Pulling strings

Ukulele players will take the stage at the Ag Fair for the first time.

Angela Berlingeri plays the uke during rehearsals. —Gabrielle Mannino

For the first time ever, the sweet, sweet sound of dozens of ukuleles will fill the music tent at the Ag Fair on opening day, Thursday, August 15, from 4:30 to 6 pm.

The ukulele (or uke, as we like to call it around here) is a relatively young instrument, derived in late 19th century Hawaii from a small guitar-like instrument brought there by Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Madeira.

In the early 1950s, ukulele king and early television star Arthur Godfrey helped to popularize the instrument, and now some think it’s experiencing a resurgence.

Debby Athearn plays with the uke group at the Tisbury Senior Center, meeting there with fellow uke enthusiasts every Wednesday afternoon from 1 to 3 pm. She says she’s liked the sound of the ukulele since she was a little girl.

“My grandparents had one up in their attic, and I remember picking it up and playing with it, and they introduced me to Arthur Godfrey around 1949 or 1950,” she said. “Then, well, life got in the way. A few years ago I heard about this group that plays and practices at the Tisbury Senior Center.” Now she’s hooked.

“I like learning new things and then being able to put them into practice,” Athearn explained. “Once you learn the chords, your fingers just go right to them. It’s a great mind exercise and finger exercise, especially if you have arthritis.”

Athearn has been playing for about three years, and said she enjoys the fact that the group goes to Windemere to play for the residents once a month. “It’s a way to give back,” she says.

Playing at the Ag Fair, though, that’s a new venue. Athearn brought up the idea of playing at the fair to some of the other players, and they all decided it was a great idea. They’ll also welcome other players to bring their ukes and join them when they play.

“We want everybody who has a uke to bring it and play,” Athearn said. “We’re kind of the facilitators, and there will be a screen where we’ll be projecting the music. There will be people around to help them and guide them. One gal plays the washtub, and she’ll do a couple of numbers. Merrily Fenner will be the speaker, presenting the songs and setting the beat.”

There’s no reason to be intimidated by your playing abilities either, she explained.

“Go to the library and borrow a uke and learn three or four chords, and you’re good to go,” Athearn advised. “You’ll be able to play a lot of songs with just three or four chords.”

The ability to carry a tune is also a good idea if you want to play with the group. But, she said, if can’t sing, you can always hum.

“If you can keep the beat and keep the tone, you’ll be fine,” she said. “You don’t need a course in music theory to learn the basics.”

The uke groups on the Island are expecting as many as 50 players at the Ag Fair, Athearn said. They’ll play tunes like “All Shook Up,” “Bye Bye Love,” and Hank Williams Sr.’s “Jambalaya.” For baseball fans, they’ll play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Sweet Caroline.” 

If you’ve never tried picking up a ukulele and plucking the strings, now might be the time.