Love That Crazy Ukulele

By Amy Lindblom December 15, 2009 12:21

My mother introduced me to the ukulele. I think I was 7 or 8.

I  can still see her leaning against the kitchen counter in our house on  Newport Street in Denver. A Chesterfield smolders in an ashtray. She’s strumming her ukulele, waiting for the soft-boiled eggs to cook. It was years before I realized not every mother serenaded her children off toschool in quite the same way.

I’m pretty sure I was the only second-grader who knew all the words and ukulele chords to “St. James Infirmary,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and my dad’s risqué fraternity songs.  But I knew by the slight jaw drop and the what-the-heck expressions on my classmates’ faces that my talent was underappreciated.

Those looks in 1963 pretty much matched the look I got from my two children this summer, when I bought a $400 ukulele in Hawaii. That little one-pound Koa wood uke is my new passion.

Luckily, I found Peggy Reza and the Blue Shoes Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra of Columbia. They love the ukulele as much as me. I’ve found a niche.

Peggy and her husband, Doug Johnson, along with Erich Quinn and Maryann Ashton, are The Blue Shoes Band. Peggy plays ukulele and guitar, Doug harmonica, Erich bass and Maryann percussion. They are true musicians. If you have the chance to hear them, don’t pass it up.

Blue Shoes music is fun and entertaining – just like Peggy. She wears blue sunglasses and sings with her eyes closed. She plays soprano, baritone, concert, and eight-string ukulele, as well as guitar. She’s even learning the clarinet.

Peggy also draws, paints, and sculpts. Her T-shirt designs are famous at the Strawberry Music Festival. Art projects cover her kitchen table, where there’s no room for meals. In October, a 4-foot-tall papier-mâché ukulele king graced the kitchen. Throughout the house is an eclectic collection of stringed and brass musical instruments Peggy and Doug play, along with Doug’s recording equipment.

Friends, fellow musicians, and ukulele students gather at all hours. Peggy gives ukulele lessons Monday and Tuesday mornings and evenings. I’m in the Tuesday-night group. During the two-hour lesson, there’s always plenty of good food, wine, beer and catching up on each other’s lives.

Peggy took her faithful ukulele students (most of us are over 50) and formed the Auxiliary Orchestra. She gets gigs for us at farmers’ markets, retirement homes and children’s festivals. We dress in ’40s garb or Hawaiian costumes. It’s a blast! People clap for us!

For Halloween, we opened for Blue Shoes at the Jack Douglass Saloon in Columbia. Only Peggy could have the vision and skills to entice a bunch of seniors to play “Monster Mash,” “Spooky,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” on the ukulele in a Gold-Rush era saloon while dressed up as aliens. We feel Peggy’s ukulele passion and are strumming our way to possible stardom.

Who since the rock ’n’ roll era began hasn’t wanted to be in a band? It may have taken us uke players four, five or six decades of dreaming, but being on stage has become part of our identity.

Tuesday is now my favorite night of the week. I can’t wait to strum with my friends and learn new songs. I practice my ukulele every day. In a strange role reversal, my children yell at me to put it down and go to bed. I’m obsessed, and I owe it all to Peggy, Doug, Erich, Maryann and my fellow auxiliary orchestra musicians: Mary, Kristen, David, Meryl, Karen, Ray, Pat, Heidi, Jesse, Bobbie, Mike, Beverly, Paky, Nancy, Lorraine, Robin, Joanne, Kathy, and Ethel.

And of course to Alice, my mother.

She’ll be 81 in February and quit playing the ukulele more than 20 years ago. She went back to college for a fine arts degree, and found more satisfaction painting and drawing. She later gave me her old ukulele as a birthday present, and I still play it occasionally. And every once in a while I strum some of Mom’s old favorites, like “Am I Blue,” “My Buddy,” and “Aura Lee.”

Next time I visit her, I’m bringing my ukulele. She’ll like that.

Ukulele fan Amy Lindblom is a former newspaper reporter who lives in Sonora.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Lindblom December 15, 2009 12:21
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