Strumming My Way Through the Pandemic

As you can tell from my website, I like ukuleles. In fact, I love ukuleles. I come by this love honestly. I’m originally from Lancashire in North West England. If the ukulele isn’t the official instrument of Lancashire, it should be. Here’s why.

My parents emigrated from Lancashire to Canada when I was little. My Mother was a huge Formby fan, and I grew up hearing and singing along with her to all the Formby songs.

Formby continues to be well-known and loved in the UK but isn’t well-known in North America except among ukulele players.

My late husband (we met at night school here in Canada) was from London England. Like me, he grew up hearing George Formby music. And, like many guys, in his youth he played guitar and was in a band, subsequently becoming its manager – perhaps an early indicator of his future corporate life first in England and then in Canada.

Although he didn’t pursue music professionally, he was always a musician. Every evening after dinner and a long work day, he’d take out his guitar, banjo or uke. Both of us always had demanding jobs. One of our traditions was taking off the week between Christmas and New Year’s to take pleasure in being home – enjoying our favourite meals, music and shows and dancing in front of the fireplace. We always played Formby music and sang along.

When George Formby died in 1961, a group of his fans established the George Formby Society (the GFS). The GFS is still going strong and four times a year holds conventions in the seaside town of Blackpool on the North West coast of England – two days of Formby song concerts and black and white George Formby film screenings. George Harrison was a long-time GFS member. Harrison loved the uke. It’s said that he always travelled with several. The Royal Albert Hall Concert for George closed with British rocker Joe Brown playing “I’ll See You in My Dreams” on the uke.

My husband and I always wanted to go to a GFS convention, but the timing never worked for us.

In the fall of 2018, three years into widowhood, I was booking a trip to the UK to visit family and realized my trip would coincide with the September Formby convention. I’d watched clips of the conventions online. I knew that if I didn’t take a ukulele to the convention, I’d be really sorry. Fortunately, I had my husband’s uke. Technically, it was my ukulele. I’d always wanted to play the uke, had mentioned it to my husband and, being the great guy that he was, he immediately went out and bought one for me. I didn’t have much success learning to play but he, of course, was playing within a couple of days.

Well, attending a GFS convention was everything (and more) that I’d imagined. Whatever their talent level, anyone can get up on the stage in the convention hotel ballroom and play and sing Formby songs. There are some absolutely amazing players – the Formby style is incredibly difficult to master – as well as the rest of us who are working on becoming better players. Everyone gets a huge round of applause at the end of their performance. Some people who attend don’t play at all. They just love the uke and Formby music.

At the convention, I took workshops on playing the Formby style – a major challenge since at the time I didn’t play ANY ukulele style at all. In fact, I had never played any musical instrument until I got to Blackpool. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. An experienced uke player taught me the basics and to my amazement, by the end of the weekend, I was up on the stage “playing” (at least strumming) in a “thrash” – a group ukulele playing session that starts and ends each convention session. Anyone with a uke can get up on the stage and everyone together plays Formby songs. I left Blackpool with the goal of learning to play at least one Formby song well enough to perform on stage.

As soon as I got back to Toronto, I started uke lessons. I’ve been playing (allegedly) ever since, attending another GFS convention in the summer of 2019. Having always loved the ukulele, I’m totally amazed and thrilled that I’ve finally learned how to play.

At the start of the COVID shutdowns in March 2020 and knowing that the upcoming GFS convention(s) would have to be cancelled, some people in the UK who were GFS members started a virtual thrash on Zoom. Every day for 40 minutes anywhere from 30 to 50 people from all over the world (including the UK, US, Europe, Canada and Asia) join the Zoom call. Four people take turns hosting the sessions – three in the UK and one in Cyprus. The hosts create a play list of Formby songs that they post on Facebook. We all mute the audio on our computer, tablet or phone to overcome internet time lags. The hosts play the music tracks, and we all play along. It’s a lot of fun – including bad jokes, dress up days on special occasions and happy banter.

The initial thinking was that the Zoom thrashes would be a two- or three-week thing during a short COVID shutdown but, of course, that’s not what happened. On Saturday March 20 we celebrated our first “Zoomiversary” – 365 consecutive days of playing, with 160 people on over 140 screens. There were greetings and messages from all sorts of UK dignitaries – including from the Queen who is said to know all the words to Formby songs. (Formby played for the Royal Family in the 40s and the GFS were invited to play at the Queen’s 92nd Birthday Celebration at Royal Albert Hall.)

Whatever my COVID shutdown day holds, I’m guaranteed a happy 40-minutes with the Formby Zoomers.

Playing so regularly, I’ve gotten better – the alternative would be too awful to contemplate! I often can’t keep up but every now and then I find my fingers flying and I realize “I’M REALLY PLAYING.” When that happens, I put a happy face at the stop of the sheet music – that means it’s a possible song for me to play on stage in Blackpool when COVID shutdowns end, and the GFS in-person conventions resume.

Playing and singing George Formby songs brings back happy memories of singing the songs with my Mom and dancing across the living room with my Dad – the song lyrics have the distinctive Northern England turns of phrase (think Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous or Ringo Starr) that I’d forgotten. And, of course, I feel connected to my late husband’s love of music and our happy Formby Christmas sing-a-longs. Learning to play and read music has helped me better appreciate all the other music that I love.

In fact, I’m enjoying playing the uke so much, I’m thinking of getting a keyboard…

The contact page of my website has a photo of me with my uke at the July 2019 GFS convention.

If like me you are suffering from COVID fatigue, consider getting a ukulele! Seriously. In his song “I Like Ukuleles,” singer Joe Brown says playing the uke is so good for us “they should stick ‘em on the National Health.”

How have you been getting through all the COVID shutdowns?

If you play an instrument, what prompted you to choose it?

Click below for some great ukulele playing.

George Formby Society Playing at the Royal Albert Hall Queen’s 92nd Birthday Celebration

Concert for George “I’ll See You in My Dreams” – Joe Brown

“I Like Ukuleles” – Joe Brown

The George Formby Society

Thank you for sharing my blog. As always, I welcome any comments.

Take care. Stay safe.


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