The third Thursday in May, interisland ferry riders heard different sounds in addition to the usual rumble of the MV Tillikum engine. Shortly after departing from Orcas Island, fifteen passengers tuned strings on ukuleles, banjoleles (ukulele neck on a banjo body), and guitars. I had chosen my writing and riding time later in the day than usual just so I could witness the monthly Ukulele Jam.
A ukulele-playing friend from Orcas Island alerted me to the get-together and encouraged me to ride—even though I’ve never played any kind of string instrument. The first arrivals scoped out a spot at one end of the vessel where the chairs can be moved into a circle. At each island, people toting musical instrument cases made their way to the gathering, with the largest number boarding at Orcas. One of them, Anita, filled me in later about the origins and history of this one-year-old group.
Anita’s husband Gordon had wanted to organize a monthly uke jam on Orcas. “When the place he had planned to have it wasn’t going to work out,” Anita said, “he was trying to come up with something else.” As often happens in the islands, a bit of serendipity nurtured the idea of a floating uke jam.
“I commute to Shaw on foot to teach music lessons once a week,” Anita says, “hauling a guitar, uke, mandolin, and sometimes a saw.” (I’ve heard Anita play the saw with the Olga Symphony, and the sound she creates is astonishing). It’s hard to miss Anita with her collection of instruments, and over the years she’s become known to the ferry workers. “One night on my way home from the mainland,” she says, “one of the ferry workers (David) came up to me and said he’d heard there’s a guy on Orcas planning to put together a ukulele jam sometimes.”
When Anita explained it was her husband who wanted to organize the music, he asked her to keep him posted about it. “I would love to come sometime!”
Anita replied it was too bad they couldn’t just do the jam on the ferry. “Then I thought to myself, wait a minute… why not? Especially the free-to-walk-on friendly-crew interisland. And the idea was hatched.” When she pitched it to Gordon, he was game to try.
The first floating jam took place in June 2018. “The third Thursday is the regular date,” Anita says, “because it’s so nicely alliterative and therefore easy to remember.” The range of experience among the players seemed varied, and I asked Anita if all levels are welcome.
“Totally! We even had a couple of women who happened to be on board for the first float, got inspired, went out and got ukes, and joined us the next month!” Anita encourages people to come and play when they can, and sing when they can’t. “Down the road, they’ll find they can play more and more.” She also urges her students to join in. “It’s so good and important to play with others… and fun!”
The evening I rode, many of the “jammers” brought music stands and sheet music to share. Someone called out, “ ‘Pancho and Leftie’ in the key of G.” As the jam progressed, others suggested folk songs, waltzes, and ballads, including “Wildflowers,” “The Wild Rover,” “Skye Boat Song,” “Stand by Me,” and “Burning Ring of Fire.” When the group played “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” a couple danced along.
Anita notes that passengers “love it. We’ve had people get on just to listen to the music and watch the scenery. I guess there might be plenty who don’t like it, but they just go to the other end of the boat, so we don’t know about them.”
So far, the uke players have had only one special event—a Jammie Jam. “I had to work on the third Thursday of December,” Anita recalls, “so we moved the gathering to Sunday. One of the Shaw folks suggested pajamas—they go to bed early on Shaw— so…….” That night, a viola and keyboard joined in, too.
I haven’t made it to another jam yet, but I hope to before winter sets in (they don’t meet during the winter because that sailing schedule doesn’t include the needed evening stops). Who knows, maybe I’ll be tempted to try the uke myself.