Sandlapper Society

Ukulele Contagion

A Compact Instrument Brings Immense Joy

by Daniel E. Harmon


Susan Nutter learned to play a ukulele at summer camp 50 years ago. Today, the Easley resident is in her element. Nutter is among two dozen members of The Yesterukes, an upstate ensemble in heavy demand for its good-time music. Her favorite songs are “Sue City Sue” and “Five Foot Two”—but “actually, I like all the songs you play on a uke.” She plays them all with zest.

Chandler Franks of Mauldin likes “Rawhide,” “Sixteen Tons” and “Love Potion Number Nine.” He used to drive his wife to Yesterukes rehearsals and read until they were done. “The uke group was having so much fun that I wanted to join. My wife had a spare uke at home, and I copied her music, using the computer printer. I am not much musical, cannot read music, never played a musical instrument before—and now I’m having fun with this wonderful, happy group in practices and performances.”

Edna Franks remembers The Yesterukes’ first performance, for an assisted-living audience at the Martha Franks Baptist Retirement Home in Laurens. “No name and no uniformity of dress or any equipment. The six of us played ukuleles and led a sing-along of our entire repertoire. Faces lit up, and the response was overwhelming. Using the song sheets we provided, there seemed to be total participation.”

Dick Barksdale of Laurens got his parents to buy him a uke when he was 8. “Roy Rogers was my hero and he played the guitar, so I thought it would be neat if I had something to strum along with him.” As he grew up with the rock-and-roll generation, his instruments of choice grew up, too, from ukulele to full-size guitar and electric bass. Only two years ago did he pine to “go back to my roots.” He bought himself a new ukulele and is a Yesterukes regular.

Jim Dawson of Piedmont had wanted to play a musical instrument for much of his life. When he and his wife spied a uke in a Toccoa, Georgia antique shop three years ago, he “fell in love with it.” His wife bought it as his anniversary present. The next week, he saw uke lessons advertised by a Greenville seniors program. “I was surprised that I could, with just a few chords, actually play a variety of songs. It was much easier than I had thought it would be.” Soon afterward, he connected with The Yesterukes.

Dianne Sutton is the group’s founder, director, and instructor. As a child she received a plastic ukulele from “Santa.” She still has it. For performances these days, though, the Woodruff resident uses a professional model. The first uke song that challenged her multi-instrumental skills (because it was “filled with jazz chords”) was “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” But her favorite, she says, is “whatever song I’m currently playing.”

Dedicated to their instruments, The Yesterukes strive for constant improvement, singing and playing at venues across the upstate. But more than anything else, they are having themselves an ABSOLUTE BALL. So are their listeners.

The ukulele is considered a Hawaiian instrument, but it was introduced there by immigrants from Madeira in 1879. Hawaiians embraced it, and Liliuokalani, the islands’ mysterious queen regnant of the 1890s, took it up. It was she who composed the enduring song “Aloha ’Oe.”

Members of The Yesterukes have Hawaiian connections. “I took my first uke to the University of Hawaii for a summer class,” Nutter reports. “Good times were had by all.” Sutton, who also plays guitar, mandolin and piano, bought her first serious uke model while visiting Hawaii four years ago. “Ukuleles and ukulele players were everywhere. I decided that for my souvenir, I’d bring back a ukulele.” Her investment in that concert-size instrument, constructed of beautiful, solid koa wood, led to an unexpected musical venture that’s expanding every month.

Today, YouTube uke virtuosos are dazzlers. Many leading Internet performers have roots in Hawaii and other Pacific islands, but their sounds are far different from Hollywood’s simplistic twilight strumming beneath coconut fronds and balmy skies. On this four-stringed dwarf of a guitar, young pros emulate the crème de la crème of all guitar styles, from Andrés Segovia to Doc Watson to Phil Keaggy. They play dizzying flamencos, classical masterpieces and rock riffs.

The Yesterukes aren’t dazzling audiences with flashy technique. They’re charming them with songs that bring carefree melodies of yesteryear into a new century that sure could use a shot of carefree. Not only grands and great-grands are harking to the music and the little instrument that states it so well; younger generations are taking notice.

Eldena Moore of Greenville recalls that only a handful of musicians attended the preliminary ukulele classes and jams Sutton organized after her return from Hawaii. Then Moore took a vacation and, on returning, found “eight or nine people sitting around the table at Martha Franks Baptist Retirement Center where we practice. Dianne had recruited all these people and put ukes in their hands.”

Their first performance was in September 2007. By the end of that year, they were ready to buy matching shirts, name themselves and become an “official” band. They recorded their first CD in May 2008; “Yesterukes” was released four months later. But Sutton stresses that they “keep things uncomplicated.” The unofficial rules: “Come when you can. Don’t worry about it when you can’t. If it stops being fun, do something else.”

They played three dozen dates in 2009 and have bookings scheduled into next autumn. They perform at church and civic banquets, coffeehouses and pubs. Audiences sometimes number in the hundreds and give them standing ovations. A favorite gig was at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville during the 2008 Christmas season. “When all the people in the Great Hall came to a stop to watch and listen, it was an amazing feeling,” Sutton remembers.

“We can see the faces of our audiences suddenly brighten and their eyes glimmer, perhaps even tear, as they mouth the words to songs of romance and memories of days gone by,” Jim Dawson says. “Our concerts change the lives of people, if for only a day.”

Rehearsals are fun but brisk. Sutton leads the group in brushing up familiar tunes, introducing new selections, explaining the origins of songs and demonstrating advanced strumming techniques. Members increase repertoire, skill level, and professionalism. “Practice smiling!” Sutton admonishes. “Write yourself a note to smile.”

They employ an interesting assortment of instruments. Some cost less than $100, some almost $1,000. “Some are really old ones that a player may have had for more than 50 years, and some have been lucky finds in antique stores and pawn shops,” Sutton says. Soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone sizes are included in the mix. Some are traditional guitar shapes, others modern triangular designs. Most players have electronic tuners.

“Some of our members are long-time uke players,” Sutton points out. “Others played in their school days and had not touched a uke since. A good many have learned to play after joining our group. I still don’t understand how all this came to be—and understand even less how it all works, but it does.”

Perhaps the underlying reason, Eldena Moore explains, is that The Yesterukes are much more than a performing group. They’re a tight-knit band of friends. “In sickness and in health, they are your constant supporters.”

Surgeries, cancer treatments, and other difficulties haven’t kept members from their music. “Some have come to performances on their walkers or crutches, but they come,” Sutton reflects. “This band means so much to these people.”

Members range in age from 50s to 80s. “Many of us, or our spouses, are going through a time when the medical aspects of our lives suddenly take priority,” Jim Dawson notes. “One can struggle for self-worth and purpose—but almost magically, when we get together, all ills and concerns fade and there is encouragement, fun, laughter, and a feeling of great worth.”

It’s contagious. As audiences of every age group can see, there’s no such thing as an unhappy ukulele player.  

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Over the years, Contributing Editor Daniel E. Harmon has “figured out how to play a cittern and bouzouki,” but remains “baffled by the uki.”

For more information, visit The Yesterukes on the Internet at yesterukes.blogspot.com. To order a CD, email yesterukes@gmail.com or call 864.876.5479.

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