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The Boost of Popular Culture

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole also known as Bruddah or just simply IZ, was a Hawaiian musician, singer, songwriter whose 1993 version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"/"What a Wonderful World" may have been the catalyst for a dramatic increase in ukulele sales over the next few years. And in 2004 ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro catapulted instrument sales to new heights with his version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

So does popular culture regularly drive instrument sales? My colleagues at the Denver Folklore Center shared with me several other scenarios that may fit that pattern. The year was 1972, the movie was Deliverance, and the song was "Dueling Banjos". In the weeks and months following the release of the film sales of banjos at the store increased significantly. The same may have been the case in 2000 when Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? featured the acoustic guitar in some exciting, driving songs. Sales of guitars jumped soon after the movie came out.

According to harmonica historian Kim Fields, “the golden age of the mouth organ” came between the world wars, when vaudevillians toured with mouth harps and Hollywood westerns put them between the lips of glamorous cowboys. In 1944, a former Marine from Chicago, Jerry Murad, formed a trio of
harmonizing harmonica players in dinner jackets and ties called the Harmonicats. Not long after, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter were pioneering the Chicago blues harmonica sound. Each of these trends influenced folk, rock and soul players, from Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder to John Popper of Blues Traveler.

So which folk instrument might soon get a boost from popular culture? - Saul Rosenthal, Co-Owner, Denver Folklore Center