Reinvigorating his music with the ukulele
By Kathy Salzberg
Have you ever experienced a satori, the Buddhist term for a life-changing moment of enlightenment? It happened to musician Tim Sweeney in a Hyannis music store in 2003 and oddly enough, it involved a ukulele. That pint-sized instrument popularized by Arthur Godfrey, Don Ho and Tiny Tim might seem an unlikely catalyst for such a life-altering occurrence but if you talk to Tim or better yet, catch him with his uke in concert, you'll come away with a whole new appreciation for this humble instrument that has had several flirtations with fame but in Tim's opinion, never gained the respect it deserves.
The Orleans resident had already carved out a musical niche in a variety of venues, singing and playing guitar since he was a teenager in the Washington, D.C. area and later a familiar figure at bars, clubs, dances, benefits, and parties here on Cape Cod where he relocated fourteen years ago. Still boyish at age 58, the versatile veteran is in his fifth decade as a professional musician. On any given weekend you might see him playing blues, folk, rock, jazz, or swing, a gracious performer whose impish grin and easy rapport with his audience bespeaks an unabashed joy in performing, especially when he's cradling his uke. Tim had often vacationed on the Cape but once he moved here, he plugged into a network of local musicians, first through the First Parish Church in Brewster and later with a group dubbed the Thursday Night Chefs whose members still gather weekly in each other's homes for a jam session.
On that fateful day when he happened by Charlie's Music Store to pick up guitar strings, he came home with a ukulele and a chord chart. "It was truly a convergence, the start of the ukulele resurgence and I found I was right there at the right time, like a surfer riding the crest of a wave." Instead of the perfect wave, Tim surfed the Internet, learning about his new passion and downloading music charts with the zeal of a convert.
The ukulele had cast its spell, seducing him away from the guitar country-rock gigs that had been his meat and potatoes, the perfect complement to his voice as he delved into a treasure trove of songs from the Great American Songbook. Growing up, he had heard those tunes around the house from his Dad, a Washington D.C. firefighter and big band singer who also passed his talent for Bing Crosby-style whistling down to his son. While re-discovering the genius of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole, Tim learned that the ukulele had been a favorite of the Beatles, a regular part of their composing sessions. George Harrison traveled with two ukuleles, his own and a spare so he could invite friends to join in.
Tim credits his wife Nancy for her supportive role in his musical rebirth. The two became friends as she worked at The Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans, falling in love in short order once they started dating. Married in September of 2005 on Eastham's Coast Guard Beach, it was the bride who suggested they honeymoon at the Ukulele Ceilidh (Gaelic for a get-together where music is involved) in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, that November. "You need to be there," Nancy told her new husband.
Armed with his uke and a few songs, he was soon playing music and knocking back beers with legends he had come to know on the Internet. The following April, he headed to the New York Uke Fest in Manhattan, joining fellow attendees to catch performances, take workshops, and jam with like-minded devotees.
For a dozen years, Tim earned his livelihood as a musician in the D.C. area but approaching age thirty, he started taking "day jobs," first in a recording studio, then as Creative Director at an advertising agency . "I wore a coat and tie every day and had my own parking space under the building but I kept on playing, three, four or sometimes five nights a week. Sleep was never an issue," he laughs. "It was always the music." He also did camera work and field producing for the TV program "PM Magazine" and later started his own graphic design company.
With a set list ranging from classic standards to the Beatles and The Who, he gave ukulele concerts at varied Cape Cod venues like Chatham's First Night, the Provincetown Jazz Festival, Mahoney's in Orleans, and the Sea Dog Saloon in Eastham. His heartfelt vocals and skilled playing gleaned good reviews and a faithful following. The experience forged from all those day jobs paid off when he developed his own marketing plan, submitting proposals to become a performer at both festivals he had first attended as a spectator. In 2007, his was the opening act at the New York festival and he returned to Nova Scotia as a featured performer. Uke legends like Winnipeg's Hal Brolund ("Manitoba Hal") and Sacramento's Dan Scanlon ("Cool Hand Uke") became good friends who have since stayed at his home.
Last year he released a CD, "New Uke State of Mind," recorded with local musicians Laird Boles, Joey Spampinato and Rikki Bates, available at The Cape Cup in Orleans and on his website, www.timsweeney.us. There you may also view photos from his appearances at two festivals this past August, Chicago's Windy City Uke Fest and the European Ukulele Festival held in Gross-Umstadt, Germany. Lovingly dedicated to wife Nancy, the CD was also made in memory of Creole Lee Daw, "my hillbilly grandmother from Kentucky."
"When I was a kid, we'd go across the river to her house in Virginia and she'd pull out her banjo. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, she'd play a little then hand the banjo to me." Coming of age in the heyday of Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, Ian and Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary, he learned on a guitar borrowed from a friend with whom he later formed a group. "We even had cards made up but we played mostly for ourselves," he smiles. In 1968 as a student at Maryland's Towson State College, he got his first paying gig at The Alley Entrance, a church basement coffeehouse in Baltimore.
Most people associate the ukulele with Hawaii's hula girls, grass skirts, and leis, cultural images heavily promoted in its bid for statehood fifty years ago. Although the island Paradise will always be considered its spiritual home, the instrument was played for the first time in Honolulu in 1879 by Joao Fernandez, a Portuguese immigrant from Madeira who came with a boatload of countrymen to work in the sugar cane fields. Called the "braguinha" because it had first been manufactured in the province of Braga, Portugal, it was quickly embraced by Hawaiians, becoming a favorite of King David Kalaukea. "Ukulele", the name they gave it, translated into English as "jumping flea," the image the flying fingers of that first virtuoso called to mind.
In the U.S., it surged in popularity when Tin Pan Alley was in its heyday and was as much a part of Roaring Twenties as straw hats and raccoon coats. In World War I, George Formby's novelty tunes on the ukulele boosted British spirits and it blossomed once again after World War II when American serviceman returning from the Pacific brought their ukuleles home with them.
The 50's revival was credited to radio personality Arthur Godfrey. Rising to stardom on television, he strummed his uke between acts on his variety show. When rock and roll came along, it was stuffed back in the closet until falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim revived it in 1968. Today it is used both as a rhythm and a lead instrument in many genres, including reggae, rock and traditional Hawaiian music. New innovations are being introduced; along with the standard four-string ukuleles, six-, seven-, eight- and nine-string instruments are being made.
The ukulele has experienced quite a roller coaster ride and Tim is doing his best to ensure its future. His new passion has already taken him and Nancy around the country, to Canada and Germany, and he is thrilled to have been invited to the Paris Uke Fest this July - a second honeymoon for the couple in the City of Light. Such accolades are sweet but he speaks of a deeper spiritual connection. "I think we are here to learn, to grow and expand. I never had any delusions of grandeur about becoming a star with the guitar. I loved it, I kept going, I won a few songwriting awards, but everyone I started out with has dropped off and here I am, still going. Then, magically, I find this tool that has motivated me to see where it will take me. I'm 58 years old and I'm in the best time of my life."
— Published April 2009