Until a few years ago, most Americans thought of the ukulele—if they thought of it at all—as a fake instrument. It was just a toy, something your grandpa might've played in the living room during the family cocktail hour, or a prop for vaudeville routines. The uke had a few high-profile partisans over the years—including George Harrison, who reportedly brought them to friends' houses as gifts—but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, the ukulele stopped with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and Tiny Tim.
Ten or 15 years ago, things started to change. Locally, the ukulele was becoming more popular with the new wave of circus and cabaret acts (Circus Contraption, for example). Nationally, bands like the Magnetic Fields, Beirut, and the Decemberists began treating the ukulele as a serious instrument for composing songs, not just adding it as a flourish. "[The Magnetic Fields'] 69 Love Songs is primarily ukulele-based," Jason Verlinde, the publisher of Fretboard Journal said. "At the time, it was probably the best-selling ukulele record of all time."
That change hit rollercoaster speed one sunny afternoon in 2006, when a young ukulele player from Hawaii named Jake Shimabukuro sat down in Central Park and played a stunningly virtuosic version of Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Shimabukuro was visiting New York and playing for some segment on a local TV show, but the video found its way to YouTube and exploded—the video went viral before the term "viral video" was even coined.