The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 5

“Just a few penny dreadfuls”
The Ukulele and Old-Time Country Music

by Lil' Rev and Deb Porter

“Antiques!” proclaims the sign just off the highway—hinting at remnants of yesterday’s pop culture rendered authentic through the passage of time. One step inside and you can tell by the constant ring of the register, that restoring the luster to dusty old gems is big business. As you thumb your way through a yellowed stack of sheet music piled on the floor, you can’t help noticing that darn near every one of ’em has a picture of a ukulele on it. Looking back, you begin to wonder, how did this instrument of the people fall from grace? And, what role did it play in the creation of old-time string-band music?

The Blue Ridge Cornshuckers from
Southern Folklife Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill

“Penny Dreadfuls,” was a term that noted folksong collector James Lee Ward used to describe those awful pop tunes (like “Ukulele Lady”) that kept springing up in the hunt for “authentic” ballads of the hill country. Whereas Tin Pan Alley uplifted the stature of the uke through the sheet music industry, it was these very same popular songs that may have brought the ukulele to prominence amongst those rural folk—people from whom, the “song-catchers” were hoping to discover some ancient musical gem.

So as we begin our journey back to the days of yore, keep in mind that the while the ukulele lent its support to the development of early American string band music, it was often with a tip of the hat to its Hawaiian and vaudeville counterparts. Like the great body of music covered by Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers, the pop tunes of the day took on a whole new form when filtered through the stream of hillbilly music’s style and delivery.

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