in the guitar repair business
and who had gone crazy over ukuleles. He was buying them all up before
me. We became friends and he let me have a few, and began to teach me
how to repair them right. Rick, who also performs on the uke as "Ukulele
Dick", introduced me to another uke person in town, Tony Graziano.
Tony actually made ukuleles, beautiful ones. Tony also agreed to help
me with my project, and his assistance with tools, help and advice has
made the completion of the series possible. Tony told me about the Ukulele
Festival in Hayward, California, and there I was able to purchase about
twenty broken ukuleles from a collector. Thus the project began, and the
result is the collection of twenty-five book objects you can see in the
show or view on our web site: http://www.baymoon.com/~ukulelebooks/.
Before this ends, I need to mention (though if you know about our work
as book artists I will be evident) that even though I am writing this
essay as if the work was mine, all the ukulele books were really done
in collaboration with my wife Donna, and they would have been impossible
to create without her artistic skills.
We are now looking for venues to show these book art sculptures. If you
have any ideas please let me know.
Link to another essay