By Heidi Swedberg
I started off life like most folks: as a small child. Sure, there are those who are born old, cranky, and serious, but I didn’t get there until my teens. Before that, I had ten carefree years of messing around, playing and singing songs, noodling on a ukulele. (I can’t count my first two years because I don’t remember them. Nobody remembers infancy, especially parents. If they did, overpopulation would not be an issue.) I learned everything I needed to make it through childhood in Hawaii: C, C7, F, and G7.
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Leaving childish passions and pleasures behind, I entered those 20 dark years called “adulthood,” when I struggled to become a serious artist. I moved to the biggest cities, had a career, and worked hard to create an impressive resume. I had hobbies and took vacations from my stressful life. Gradually, over time, I found myself succeeding against all odds—at being miserable. Plus, I had made the mistake of turning 30. Few actresses’ careers survive this unpardonable gaffe.
This all came to a screeching halt when I had children. I started playing games and singing songs with my kids, returning to the simple tunes (and childhood) I had left behind. You have to sing to your children—there is no other option. How else do you get them to go to “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”? Take them for a stroll around “The Ash Grove,” to meet “Mr. Sandman.”
The damn ukulele came back into my life, and after that it was all over. I no longer cared about being important or impressive. I didn’t even care that I wasn’t the best. I began to have fun.
My kids put up with my constant singing and even humored me by singing along. They let me go to school with them to sing in their classrooms. I was allowed to teach ukulele to them and to their friends. We ran in circles around the “Paw-Paw Patch,” swatted at the “Shoo Fly,” “Skipped to My Lou,” and rode the “Freight Train” so fast. We braved folk songs from other places, in other languages: Spanish, Japanese, French, Korean, and German. Even pop songs and jazz standards wormed their way in. Bands formed, parties happened, merriment ensued.
Eventually, their parents wanted to learn, too. At first I was concerned: I worked with kids, play was their nature. Adults would never tolerate this kind of silliness. Adults want virtuosity, expertise, and uplifting cultural experiences—not fun and games.
Then, secretly, some grownups began to share their dark desires with me. Turns out that they, too, wanted to play around and experience this drug called fun. I was shocked to learn that adults wanted to ride in a “Yellow Submarine” and get to know the “Muffin Man”; they wanted to “Play That Funky Music,” sing “Silly Love Songs,” and give “Simple Gifts.”
We formed a cult where the joy of making music reigned supreme. Shame and expectations were tossed aside, and our imperfect voices rose together in growing numbers, accompanied by the pounding jungle strums of C, F, and G7. Today, we gather at festivals and retreats, donning fezzes for trips to “Istanbul” or rides on a “Slow Boat to China.”
Now I no longer work, take vacations, or have hobbies. I cannot separate fantasy from reality. Life has become an endless stream of sharing music and joy with others, regardless of age or ability: ukulele festivals and cooking fiestas, preschools, jazz clubs, children’s hospitals, lawyer’s retreats, museums, Haitian orphanages—in truth, they are all the same. We come, we connect, and the beauty of love flares, blindingly bright, until we pass on to the next stage of our lives with a smile and a heart full of humanity.
Who knows where this will all end?
The ants keep warning us grasshoppers, but we seem to be winning over the ants. The ukulele apocalypse rages in full force, sweeping up men, women, and children in its wake. Corporate entertainment may fight against these throngs of singing, happy mutants, but the numbers continue to swell. The battle cry of “You Are My Sunshine” deafens the ears of naysayers.
What I have learned is that in the end, we leave holding dear that which we embraced in the beginning. The songs I sing to Alzheimer’s patients are the same songs I sing to toddlers. There is power in even the most humble of songs, when sung from the heart, and there is beauty in every stage of life when you can connect with others. I know that if I go out as I came in, it’ll be good enough for me.
So I continue to tightly hold my ukulele and the songs that make me smile and cry. And if I can spread some of those apple seeds along the way, perhaps it’ll all be worthwhile.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
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