A Stowaway Ukulele Revealed

Richard Konter & The Byrd Polar Expeditions

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A Stowaway Ukulele Revealed:

Richard Konter & the Byrd Polar Expeditions

By Larry Bartram and Dick Boak

Hal Leonard Books

   In 2013, archaeologist and software publisher Larry Bartram was exploring Martin’s museum after leaving his guitar for repair in the adjoining factory. He was astonished to see the signature of his glacial geology professor, Laurence M. Gould, on a well-played ukulele that was literally covered with inscriptions in one of the glass cases. Bartram remembered that his 81-year old teacher was both second-in-command on Richard E. Byrd’s 1928-30 Antarctic expedition and the first geologist in Antarctica. Gould’s signature appeared among those of notable Arctic and Antarctic explorers, politicians (e.g., Calvin Coolidge) and celebrities (e.g., Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison) of the day. 

   When Bartram returned to pick up his guitar, he brought along his copy of Gould’s book, Cold. Bartram was introduced to Martin’s archivist, Dick Boak, who unlocked the museum case and brought Bartram and the ukulele upstairs for a closer look. Over the next several hours Gould’s Antarctic account helped the two men to identify the signatures of many also associated with Byrd’s earlier 1926 Arctic expedition—among them Roald Amundsen—and a research project was born to flesh out a fascinating chapter in U.S. history and the history of polar exploration. 

   The Konter ukulele is named for its owner, Richard Wesley Konter, a Brooklyn native and a famous ukulele player/enthusiast. He arranged popular songs (e.g., “If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie”) for ukulele, worked with Tin Pan Alley composers and publishers, and popularized the instrument with concerts and radio appearances. Konter was also a veteran sailor. He shipped with Byrd north in 1926 and south in 1928. Konter was also a character. Despite strict weight restrictions on board the expedition’s plane, he conspired with pilot Floyd Bennett to stow the little Martin ukulele aboard on the1926 polar flight. Konter began collecting signatures during the 1926 expedition on his ukulele and continued once back in New York City after the historic flight, when the expedition members were treated to ticker tape parades and ceremonies. 

   Who wouldn’t want to sign that instrument? 

   However, time and strumming have not been kind to the inscriptions. Bartram contacted Smithsonian colleagues about a closer look at the ukulele using multi-spectral imaging. Smithsonian curators Bill Fitzhugh, Adrienne Kaeppler, and Ken Slowik agreed to coordinate with SI Museum Conservation Institute’s Paula DePriest and Janet Douglas, who put Keats Webb in charge of imaging the instrument.

   In June, 2014, a range of non- invasive multi-spectral images were created (including ultra-violet, infrared, and reflectance transformation imaging) and the images are now being studied. With Smithsonian and National Archives assistance, Bartram and Boak are continued their research, and began work on a small book of stories, biographies, photographs and documents about this well-traveled and captivating ukulele.

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