Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Do you drive a car? Do you want to transform the roads you drive on into sane and efficient lanes of smooth traffic? Do you want to help reduce the wasteful use of auto fuel, not only for you but for the drivers with whom you share the road? Please read the 1998 article TRAFFIC "EXPERIMENTS" AND A CURE FOR WAVES & JAMS by William Beaty. Take about ten minutes to read it over; once it's absorbed, you won't forget it. And it will make you a happier driver; I'll bet money on it. Comments posted on a page linked there offer additional observations that will enhance your experience. As 2007 draws to a close, and ways of making 2008 a better year fill my thoughts, I'm convinced it's the best thing I got to read all year.


Electrical Engineer and transformative driver William Beaty

Friday, December 21, 2007

Charles Wakefield Cadman was an American composer who was fascinated by Native American culture. He wrote a successful series of atmospheric song cycles inspired by his studies of tribal music, which today are typically dismissed as naive, romantic misapprehensions of a strikingly unfamiliar world.

If that isn't a good blanket description of the entire musical genre of Exotica, it isn't far from the mark. For my current project, UKEBOX EXOTICA, I've been rummaging around the discard bins of popular music for lost threads of this enduring fabulist tapestry, one dominated today by the legacies of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. The work of Charles Wakefield Cadman proves to be a rich source of melody and mood.

For a little while I'll be posting here a GarageBand arrangement of The Rainbow Waters Whisper, the third in his 1913 cycle of four songs, "Idyls Of The South Sea." As soon as I figure out a ukulele part for me to play, I'm taking it down, so check it out now.

Charles Wakefield Cadman "Idyls Of The South Seas" III The Rainbow Waters Whisper - arranged by Steven Strauss

Here's a 1937 TIME article about gum chewing Charlie Cadman.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Kurt Stevenson will accompany me on guitar when I appear on KALW-FM in December. I'll have forty five minutes or so to play music on the ukulele and talk a bit about it. And flack the record.

The program is KALW's A Patchwork Quilt, Red-bearded Kevin Vance's delirious weekly plunge into sensuous handmade music that defies category and resists exploitation. Tune in on Saturday, December Eight, or listen online. The program runs from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30; I'll appear at about the half-way point and go until the end. Kurt and I are planning something as musically expressive as we can execute.

If you're not tuned in by 5:45 p.m. you might miss something. If you have ukulele nuts in your extended family, encourage them to tune in.

In jazz news, Connie Doolan Quartet, of which I am roughly a fourth (more by weight), is almost ready to announce an east bay house concert on December 30, the day before New Year's Eve. When times are set, terms are known, and directions have been drawn up, I'll post about it at Connie Doolan Quartet's stately web log.

Deborah Robins just sent me an email with this photograph attached. She snapped this at The New Zealander in Alameda a few nights ago. I'm shown playing my RISA Uke Solid, accompanying Regina Maria Pontillo, one of my very favorite performers ever. Regina and I willl be angling hard to get another gig there come January.

Click here if you think you'd like to hear a sloppy but swinging electric ukulele demo!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

DaSilva Ukuleles is participating in Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios every weekend in December. Folks coming by can watch work on ukuleles in various stages of completion, test drive new ukes, and check out Michael DaSilva's forward-looking ukulele programs.

Mike got a lot of nice ink from the San Francisco Chronicle last Sunday. Want to read Ian Lendler's take on the current enthusiasm for the ukulele? It's here at

Mike's asked me to come play acoustic ukuleles on stage during the open house, and with such great sounding ukes on hand I can't resist. On Saturday I'll be there just as soon as I get everything put away from my usual 10:00am-1:00pm session on electric ukulele at Berkeley's venerable Nabolom Bakery. So expect me to be playing ukuleles at DaSilva's shop from three until six o'clock or so Saturday, and the next morning from 11am until about 2pm, at which time Al Dodge's Sun Dodgers will be ready to crank up the gramophone era sounds. (Faith Yang of Oregon took the picture above at DaSilva's.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hey friends of the UKEBOX thing

UKEBOX is now available at the iTunes Store. It's a foot in the door. If you'd like to see the door wedged open a little wider, there is a way you can help.

When you get to the iTunes Store you can search on Steven Strauss or UKEBOX and you'll get the album page. Listen to samples. If you've heard the CD and like it, consider saying something nice about it in the customer reviews. (I'd do it myself but there are people who would know instantly.) Even if all you hear is samples, feel free to say you like them.

Is this album in the wrong category (Easy Listening)? We don't come up among the recent releases in Easy Listening anyway, so what's the point of having that handle? Just makes ya fly lopsided...

You can help me pay for this album without any further outlay of funds, because I don't need to sell a million. But it'll take people unintentionally discovering UKEBOX while browsing. I just want a tiny fraction of that browsing market.

Have I mentioned we're at CDBaby, too? You can get a copy sent to your home or office. Samples there run two minutes, too, if hearing more of each tune would make a difference.

click to UKEBOX at CDBaby

Believe me, this is better than being signed to Warner Brothers.

Friday, November 09, 2007


I'm just sayin'.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

I ran across a discussion question on a classical music forum asking whether anyone passing though also really liked rap and hip-hop. From the wording it was clear that the person posing the question found such a thing unlikely and had no use for the stuff. I felt the urge to respond, and wrote what follows.

In the fifties rock and roll's ability to infuriate the elders was most of its appeal! Hip hop similarly knows whom it offends and is comfortable with that.

I can imagine hip hop that I can really enjoy - and there are rare instances in which a hip hop record's appeal makes it past my disinclination to the style, owing to the personality of the speaker or the potency of the message, or sometimes just the happy collage of sampled elements. Sometimes a real generosity of spirit emerges, sometimes a trenchant wit, or an obviously keen ear for sound or rhythm.

But most of the hip hop I hear is from a world I don't want to be in, a form of expression made of elements I avoid intuitively: boasting, threatening, brute force, gender tyranny. (I don't doubt they are integral to the artist's realm, as much as daffodils were in Wordsworth's.) Rapping came up as a competitive expression in a proscribed social order where I would not last a week. In this world, just as in that of the concert hall, stardom is subject to irrational and unfair accidents of weather and circumstance; musical distinction is but a tangential factor. (When I'm driving to a gig with bandmates and De La Soul comes up in the shuffle, the discomfort of my passengers is louder than even their disdain. I usually have to skip to the next track, out of pity.)

From my vantage point I sense that we are lucky there is any commercial music at all that we can really embrace. (If I saw an ad for it I'm bound to resist it.)

We like to think we have feelings and thoughts but I keep finding evidence that our thoughts and feelings have us! In high school I hated to hear the music bullies listened to ("Skynard!"), and the guys who wolf whistled my sister. If you think our musical tastes are primarily aesthetic I would suggest you're hiding from yourself.

Imagine what resentments the choral Ode To Joy might bring up in a kid from a tough neighborhood. What pictures do you think it conjures? Might it not evoke an authoritarian order bent on his oppression? Or at the very least a world in which he has no place and nothing to offer?

If I'd known before becoming a musician how rarely popular success results from a high level of musicality I would have skipped the trying-to-make-it phase entirely. The artist that succeeds in capturing the imagination of the public does so largely on the basis of emotional theater of some kind, not so much by concentrating on musicality. Emotional theater gives the non-musician a way to identify with the performance. A favorite singer, especially, lives for a fan more as an animus or an avatar than as a creator of expressive works. People bond with their ideas of the artists they follow, and the relationship is necessarily without much basis in reality. Verdad, it is so rarely about the music itself.

Please forgive my rambling! Thank God I ran out of words.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Kevin Carpenter was my first friend when I got to high school in 1972. We've kept our lives congruent for about half our subsequent lives, but not so much recently. We talked on the phone last week and made a plan to go back to the Broom Bush for pancakes, like we used to during the Clinton administration.

He told me he'd seen me playing ukulele and singing on YouTube. You could have knocked me over. I racked my brain but finally it occurred to me what it was - a strange low budget video show I performed on a couple years ago in a makeshift studio on Old Bayshore Highway in San Francisco. Everything will eventually wind up on the 'net, so why fight it?

The hostess finally gets around to introducing my performance after about five and a half minutes of willfully obtuse behavior. I had no idea the feral girl was going to crawl across me while I played.

Malaka Mo Kalu - Steven Strauss And His Ukulele
I definitely had the David Seville haircut that week.

A friend wrote to tell me that in this picture I look like the cat from Shellac Shanty.

I thought it would be a good idea to share an exceptional recording, a rare example of a uke-strumming singer whose appeal is almost entirely musical. He's not pouring on the charm in the manner of the master entertainer, but he's really delivering an adroit and nuanced performance. He makes it sound mighty easy.

No Wonder She's A Blushing Bride - Art Fowler And His Ukulele

"Aaow, sompn just pote me in the nayeck!"

(from 11/30/05)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I came home from playing bass with Failure To Disperse (old timey music) at the Solano Stroll Sunday at about six. We made pretty good tip money. It was my forty-ninth birthday. I went out on our tiny porch balcony to see my wife Cynthia, who gave me our little yearling cat, Geoffrey, to hold. A friend in a neighboring apartment took a picture. It was a good day.

"Amy, the calamari was superb." - Vern Agoyan

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Glad, I guess, to report that taking care of my new record of uke instrumentals, UKEBOX, and its new friends, really has my hands full. Who's have thought they'd be so hard to mail to Canada?

After a US judge threw out Valerie Plame's civil suit today, and after Hillary Clinton took a torpedo to the bow for her position on the war giving supposed aid and comfort to the enemy (huh?), I was ready for a heartfelt dressing down of our commander in cheat from the eloquent sportsman himself, Keith Olbermann. This seven minutes and change is one of KO's most incisive and persuasive editorials, and if you truly, deeply, madly resent the gray-haired college republican who holds the highest office in our beautiful land, your heart will find Keith's dear john letter to the preznit cathartic and satisfying.

If you think GWB is getting a tough break, you might rather just listen to Connie Francis singing a German lyric for "Where The Boys Are." I like it, too.

Special Comment for July 19, 2007 episode of MSNBC's "Countdown" - Keith Olbermann
Keefo Berman
Nothing sung by Gigli ever satisfied my soul quite like Keith's aria tonight.

Wenn Ich Traume - Connie Francis
Sang so unser Connie.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jumpin' Jim
Jim and Liz Beloff really like the ukulele.

Jim Beloff just added my new CD of ukulele instrumentals, UKEBOX, to the on-line store at Flea Market Music. He said some very nice things about the music. While there, why don't you sign up for the twice yearly catalog he sends ukulele fans in their mailboxes?

Flea Market Music's On-Line Store's blurb for UKEBOX Instrumental Magic From the Ukulele of Steven Strauss

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Record release party Sunday, June 17, at DaSilva Ukulele shop in Berkeley, CA. Meeting and greeting at five, concert at seven. We'll charge ten at the door, and for just that night we'll sell the CD for half price: ten dollars. Information about the shop, and the ukulele maker behind it, can be found at Hang on tight!

Click on the pretty picture above to see a bigger image and read the text!

Oh, by the way. You could do me a really big favor by getting in touch with me via MySpace. Check this link: It will help me learn to use MySpace like a reckoning critter.
Expanded Liner Notes for
UKEBOX by Steven Strauss

01 Speevey
Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly were the take off players in the Quintette du Hot Club de Paris. The group recorded nearly constantly, and the two frequently made up tunes on the spot. Speevey would seem to be one of those tunes. It was recorded once, and it was never released during their career. In the very last eight bars Django, seated right by the mic, began whomping the strings of his guitar so loudly it was sure to "foul the take," as if something about the performance had rubbed him the wrong way.

In the last ten years or so the recording has been added to the Django anthology, and jazz manouche players are starting to learn it and play it in tribute. I fell in love with this oddly simple piece of music while playing bass in the Hot Club of San Francisco under the direction of the spectacular gypsy-jazz guitarist Paul Mehling.
I rescued a boy from drowning once, and in gratitude his parents got Bobby Black to come into the studio and play his no-pedal steel guitar on this tune with me.

02 C'est lui que mon coeur a choisi
In the early eighties I was writing out lead sheets for extra cash; give me a cassette and twenty five dollars and I'll bring you a piece of staff paper with the melody and chords written out. Rowena Kaiser, studying trombone at the time, brought me a tape with two songs by Edith Piaf, and getting the melody exactly as played was a new challenge. The style was unfamiliar to me, and the chords changes were timed in a way so unlike those of jazz standards. It took me more than twice as long to figure out than a jazz standard, but by the time I delivered the work I had every bit of it floating around in my head.
Seth Asarnow has a bustling career playing piano (and occasionally string bass), but his passion and his mission are bound up in the bandoneon, the Argentine tango accordion. Even on this sonically asymmetrical squeeze box, notorious for its idiosyncratic layout of pitches, Seth is one of those enviable "think it - play it" musicians. After a gig together at the Fairmont Hotel in 1988 he showed me the works, and I am still recovering. He played me the theme from Lost In Space, having never played it before on the bandoneon, slowing slightly here and there to grope for the right pitch. When it was over he had to figure out how to play the original theme from Lost In Space, the one that was superceded after the first season. I am in permanent awe, and never more so than when I hear him play on this lovely French cafe waltz.

03 Lazy Moon
Laurel and Hardy first starred in a U.S. feature film in 1931, in "Pardon Us." Their characters, afoul of the law with some bootleg liquor, must run and hide. The hiding part includes secreting themselves into a blackface minstrel troupe; Stan Laurel performs an intoxicating rubber legs dance culminating in a mud puddle, but first Ollie pipes up like a boy tenor, entirely recognizable under a smear of burnt cork, to sing what even then was a hoary old chestnut, 1905's Lazy Moon, by Bob Cole and J. Rosamonde Johnson.

I asked the great traditional fiddler Suzy Thompson to make up an old string band type melody to fit the chord changes of this number, without letting her know what the tune was. She brings us a mournful old moan, buffeted by the stately tuba of Rick Elmore and the softshoe shoosh of percussionist and drummer Kevin Mummey. All throughout the tune is adorned with the impromptu stylings of jazz violinist Julian Smedley, who also reads down the string section finale like a pit orchestra at the operetta.
rick elmore
The multitalented Rick Elmore

04 The Beer Barrel Polka (Modranska Polka)
Concert scale "Frisco Uke" by Marc Silber and Chuck Fayne

Not a very old tune at all, but an enormous hit right from the git, and the USA's greatest contribution to the broad-ranging and misunderstood canon of the polka. Flat-picker Eric Thompson learned it from the proto-bluegrass stylings of Reno and Smiley, and his observance of their subdominant harmony on the second theme creates a palpable tension with the dominant ninth feeling of the original. If this tune's not exciting enough for you, you can put the record back; in the picnic lunch this recording aims to be, this is the energy drink.

05 Stella By Starlight

I'd heard jazz saxophonists soloing on these changes forever, and I thought I knew how Stella By Starlight went until I heard it sung by Tony Bennett in an early sixties recording. It's not hearing the words that made the difference, but Tony's relaxed and sure-footed apprehension of the widely-pitched melody, just divergent enough from the printed score to sound like he had it tailor made. I can't hear it in my head any other way.
I started to pick it out on the 'ukulele as a gag, confident that the limited compass of the instrument would defeat such ambition. To my surprise I found all the notes I needed - just barely. Making me sound like a jazz player are the impeccable drummer Kevin Mummey and Julian Smedley, sophistication itself on the very jazzy violin.

06 I Am So Proud

Here's the other outrageous reach that didn't crash and burn, my setting for guitar, string bass, and three 'ukuleles of a trio from Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan's masterwork The Mikado. In it three men take turns giving reasons that they must regretfully decline to offer their necks on the chopping block when "a victim must be found." They make lovely excuses.
On the subject of excuses, I played a little bit of one part and then a little bit of another, switching instruments under the skeptical supervision of co-producer John Rewind. I hardly noticed that I kept titching up the pitch on each instrument to be slightly higher than its accompaniment, until the whole enterprise wound up more than just pennies sharp from standard tuning. If you are playing along with this CD you will lose all patience with your practice somewhere during this track.

07 The Donkey Serenade
Allan Jones broke both rules of show business singing this song in a movie. Amid the vocal interjections of a little boy he sings this serenade to the donkey pulling him in a cart.
Musical illusionist Scott Young brought his box mute and his trombone to the studio, knowing how quietly I play 'ukulele, and gave out with a couple of simply perfect parts, this one evoking the post-horn of a mounted rider. Even though the 'ukes chug along throughout, it is when Scott holds out a plain vanilla long note above the rhythm that the track seems to go airborne.

Scott Young, Honky Tonk Man
08 Surrey With The Fringe On Top
Blossom Dearie's record of this song was a revelation to me. I'd previously regarded it as one of Richard Rodgers' dumbest tunes, and one of the least dignified lyrics in the history of the musical stage. Blossom brought her cool jazz touch on the piano to it, slowed it down to a walk, and sang it in an intimate whisper. At once I realized, this is a song of surreptitious seduction, and calculated to draw the listener into the singer's embrace. It worked on me.
I picked up the tempo just a little from hers and enlisted super steady Kevin Mummey on drums, just to make it easier to impose a kind of Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five steady throb to the melody. The remarkable Scott Young and his quiet trombone, fresh in from that downhill romp on a donkey cart, cool it down in perfect step with our well-used pair of snow white hosses.

Scott Young arranged the National Anthem for the voices of his honky-tonk band, Red Meat

09 Feria de las Flores

This Mexican waltz has been around the world, from mariachi to Nat King Cole to exotica organist Korla Pandit, from whose recording I taught myself the tune. (He got some of it pretty wrong, and in standardizing the tune for myself I've only halfway corrected the error.)
I'd been acquainted with it from my days in Bradley Jaye Williams' conjunto Los Pinkys, where we played it as a polka, following the example of accordionists Flaco and Santiago Jimenez.
It was as a waltz, though, that it endeared itself to me.
Magician Seth Asarnow lifts my 'ukulele up on the shoulders of his broad bandoneon once again, creating an atmosphere of fountains and hummingbirds with his fluttering and trilling and burbling. Percussionist Pete Devine, with nothing but a nose flute, turns up the atmosphere to eleven, stimulating an ad hoc chorus of wild birds outside Mike Wollenberg's hillside studio in Canyon, California.

10 Mi Cafetal / Ay! Mi Yacquicita

Ay! Mi Yaquicita, played by Conjunto Murrietta, was included in a collection of music from Native American accordion bands. Called "Chicken Scratch Fiesta," the album was released more than thirty years ago by Arizona's Canyon Records, a long-established label devoted to the music of Native Americans. I learned it while playing bass for California winemaker and accordionist Dan Warrick, who learned it from Buffalo, Wyoming accordionist, folklorist, and state poet laureate David W. Romtvedt, who added the catchy stop-time phrase right before the tune comes back to the top.
Dan Warrick
Dan Warrick

Wyoming's David Romtvedt

I sent some rough tracks for this tune to Austin, Texas, to my old bandleader from Los Pinkys, Bradley Jaye Williams, asking him to play on it. (He pretty much taught me how to play the cumbia in that band.) He sent the tracks back with some nifty parts, including the bajo sexto part we include in this final arrangement. Bradley was really enthusiastic and helped me through some discouraging phases of the long process of making a record without a budget. Working on this track he reminded me that during our time playing music together we had been fantasizing about a band that would play a happy hybrid of NorteƱo and Hawaiian sounds. "A Tiki-Mex band, man."

Bradley Jaye Williams makes the bajo sexto bark like a dog!

When it was time to finish this tune up I turned to slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza, who's hired me a few times to play bass for him lately. Patrick understood instantly and really warmed the whole thing up. Baile! Hula! Tiki-Mex, man!

Patrick Landeza

11 Georgia On My Mind

Memory loss is an inevitable byproduct of aging, and I'll be damned if I can remember where all these thoughts related to this song came from. I know somebody turned to me on the bandstand and said, "Georgia was a girl!" Whether I read the rest or dreamed it, I don't know; I can't find the information I expected, but here I go anyway.
Young Hoagy Carmichael

I recall something about Hoagy Carmichael growing up playing piano four hands with his sister in the parlor, like countless American brothers of that era. I always thought the verse to this song was a lot like Liszt's Liebestraum in A flat. Liebestraum was a hit sheet music melody for playing at home on the parlor piano, and four handed arrangements were popular when Hoagy was a youngster. I have this image of Hoagy remembering this family pastime and thinking fondly on his sister, recalling the strains of Love's Dream, and making those strains the jumping off place of a grown up song about missing home and hearth and the way things used to be. "A song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight thru' the pine."
I couldn't resist a chance at sibling harmony with my own dear sister, Christine Emerson; we oohed through a a few measures of Billy Wilson's solo on the baritone 'ukulele. (Billy has me playing 'ukulele in his "ukecentric" combo Old Puppy with guitar whiz Kurt Stevenson and Billy's sister Cynthia Wilson on percussion.)
Billy Wilson and me

I played my RISA Uke Solid on this track. Sounds like a 'ukulele to me.

12 Oh! Mister Kane (A Poco No)

In Citizen Kane there's a scene at a party, where Kane and his staff are celebrating the acquisition of their rival paper's writers. A line of chorus girls comes out waggling and a man with a cane and a straw boater begins to holler, Cohan-like, this song with words about the ambitious tycoon's wealth and growing fame. Harry Ruby's words are mostly atrocious, intentionally so, except maybe "who buys the food? / who buys the drinks? / who thinks that dough was made to spend and acts the way he thinks?"

A pitiful accordion wheezes the tune in the alley after he loses the election, and the entire cast makes its curtain call to guest arranger Conrad Salinger's footlight orchestration of this flimsy ditty. Maybe hearing this tune as an accompaniment to closing credits made me think this was a natural closer for our program.
Early write-ups of the picture claimed that the film's composer, Bernard Herrmann, had appropriated a folk song called "A Poco No" for "Oh! Mister Kane," but recently published cue sheets for the film score actually credit the tune to a Mexican pop-song writer named Pepe Guizar, who, under the name Jose Pepe Guizar Morfin (el Pintor Musical de Mexico), published the Mexican standard Guadalajara.
Pepe Guizar, looking very WSJ

Rick Elmore

Rick Elmore's buoyant tuba succeeds a bass line established by jug virtuoso Pete Devine, who takes up a pair of brushes and pops some old-time flavor out of his antique store drum kit.
Pete Devine, people!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

All other parts played by Steven Strauss on the concert scale Frisco Uke by Marc Silber and Chuck Fayne, a Fluke 'ukulele, a 2000 Martin SO Model soprano 'ukulele, the RISA electric solid body soprano 'ukulele, Gibson tenor guitar, Harmony baritone 'ukulele, Johnson electric bass guitar, Spanish guitar, and Mid-fifties Kay string bass.
String arrangement on "Lazy Moon"
by Steven Strauss with Julian Smedley.
Engineered by John Rewind for Rear Window Music.
CD Mastering by Paul Stubblebine at Paul Stubblebine Mastering and DVD
Editing assistance and attitude lessons from Julian Smedley.
Produced by Steven Strauss and John Rewind.
Striking cover art by Heather Watts at