Vermont Ukulele Society spreads joy in lessons, concerts, tunes

By Middlebury Campus

Long before Sophie Madeleine and her sweet ukulele serenades gained massive popularity on YouTube, Lil’ Rev brought his own brand of four-stringed storytelling to the nation. The Vermont Ukulele Society hosted the award winning multi-instrumentalist in Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Nov. 8. Although Lil’ Rev played seven instruments, most of the crowd showed up to see Lil’ Rev play his five ukuleles. The event was, after all, part of what event organizer Jim Vynak calls “the ukulele revolution.”

Before performing folk, blues and Tin Pan Alley, Lil’ Rev led a workshop focused on ukulele showmanship and strumming techniques for the community’s ukulele players. At the end of the workshop, Lil’ Rev urged his students to keep playing the ukulele because “it allows you to project out a lot of happiness.”

Sunday afternoon’s workshop and performance were the biggest event of the year for the Vermont Ukulele Society, an organization founded three years ago by Jim Vynak and his wife Jennifer. The Vynaks originally established the society in Bristol, Vt. with three other members. The group has since grown to over 40 members throughout Vermont.

Jim Vynak explained that the goal of the society is to “save ukuleles from closets and attics across Vermont.” For Vynak, both the fun and the challenge of running the organization is that “Vermont’s kind of out in the boonies, so we’re building the society from scratch.”

The idea of a “ukulele revolution” came up repeatedly during the workshop event. Historically, the ukulele has gone through waves of popularity in mainstream culture, particularly in the 1920s and 1950s. The ukulele is currently experiencing another revival, partly with the aid of the Internet. A July Los Angeles Times article pronounced that the ukulele is “going viral” online.

During the performance in Middlebury, Lil’ Rev explained both the history of the music he played and his personal relationship to it. He used an interlude during the song “Walk Right In” to tell the story of how his grandfather explained to him that the song was actually an old blues standard and not an original of the 1960s.

Lil’ Rev then performed the chorus of “Walk Right In” in Yiddish to honor his grandfather.

Fren Broughton, an elementary school music teacher from Bridport, Vt., especially enjoyed the variety of genres Lil’ Rev played.

“The performance was just fabulous and I love what he does,” she explained. “It was old timey and bluesy and folksy all at once.”

In the spirit of a lighthearted mixture of genres, Lil’ Rev introduced his final song as “an Irish polka played on the ukulele, banjo style. It don’t get much more absurd than that.”

Lil’ Rev is from Milwaukee, Wisc. and came to Middlebury as part of an East Coast tour. He grew up playing guitar, harmonica and mandolin. When he was 25, a friend gave him his first ukulele, and he became a self-described “uke-aholic”; he couldn’t resist the ukulele’s uplifting nature. As he explained during the workshop, “You can’t play a sad song on the ukulele. Trust me. I’ve tried.”

Others, including Vermont Ukulele Society Co-founder Jennifer Vynak, echoed this immediate love for the instrument. She told the story of first playing a ukulele on a vacation in Hawaii and being immediately smitten.

“The ukulele was the one,” said Vynak. “There was so much energy in it.”

Vynak’s husband Jim connected this happiness brought about by the ukulele to larger issues.

“Any time there’s hard times, and you need something that’s joyful, you see a resurgence in ukulele,” he explained. He cited ukulele reactions to World War II, the Vietnam War and the current popularity of the instrument as a response to political and social discontent.

Jim Vynak works in the area of mental disability and is the former director of the Brain Association of Vermont. He and his wife eventually hope to support themselves entirely by working in the ukulele world. This includes giving lessons and manufacturing ukuleles. He hoped to make ukuleles that use “indigenous Vermont woods that are harvested in a green way and are handmade in Vermont.”

The Vermont Ukulele Society plans to continue its semi-weekly workshops in Bristol as well as their community performances in venues such as nursing homes. The next big event the Vermont Ukulele Society has planned is the “Best Night” New Years’ Eve concert in Bristol for which members are currently working on solos.

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Vermont Ukulele Society spreads joy in lessons, concerts, tunes