More than a decade before the "third wave" of popularity of the "infectious, adorable and extremely humble little instrument" known as the ukulele began, a Milwaukee-based musician and educator named Marc Revenson added the four-stringed uke to his repertoire of guitar, banjo and harmonica. A career was born.
"I can take credit for being a ukulele player when it wasn't cool to be a ukulele player," said Revenson, who crisscrosses the country each winter as Lil' Rev, presenting concerts with an underpinning of ethnomusicology: "Tin Pan Alley, blues, original songs of roots-based music, a little bit of guitar, a little bit of harmonica."
Revenson will perform a concert of "Blues, Jews and Tin Pan Alley" at 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon in Nokomis.
"I can take credit for being the hardest working touring ukulele player on the mainland," said Rev in a phone interview last week as he was packing up his wife, Carol Alvarez, and pre-school daughter Mariela plus a vanload of instruments, books and CDs for the family's winter tour. "I go out for months at a time, I hit every ukulele club, every festival. What I can't take credit for is what has happened with the ukulele, which some would think of as a fad. What underlies its current popularity is its portability, its affordability, its lack of pretense, its unique sound as a stringed instrument."
The ukulele, with roots in Hawaii that extend back to Portuguese immigrants who settled there in the late 19th century, is riding a wave of what Revenson thinks of as "a rebellion against always being a consumer and not a participant in our own entertainment. The ukulele begs to be included."
Revenson was given his first ukulele, a Wendell Hall banjo ukulele, by a fan.
"After 20 years of just chasing this instrument, chasing the history of it, learning how to become a better player, learning the great old songs and learning to write my own songs, it's still just as much fun as it always was," said Revenson, who writes ukulele lesson books for Hal Leonard in addition to his many concert performances.