Pete Seeger loved it. So did George Harrison.
And now Baltimore-area based duo Cathy Fink and her musical partner Marcy Marxer are continuing to champion the lowly ukulele most recently with their new 13-track release “Rockin’ the Uke.”
Of course that’s nothing new for the duo, especially Marxer who has inspired the “Marcy Marxer Kala Signature Ukulele.” Still, it’s nice to be in good company with uke rocker Jake Shimabukuro whose version of “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps” was praised by many including George Harrison’s widow, Olivia. And of course British folk rock legends Fairport Convention have recently added their new song “Ukulele Central” from their 2011 album “Festival Bell” into their repertoire.
“We were at a Peter Frampton concert and he is the proud owner of the Marcy Marxer Signature Ukulele,” said Fink recently. “We think of this as the third renaissance.”
If that’s so, the duo has done plenty to jumpstart it including their diligent work with the annual Uke Fest at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. The event lures hundreds of new and veteran players who not only join in the hopes of breaking the Guinness Book of World Records’ 851-uke player record set in London in June 2009, but just to have some good times. The event is preceded by uke lessons for the newbie and diligent, but they certainly aren’t mandatory. Attendees can even buy ukes at the event and dive into the action.
“When you can look at putting the instrument in the hands of people, it really gets them engaged,” said Fink. “It helps people of all ages take a step beyond passive listening. The youngest person we’ve had was three and the oldest was 97. There are a huge number of teens that play and make up their own songs.”
Any that doubt the uke’s versatility need only listen to Cathy and Marcy’s latest disc that moves from classic folk and Americana with songs such as the “Hukilau” song to Hawaiian themed tunes to “Dark Eyes”, influenced by Django Reinhardt .
“We wanted to cover some territory that hasn’t been done,” said Fink. “That’s one reasons we took the “Hukilau” song. Everybody knows it but it isn’t really on their radar. It’s been on our radar for a long time.”
Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider the Grammy Award winning duo has recorded a host of albums that move from folk to string to children’s music. In a way, this album combines many of their musical passions.
“It has inspired us a lot in our songwriting,” said Fink of the uke. “We were in Hawaii a couple of years ago an wanted to write a song about the history of the uke and ended up making it a celebration of the uke. What makes [some of the songs] come alive is the addition of the cello and banjo. You have a ying and yang that makes it double fun. That is a combination that we have really, really enjoyed a lot.”
Find out more about Cathy and Marcy at their website.
Nancy Dunham is a music journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work appears in Relix, YRB, Spinner, M Music & Musicians, American Songwriter and other publications.