NORTH ADAMS — For such a small instrument, the ukulele has made a big impact on the contemporary music scene.
The one-time object of amusement played by falsetto Tiny Tim has come a long way since 19th-century Portuguese immigrants introduced the diminutive guitars to Hawaii to the delight of King Kalakaua.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the ukulele has taken center stage in the hands of millennial amateurs and professional players alike.
On Sunday, Oct. 17, the Berkshire County Uke Fest will champion the four-stringed phenomenon at HiLo North Adams.
Founded in 2011 by north Berkshire songwriter, performer and educator Bernice Lewis, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year — after a pause in 2020 — with an afternoon of hands-on workshops in uke playing and songwriting followed by a song-sharing concert.
Lewis is widely known as part of the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra — a grand name for a trio of enthusiastic uke performers. She has taught songwriting at Williams College for 25 years, and also leads river rafting trips in the Grand Canyon and Idaho.
“This is the festival’s 10th year,” she said during a recent phone interview, from Texas where she teaches songwriting at Schreiner University. “It was a way of showcasing and celebrating this instrument everybody was falling in love with.”
Buoyed by ongoing Northern Berkshire Cultural Council grants, “people were showing up, they wanted to play, to listen, to connect with other players,” she said. “I had artists I wanted to showcase.”
The ukulele has come into a kind of deep Renaissance, she said. “It is so accessible, you can be good at it or plunk out ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with three chords and have a really nice time making music. It’s a calming, rewarding activity. You can start a three-year-old on ukulele and turn them into a good musician quickly, or give it to someone in their 60s and a half-hour later they’re playing an instrument. And they’re affordable; you can buy one for $50.”
Notable New Hampshire-based songwriter and guitarist Cosy Sheridan will make her Berkshires debut at the festival. A longtime friend of Lewis, they will teach a workshop on writing songs for the ukulele, then share tunes during an on-stage song swap.
Sheridan, who performs across the U.S. and leads the Moab Folk Camp in Utah, is a relative newcomer to the ukulele.
“I’ve been a guitarist most of my life,” she said during a phone interview while preparing for a concert in a Maine apple orchard. “I took up the ukulele informally a couple of years before the pandemic. It was so pervasive, everyone was playing it.”
“About three years ago, my husband [bassist Charlie Koch] gave me a ukulele I’d always coveted made by [luthier] Wayne Henderson down in Virginia. And I just fell in love with it. It was such a beautiful instrument I just wanted to play it all the time. Something caught for me, and I’ve been writing on the ukulele ever since.”
After dealing with six strings for so many years, having four strings “was tremendously freeing.” she said. “It feels like my growing edge right now.”
Young writers out in the northwest are approaching the ukulele “completely from a different perspective,” Sheridan said. “Their approach is so fresh, unbounded by expectations.”
The ukulele “is the instrument of the millennium, of the pandemic,” she added.
Sheridan looks forward to sharing her uke songwriting skills. “I tend to be a hands-on experiential kind of teacher, I write from personal perspective and experience.”
Offering prompts and structural instructions helps narrow the field of focus and is “a tremendous way to speed up creativity.”
Veteran Albany, N.Y., musician Ron Gordon returns to Uke Fest to lead an intermediate ukulele workshop.
“We really loved what he taught last time,” Lewis said, “really cool and accessible instrumental pieces. He’s passionate about teaching.”
Williams College student Tia Birdsong will teach a beginner workshop, and perform alongside fellow Eph Richie Jacobson.
This year, however, Lewis will miss the participation of her daughter and favorite musical collaborator, Mariah. The Brandeis University senior has an exam that weekend, Lewis said.
Earlier Uke Fests at Williamstown venues including the Clark Art Institute and Williams Inn attracted some 150 attendees, Lewis noted, while 2019’s last minute move to HiLo drew about 50. She expects a few more at HiLo this time around, within safe capacity limits.
“People are anxious to get out,” she said.