Charity at home with help from abroad

How ukulele players across the globe became patrons of a Triangle nonprofit

The perils of the freelancer. My Make Music Day “contacts” didn’t return calls and emails. Rather than guess how they organized informal outdoor events post-pandemic, I’ll hope things go as well as possible Monday for music making.

We’re doing our part. Last night, at the regular Raleigh Uke Jam meeting, we recorded a video of “California Dreaming” to share on the Make Music Day sites. I’ll post the video here Monday. We did well, despite the absence of several of our best singers. It was fun. But you’ll understand why we always issue the disclaimer, “We aren’t professional musicians.” Monday: show, don’t tell.

‘Seasons of the Ukulele’ and Piedmont North Carolina traditional music

Before I joined the Raleigh Uke Jam, I started posting on the forum of Ukulele Underground. The jam and forum have been the biggest helpers in my journey as a middle-aged newbie musician. The ukulele has brought me closer to my adopted community.

Three young native Hawaiians started UU in 2007 to “help grow the next generation of ukulele players throughout the world.” Aldrine, Ryan, and Aaron teach online classes, post tutorial videos and virtual jams (some free, others behind a paywall — I’m a paid member), appear at festivals as performers and teachers, and run the UU Forum.

“Our mission is to create millions of new ukulele players, which in turn helps millions experience the joy of music.”

The forum hosts a couple dozen boards and thousands of threads. The UU marketplace is the best place I’ve found to buy or sell a used instrument sight unseen. I’ve done both. I’ll do so again.

The relevance to Social Fabric? The Seasons of the Ukulele sub-forum. Short description, restated below: A host volunteers, picks a theme, and for one week people post videos of songs fitting the theme. Hosts generally give prizes (even if they’re nothing more than a virtual pat on the back in the closing video).

About five years ago, some hosts made the “prize” a donation to charity. Since then, hosts have raised thousands of dollars for good causes around the world. In early 2017, I hosted a season and made PineCone the beneficiary. The nice folks at PineCone profile members; they asked me to write about what I did and why. The piece below appeared in the July 2017 PineCone “Traditional Review.”*

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For more than 280 weeks (and counting**), members of the online Ukulele Underground forum have played songs that fit a theme, uploaded the videos to YouTube, and posted them to that week’s “Season of the Ukulele.” Each season has a volunteer host, and most offer prizes, ranging from strings or stickers to luthier-made ukuleles. Or donations to a favorite cause.

I’m one of those posters — a regular since Season 153 — and when I asked to host Season 276, I decided to make my prize a donation to PineCone. $1.00 for every entry posted.

The theme was “What Have They Done To My Song,” remakes of songs that were more popular than the original. Forty-six people posted. Entries came from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, and Australia. 100 videos altogether. I was delighted to make the donation, and wish we’d gotten more entries.

Why PineCone? I’m a native North Carolinian, and I love traditional music. I was born in Wilkesboro (home of Merlefest!) where I lived until attending and graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill nearly 40 years ago. I spent the next 10 years knocking around the Triangle until I got the chance to get paid for what I love to do: write about politics and public policy.

I spent the next 20 years as a vagabond, working nearly a decade for Reason magazine in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Then I bounced around in newspapers over the next decade for daily and weekly publications in L.A., Las Vegas, Riverside, Calif., and Denver.

When the Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009, I feared my journalism career was over. Fortunately, it wasn’t. My wife and our menagerie of pets resettled in North Carolina and I became the managing editor of Carolina Journal, the online and print publication of the John Locke Foundation.

That’s right. I’m a conservative-leaning-libertarian who loves the music Doc Watson called “traditional-plus.”

While the saying “there’s no such thing as a free-market folk song” largely is true, politics rarely interfere with my tastes in music. Life’s too short for that. (If it did, I’d never have loved the music of, say, The Blasters or Del McCoury or the Duhks, whose political outlooks are much more to the left than mine.)

But great music and great stories should transcend politics. They offer an opportunity to share experiences, even if we disagree about other things.

Besides, I learned about PineCone from one of its former board members, Kristina Sanders … who was a co-worker at John Locke when I came there.

And I bought my first ukulele after another co-worker, Mitch Kokai, who’s JLF’s senior political analyst and a regular volunteer at IBMA, started playing mandolin. I wanted to learn a stringed instrument and he showed me a used 8-string uke for sale online. I bought it and fell in love.

So conservatives and libertarians who love traditional and folk music are not mythical creatures!

I bought that first uke nearly four years ago. I now own nine. Even though I practice every day, I’m not an accomplished player. What I lack in talent I make up for with enthusiasm.

But I adore the passion and the musicianship and the storytelling in traditional music. PineCone has been a big part of my journey. We take advantage of the events at World of Bluegrass and are delighted PineCone and Raleigh host IBMA. We’ve also enjoyed at least one of the Down Home concerts most years since 2011 when we saw Sam Bush at Meymandi Concert Hall. (That’s the first time we’d seen “the Mayor of Merlefest” outside a festival setting. He’s one of our heroes.)

We build memories at every performance. Two that stand out were the Duhks in 2012 and Pokey LaFarge in 2015. We’ve seen every incarnation of the Duhks. I was at Merlefest in 2007 when John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin joined them on stage for “Whole Lotta Love.” Seeing the almost-original Duhks in Raleigh with Kellin Watson sit in on vocals was special.

As for Pokey, he and his band blend traditional sensibilities, clever messages, and great chops that you can’t autotune.

Seeing these great musicians up close, clearly loving what they do and how they do it, is infectious. (And we’re still processing the news that the Duhks really have broken up.)

I’ve also found a great ukulele community here in Raleigh. I joined the Raleigh Uke Jam nearly three years ago. We meet twice monthly in North Raleigh and regularly play at adult day centers and other events. I run the Facebook page, but several regulars found out about the jam because we’re on PineCone’s calendar of local events.

PineCone keeps our traditions alive and embraces the music. I’m proud to support it and am happy we got ukers across the globe to pitch in, too!


Next week, we’ll look at how social networking practices differ in the U.S. and elsewhere and how those differences affect building social fabric remotely.

Happy Juneteenth!

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*I misplaced my copy of the newsletter, probably during our January move. Otherwise I’d have posted a screenshot of the original.

**I’m hosting Season 489. It begins June 27.