ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 27 January 2023: Prison Songs, And A Tale of Musical Thievery, Sorta . . .


Since we are still deep in the New England Winter doldrums, it might be worthwhile to take a peek at some of the songs we play or sing that keep us “by the fireplace” on days like this. Anyone skimming through a list of early country and folk songs will run into a genre with a certain chilly greyness to them: “Prison Songs.” 

Songs about prisoners, jail time, and other forms of judicial restraint were well known by most folks—even if experienced by only a very few. 

A night spent in the “hoosegow” to dry out or as punishment for a bit of wanton revelry was common.

Less common were months, years, or a lifetime in the “pen” or on a chain gang. 

Newspapers, movies, and, needless to say, sheet music and songs on the radio kept folks reminded of the perils of punishment and, to a great extent, kept them on the right side of the law. 

As would be expected, many prison songs can be tear jerkers as well as admonitions to the potentially wayward. 

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear one of the first recordings of what many believe to be the granddaddy of the prison song genre, appropriately named “The Prisoner’s Song.” This version was recorded in 1925 by Vernon Dalhart, one of the more popular country (or “hillbilly” as it was known then) singers of his day. Get ready to wipe a tear or two from your eyes!

It is said that Dalhart learned this song from a cousin who had learned it while in prison.  That gives the tune some cred and, perhaps, that’s why it became one of the most played songs of the early 20th century.  

And then, of course, there seemed to be just as many prison songs with a novelty or humorous touch

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link for this 1928 Jimmie Rogers yodeling interpretation of this much older jug-band standard: “In the Jailhouse Now”:

And, just for the fun of it, here’s a string band version of the tune, written much earlier than Roger’s opus but recorded just a few years ago by a group often appearing here in our “Happy Valley.” Remember them at the Iron Horse? Click or tap on the next image for a listen to this tune not about the perils of gambling but of voter fraud! How topical!

So, let’s move on with probably the most well-known—and certainly most covered—prison song out there:  “Folsom Prison Blues.”  This became Johnny Cash’s signature song since he first recorded it in 1955, and he opened nearly all of his concerts with this rhythmically pulsating—think “passing railroad train”—prisoner’s lament.

It is, however a tale of both Cash and cash–a bit of musical thievery, but with no jail time. That is unless you count Johnny Cash’s epic performance of the song at California’s Folsom Prison back in 1968.

Click or tap on the triangle in next image or link to listen in on one of his later prison concert presentations.

Although Cash cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail several times for various misdemeanors, he was never locked up for more than one night at a time—and never in Folsom Prison!  Still credit goes with the territory. He did have this mug shot taken at Folsom Prison just to hand out as a souvenir. Creepy!

Now, on to the musical thievery!

The theme, and many of the lyrics Cash included in “his” signature song were actually lifted (stolen!) from an earlier song titled “Crescent City Blues” written in 1950 by one Gordon Jenkins, a composer and arranger. Cash had heard Jenkin’s song earlier while serving in the Air Force in Germany. 

Jenkins, in turn, had based his melody (also used by Cash) and song title on a much earlier ragtime/jazz tune written and recorded by pianist “Little Brother” Montgomery.  Ah, evolution  .  .  .  

The upshot is that Cash, who readily acknowledged his “borrowing” but thought it unnecessary to mention it at the time, had to spend nearly $100,000 on the copyright infringement suit filed against him by Jenkins in the 1970s. Cash from Cash!

Whew  .  .  .  After all that, click or tap on the next image or link to listen to the 1953 recoding of Jenkin’s song by singer Beverly Mahr. Do these lyrics sound familiar?   

And, of course, there are a few hundred ukulele covers of the Cash version.  Click or tap on the next image or link just for a bit of fun!

Well, back to dreary reality . . .

But, as an escape from within the high stone walls, chain gangs, or work farms of this musical musing . . .

. . . stay safe, stay innocent, stay un-incarcerated, stay as masked as you should, and  .  .  .  STAY TUNED!

And, just to brighten things up for you musical scientists out there . . .

ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 16 January 2023–Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Before we moved to “the 413” back in ’05, Alison and I had lived for many years in northern Virginia.  Settled in the early 1600s, the so-called “Old Dominion” was, needless to say, strong on historical reminiscences and commemorations.  So, in 1983, when the date for the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was set, it was conjoined with two other statewide celebrations that had been on the state’s docket for years.  Virginians called this calendric convenience “Lee-Jackson-King” day—a curious amalgam of Civil War and Civil Rights history—observed until the year 2000.

What would Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., think about all that?  Go figure.  

Anyway, what does this have to do with music, banjos, and ukuleles?  Well, for every photo or illustration I run across depicting African American men, women, or children playing a playing a banjo or a uke, too many are demeaning caricatures. And, way too many show whites in even more demeaning blackface makeup. I don’t need to illustrate these negatives in my musical musings when there are positives out there!

Those demeaning, but all too common, illustrations are testament to a history that should not be glossed over. But, these are not part of this special day we’ll be observing on Monday.   So, for this posting, here are some photos of good folks having a good time making music in the past and—more importantly—today.  And yes, they include ukuleles and a banjo or two!  

Mid-January brings us to one of the newest and most meaningful of all American remembrances—Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.  Newspapers and television will be full of the history of this man and the movement he led to bring civil rights issues to public attention, to congress, and to the law of the land.  

As meaningful as this is to us all—and since it will be thoroughly covered in other media—I’ll just stick with our theme and focus on a tiny facet of all this: music.

To begin, the phrase “Jim Crow,” with all its racial and civil rights connotations, had its origins in a song and dance routine from 1828 that was done in blackface makeup by a white minstrel performer, one  Thomas Dartmouth Rice.  

His song, “Jump Jim Crow,” is said to have been inspired by the singing and eccentric dancing of an African slave by that name.  In the cultural context of the early Nineteenth Century, Rice’s song—and its multiplicity of verses—became overwhelmingly popular as he performed all over the country as “Daddy Jim Crow”.

As a result of Rice’s fame and the popularity of his song, by the mid-Nineteenth Century the term “Jim Crow” had morphed from the merely comic into a pejorative meaning a Black, Negro, or African American.  

From this, laws and reguations enforcing racial segregation became known as “Jim Crow Laws.”  These were endemic in towns, counties, and states throughout much of the country.  

Rice’s song “Jump Jim Crow” was also a key initial step in a tradition of American popular music that was based on the imitation, if not outright mockery, of blacks. 

The first song sheet edition of this tune appeared in the early 1830s, and a couple of decades later this genre exploded in popularity with the rise of the blackface minstrel show, both in America and abroad.  

And, even in amateur theatricals.

A ukulele player who frequently appeared in blackface was Cliff Edwards, otherwise known as “Ukulele Ike.”  

The Duncan Sisters were a popular duo and there were, of course, many other performers with or without ukuleles.   

In retrospect, some of what was popular in the context of yesteryear’s popular music is not just unpopular today.  Rather, it is unconscionable–way beyond merely politically incorrect. 

Admittedly, this is a touchy topic for a posting.  I much prefer levity, but we cannot move forward without looking back. The observation of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day gives us that opportunity.   It is from history that we learn, even if filtered through the theme of music and our favorite musical instruments.  

We cannot sweep history under the rug.  We cannot unplay those songs. But, here is one song we should play.

This is a song to play over and over again on this important day of remembrance of a great American, his life’s work, and the historical context of our still imperfect society.

Pete Seeger recorded this song back in the late 1940s. His version–the one we hear most often today–was based on an interpretation of an old gospel hymn he had heard in the 1930s sung by Black tobacco workers in the fields of the South and a variation he had learned dating back to 1901 as sung in both Black and White labor union meetings in the North. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for his version:

And as a finale, tap or click on the next image to hear the Moorhouse College Glee Club in concert:

We have a lot to overcome in our society. But, with the humble tools we have, we shall. When will our song be “We Overcame?”


MUSICAL MUSING: 11 November 2022: A Musical Salute to Veterans–Toot, Toot, Tah!

When I was in high school, way back in the middle of the last century, I bought two musical instruments at a local secondhand store.  For a total of seventy-five cents I got a ukulele and—of all things—a bugle, both made of “genuine” plastic.  The uke was a cheap “Carnival” brand but the bugle was sturdy Army surplus. Sadly, both are long gone from my various collections. 

I strummed at the uke, learned the three or four chords that are all that are really necessary, had some fun, and set it aside until college.  In those early days, however, I was in the high school band (trombone) and knew enough about tooting a horn to be able to play the bugle.  Sorta  .  .  .

We all know that with a ukulele and its four strings and dozen or so frets, one can play over fifty distinct notes and innumerable chords.  The bugle, on the other hand, is one of the simplest of musical instruments. 

It has no valves and pitch changes are achieved by “embrouchure,” that is to say, lip control. Consequently, the bugle is limited to only five notes, middle-C, G, C, E, and G—the basis for the entire repertoire of standard bugle calls!

While the musical range of the bugle is limited, the music surrounding the bugle and those who play it—buglers—can be quite a rhythmically and melodically complex. Take the famous”wake up call” . . .

The bugle, along with an array of drums, has long been a favorite marching group genre. 

Alas, not so with the ukulele, even a nice loud banjolele!

And that, gentle readers, is what we are going to explore in this week’s musing.

Ancestors of the modern bugle were made of animal horns and have been used for communication and signaling since ancient times. 

And, remember what the biblical Joshua did to the walls of Jericho with those animal horns!

Here’s a quite youthful take on the old, old Jericho spiritual on the ukulele, no less. Click or tap on triangle in the next image for a listen!

Needless to say, a more modern brass bugle has been used by military forces since the 17th century and most countries developed a series of standard bugle “calls” that could direct and regulate military life and actions. 

After World War I . . .

. . . the bugle also became a standard part of the camp routine of the Boy Scouts of America.  In fact, I even earned a merit badge for it!  Toot, toot, tah! 

American and British music publishers touched on bugle themes in the 19th century and early 1900s.

Even the suffragettes joined in!

But, particularly during World War I, the bugle became a rallying trope! 

This one was written by Irving Berlin as part of a World War I era musical review for troops returning from France. Tap or click on triangle in the next image or link to rise up with this one.

Here’s a Ted Lewis rendition of this swing favorite of the 1920s. Click or tap on the next image or link to start to swing and sway

One of the more musically intriguing versions of this one is by the Mills Brothers. All of the “instruments”–including the bugle and other horns being “played” are actually vocal sound effects. What fun! Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link for this really different sound.

The popularity lasted through the World War II era . . .

with, probably, the most well-known “bugle song” ever! 

Here we have the Andrews sisters with this one. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to hear their lively version!

Since this is the 21st Century, why not a Zoom/Ukulele version of this old chestnut–one singer, three screens. Wow! Click or tap on the next image for this high-tech treat!

There were other songs, of course.

Now here’s an rchestral version of this classic along with some really nice graphics! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to watch and listen.

Back to basics!  The three or four best known bugle call that most of us know and relate to today seem to be:

First, the good old “wake up” call of “Reveille.” So as to not jar you awake with this one, here it is on a ukulele! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to see the simplicity of fingering for this one.

Then there is the “Call to Post” that brings horses and riders to the gate in the Kentucky Derby. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to thrill to this one!

Omnipresent at any sporting event where the stadium organist has the stage is the good old cavalry bugle call “Charge. Here’s a musically augmented take on this simplest of bugle calls. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to be taken out to the ball park. How many times have you heard this one?

And, probably, the most moving five note melody ever composed—“Taps,” as played at the end of the camp day or at military funerals. Click or tap on the next image to hear this tearjerker clip from the movie “From Here to Eternity.”

The British Commonwealth’s equivalent to “Taps” is “Last Post.” Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to this poignant call of remembrance.

So, while we contemplate the hundreds of combinations of notes and chords we have available to us as we strum on our favorite little musical instrument, the ukulele, let’s appreciate what can be done with only five single notes!

So, stay safe and stay as masked as neede to protect your lungs and embrouchure,


So, give a salute to all those veterans out there and remember: There’s no substitute for the real thing!

MUSICAL MUSINGS, September 2022: The Season for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables–Musically Speaking

This is the time of the year here in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts, when home and farm gardens–as well as farm stands and markets–are filled with the bountiful produce of the year.  Spring planting, summer tilling, and fall harvesting make the cycle from garden to table that we all look forward to. 

As an example, here’s the haul from one of Alison’s and my Sunday “farm market” drives here in our “Happy Valley.”

Garden produce has been a common theme for writers of both prose and poetry and, not to be left out, for musicians as well.  Needless to say, there are many examples of so-called “fruit and vegetable” songs out there from the early days and also quite a few about the folks who plant, harvest, and sell these.  So, gentle readers, let’s take a look out there to see what we can gather and, of course, take a musical taste.

But first, it should be noted that many of the early tunes that fit within this “fruit and vegetable” musing were written as “rags,” that is to say in “ragtime.” 

As a too brief intro to this historical musical form, ragtime originated in African-American music in the late 19th century and descended from the lively dance and march music played by Black piano players and bands.

By the start of the 20th century, ragtime music became widely popular throughout North America and was listened and danced to, performed, and written by people of many different subcultures, particularly those Tin Pan Alley sheet music publishers.

A distinctly American musical style, ragtime is considered a synthesis of African syncopation and European classical form. Just for fun, as a real “crossover style,” consider the marches made popular by John Philip Sousa . . .

. . . who would often rearrange and perform his more formal compositions in ragtime, particularly as audience-pleasing encore pieces. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to hear “Stars and Stripes Forever” played in ragtime, Sousa style!

Ragtime is usually written in 4/4 or 2/4 time and sometimes in 3/4 time as a “waltz rag.”  If you listen carefully to the piano part of a ragtime song, you’ll hear a left-hand pattern of strong bass notes on beats 1 and 3, with chords on 2 and 4.  Meanwhile the right hand plays a syncopated, often called “ragged” melody.  Hence the name.

Ragtime music had a resurgence in the 1970s when the movie “The Sting” won seven Oscars including “Best Picture.” Because of this, many performers and listeners rediscovered the music of composer and pianist Scott Joplin–considered the “King of Ragtime Composers.”

Many of the earliest ragtime tunes–such as Joplin’s–were written for solo piano or as instrumental dance band music without lyrics. Composers gave them fanciful “rag” titles more to differentiate between tunes in their portfolios rather than to provide some sort of musical description of their subject matter. Here’s a good example of a lyric-less, musically generic “vegetable rag” from 1910. It could just as easily have been called “The Happy Valley Rag” or “The Ukulele Rag” or whatever. It would still sound the same! 

Here’s a simple version of this tune with an adjacent piano score that you can follow and see just how the basic ragtime style is played. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen.

A lot of our “fruit and vegetable” tunes fit into that ragtime, no-lyrics category. To me, the sheet music cover graphics are often as much fun as the music! See what I mean?

Later, more “fruit and vegetable” songs were published with lyrics and most were quite danceable one- and two-steps as well as rags.  Needless to say, novelty songs both in ragtime and other forms were the rage.

Here’s a delightful, albeit contemporary, take on this Irving Berlin “fruit” song. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for some fun!

Now let’s take a look at a few more of these tunes starting with gardens themselves. Not only did these fill the family larders but they often seemed like favorite trysting spots too. Ah youth!

Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for a whistling and singing rendition of this oldie along with some nice ukulele strumming. The YouTube is a bit long as it moves along into a tutorial which you can strum along with or not. Your choice at the garden gate!

And there are a few vegetables that we left out but must not be forgotten!

And, here’s one of the best of the old vegetable tunes.

The phrase “she knows her onions” is a down home term for “one smart cookie” who “knows her stuff.” So much for roaring twenties slang! Tap or click on the next image for a “vegetable” singing and dancing treat.

And, let’s not forget all of those “spuds” or “taters” songs out there.

Here’s a version of one of these with some nice strumming on a six-string ukulele–a variation on that little musical instrument not seen that often! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a down home treat!

Now I searched high and low (quite low may be a tad obvious . . .) to find a performer with a “vegetable name.” Needless to say, a rare breed! But, never fear, I remembered that late, well-dressed (well?) Grand Ole Opry clown and great old-time clawhammer banjo picker–“Stringbean!” Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for something a bit different. Not a “fruit and vegetable song” but his name is right!

Moving on, we can’t leave fruit out of our musical mix, now can we?

And, there are a few rather suggestive, if not quite X-rated, songs out there!

And, one of the great fruit songs of the 1920s.

Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to listen in on this overly popular ( to some) oldie. There’s a rather long instrumental introduction to this but the lyrics show up sooner or later!

The over-popularity of that song led to the writing of this one!

Here’s a ukulele version (I found one, believe it or not!) of this tune. It starts slowly then slips (ahem) into high gear! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for this one.

And, of course, many others. Some sweet, some sour!

This one is not about a specific fruit. Rather, it’s about a fruit “product.” Worthy of inclusion as far as I’m concerned.

So, gentle readers, as we sit down to the table for homemade pie, fruit salad, or vegetable soup, stay as safe, sequestered, and masked as we feel the need to be these days . . .

And remember to laugh in our gardens as well as enjoy the harvest . . .

. . . and STAY TUNED!

“MUSICAL MUSING,” 19 June 2022

A Day to Remember Your Dear Old Dad, Father, Papa, Grandpa, and–Oh Yes–“Daddy

Well, the calendar has rolled around to another Father’s Day as of this Sunday. All of us who have or have had fathers can muse on their influence on our lives, at least our musical lives.

 My father readily admitted that, when it came to music, the “only thing he could play was the radio.” 

And, play the radio he did.  He built a crystal set for himself in his teens and, in the 1920s (high school), 1930s (college and first jobs), and 1940s (army) listened t0 and knew all the bands and songs played on the air. We sat around the radio at home and, of course, in the car–AM, of course.

 To say that I grew up absorbing the big band/bouncy/bluesy sounds of these musical eras on the omnipresent home and car radio is an understatement. Needless to say, my musical listening proclivities were formed as my little ears grew into bigger ones. 

This was his gift to me so bear with me, gentle readers, if my musings focus on those “oldies” (to you) but “goodies” (to me.) After all, it is Fathers’ Day and, like many of you, I am a father and, like many of you, a grandparent. So, indulge me.

Now, back to the musical theme! Fathers (not mine, alas) often eased their offspring into musical directions by strumming on—or at least giving a child—a ukulele and “showing them which end to blow into!”  Kidding, of course!

Some kids embraced our favorite little instrument and kept their fascination through teenage years and adulthood.  Alas, others moved on to screaming heavy metal electric guitar sounds. Ugh . . . 

But, fatherly influence is all important, including from the “Father of Our Country!”

Needless to say there is a plethora of “pater” music out there from the sweet to the maudlin . . . Here are some early sheet music covers to remind us.

Now for the first song included in this musing. Give a listen to this old tearjerker by that “singing cowboy” himself, Gene Autry. Click or tap on the triangles in the center of the next image for a treat.

And then there’s that perversion of the word “Daddy” into the torchy, tinted (but not really off-color) slang of the day.

Here’s our second song, this one by Marilyn herself. Click or tap on the triangles in the next image to hear (and see) her in action!

Oh yes, we can’t for get the “Papa” songs either.

Our third song is this childish novelty tune of the 1920s. Click or tap on the triangles in the center of the next image to sing along.

For our fourth song, here’s an early recording of this bluesy Papa song performed by Bessie Smith. Click or tap on the next image to hear her voice.

And, of course, the novelty songs about fathers or even grandfathers.  Don’t we have fun!

Seek and ye shall find! Here’s our fifth song so click or tap on the triangles in the next image for this one.

Here are a few more rather curious sheet music covers of the day. What were they thinking?

Here’s a version of this country/western chestnut of a song for a final musical offering. Tap or click on the triangles in the center of the next image to listen in and try to follow the convoluted lyrics. (Not me playing the uke; his beard is longer than mine!)

So, to all you fathers out there–and to all of you who have or have had fathers, grandfathers, dads, papas, and (perhaps?) “daddies,” have a happy, safe, sequestered Fathers’ Day this year for you and yours!

So, remember dear old Dad, keep that mask on, keep your distance, keep on strumming, and STAY TUNED!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2022, An Annual Redo: Daylight Savings Time, Not Until 2 A.M., However!

Since we’re all going to lose an hour of sleep this Sunday morning as we comply with the “times that will be a’changin,” I am saving some time by adapting a posting of mine from two or three years ago that is, shall we say, timely. So, gentle readers, rejoice with me as we relish that extra hour of sunshine in the evening–perfect for cocktail hour on the porch here at the Inn at Ice Pond! OOOps! Now it’s the “Huckleberry Inn here at the Lathrop Village in Easthampton, Massachusetts!

To the point, I won’t be strumming a ukulele when I move around the house at 2:00 AM this Sunday to set all of our clocks forward an hour. 

I wouldn’t want to awaken Alison with a chord melody rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

Irving Himself!:

Alison believes that I could set them ahead before I go to bed, but, in this day and age, I would not want to be seen breaking the law.  Besides, it could be exciting!  

There are cameras everywhere, you know!  And ICE—the Incremental Clock Enforcers! 

Anyway, by 3:00 AM, all of the clocks will be reset and we will be—as I believe we Happy Valley folks must—in compliance with the law. 

And, so to bed—with ukulele, this time, still in its case.

Moving ahead (ahem) to time and clocks, our little ukuleles—with their circular sound holes and curvey form—have caught the eye of musical crafters for a lot of years.  A whole new facet of collecting! 

Better a clock than a planter or birdhouse for those old ukes that have seen better days. 

 So, turning to (ahem, again) a few sheet music reminders of time, and clocks, and changes.  

And, how about a different kind of “savings time!” 

A ukulele version:

Stay tuned and remember—2:00 AM or you are breaking the law!  After all, we all must do our bit for our soldiers and farmers—the whole reason we have daylight savings time in the first place.  Right? 

Just for fun, let’s wind up (ahem, again) with Grampa Jones’s banjo version of “Daylight Savin’s Time.” 

Grampa Jones:

Also, that extra hour of sunshine will help get rid of any #$%& snow or snowpiles still lingering around! Wishful thinking . . .

Stay Tuned!

ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 6 January 2023: A Marriage of Song and Sail! What Shall We Do?

Many of you gentle readers have visited Alison’s and my home over the years for various musical and social get-togethers.  Needless to say, I enjoyed showing off my collection of vintage ukuleles and banjos.  But, a few of the more curious of you may have noticed another hobby of mine—making scale models, particularly model ships.  I’ve been doing this off and on since the 1980s and, with the sequestration brought on over the past couple of years, contentedly continue.  With my instrument collection, I can hang them on the wall for all to see. Alas, my many (too many?) models are a bit bulkier to display and, as Alison has politely pointed out from time to time, just a tad (She may have used some stronger terms!) overwhelming.

Nonetheless, life goes on more smoothly when I can combine my two rather benign proclivities—collecting musical instruments and building model ships, hence the “marriage of song and sail.” 

So, let’s take a look at that sailor song genre known as “Sea Shanties.” While most folksong books include a number of tunes with nautical themes, there is only one that has a special place on the wet wood deck of a working ship in the days of the daily “grog” ration: “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor.” 

Just to get the old earworm going, click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to follow the lyrics and hear an on-shore take on our tune.

More about our tune a bit further on, but first some background.

The origins of the traditional sailors’ Sea Shanty have been lost in the mists of time. Traceable from at least the mid-1400s, the shanty (or sometimes “chanty”) hails from the olden days of “wood ships and iron men.” 

To hoist up your mood and give you some salt-sea exposure, tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to see and hear shanties sung as part of that great sea-going film of the 1950s, “Moby Dick.” Alas, this is a Spanish language version, except for the shanties!

The shanty was, quite simply, a rhythmic “work song” sung by sailors involved in heavy, tedious manual tasks, such as tramping round the capstan to raise an anchor or hoisting the sails for departure. 

In technical terms, this helped synchronize individual efforts to efficiently execute a collective task.  Simply, it made sure that each sailor pushed or pulled as needed and at precisely the same time.  The key to making this happen was to sing (or chant) each song, or shanty, in different rhythms for different tasks often to the beat of a drum, toot of a fife, or hum of a fiddle.  

For example, “Drunken Sailor” was considered a “short-haul” shanty designed for tasks requiring quick pulls over a relatively short time with a beat of four “pulls” per verse.  All hands roared out the song in unison, as they hoisted a sail or raised an anchor.  Hence the chorus: “Wey, hey, up she rises.

Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to listen to our song performed with more of an emphasis on the required beat–as well as a few more verses!

More often than not there would be a solo-singer, a “shanty man,” who would lead the singing with the crew joining in for the chorus—typical of the myriad of “call and response” work songs common on the farm or railroad in the days before machine labor.  Sometimes even a ukulele could be used! But I digress.

With no special requirements other than to hold a seaman’s attention, as well as make light of a hard and repetitive job, virtually any song could be adopted for this purpose, provided it was delivered at the required tempo—and, almost always, with some, shall we say, ribald or, in fact, downright raunchy innuendo. 

Far from delicate ears, boys will be boys and sailors will be sailors—especially on those long, lonely, and dangerous voyages.  The only exception, I assume, was when a captain’s wife and family, so-called “petticoat sailors,” were aboard.

Now, back to our song.  “Drunken Sailor” was sung aboard sailing ships at least as early as the 1830s and it shares its melody with the traditional Irish “welcome home” song “Oro Se do Bheatha Bhaile.” Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear this tune sung by Irish school children and get hints of the parallel melody line.  Cute kids, too! 

Our song’s lyrics will vary from ship to crew, but usually contain some variant of a discussion by fellow seamen of just what to do with an overly inebriated crew mate found still abed when he, like they, should be up and about. Each successive verse suggests a method, humorous or painful, of sobering or punishing the sodden seaman.  

Now, a disclaimer! Purged of the myriad anatomical, scatological, or sexual references one might find in other, more scholarly texts, I, good readers, have included YouTubes of only the most G-rated ones I could find. For the sake of tender ears, you’ll have to pursue other, more colorful examples on our own! Happy Googling!

Drunken Sailor” was revived as a popular song among non-sailors in the mid-20th century folk revival with recordings by groups like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. It grew to become one of the best-known songs of the shanty repertoire among mainstream audiences. It has been performed and recorded by many musical artists and appeared regularly in popular culture. 

It has been said that the reason these old shanties have bobbed back to the surface in today’s culture, which finds many of us adrift one way or another, is that “everybody can join in and you don’t necessarily need to be able to sing.” Just for fun, click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to see a dancing version of our song.

To haul things in, here is one of the best renditions of our song sung by real British seamen in the film “Fisherman’s Friend”—a must-see movie if you like these salty songs of the sea.  Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to give a listen and join the party.

And, finally, click or tap on the next image or link for a finger-picking ukulele version of our song just so you float away with the melody!

So gentle readers, stay safe, stay as sequestered if you must (with your crew, of course), stay as masked as comfort and conscience requires,


And, of course, enjoy a shanty or two—with rum of course! Or, if wine’s your thing . . .

UKULELE MUSINGS, 21 January 2022: A Bit of Musical Mythology–“Catgut” Strings

I ran across this photo of our cat, Sylvie, just waking from one of her snoozes in one of my ukulele cases.  The scene reminded me of one of those mythologies we have all been living with for generations—musical instrument strings made of so-called “catgut.” 

Understand, gentle readers, that what are more humanely called “gut” strings have never been made from a cat’s insides!    The word “catgut” may have been an abbreviation of the Old English word “cattlegut.” Alternatively, it may derive from the Welsh word “kit” meaning fiddle—certainly more bovine than feline!  Who knew?

While the word origin refers, more or less, to cattle, “catgut” strings for musical instruments are nearly always made from the intestines of sheep.  Out of sympathy to all those pet cats out there with ears perked up, let’s just call them “gut” strings from here on out.  OK?

To prepare gut strings, workers clean the small intestines, free them from any fat, and steep them in water and potassium hydroxide. 

They are then cut, stretched, dried, smoothed, and twisted or woven—ready for musical instruments,

tennis racquets (in the past),

and surgical sutures (still today).   

After twisting and drying, workers polish the strings to the required diameter. For a long time, gut was the most common material for instrument strings and, not surprisingly, remain a natural choice for many classical and baroque string players. 

They find they give a richer, darker sound as well as withstanding high tension within lower alto, tenor, and bass ranges.  Worth a careful listen at the next concert you attend.

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear some rather nice sounds from a gut-strung guitar.  

Gut strings were, of course, used for ukuleles until the advent of nylon and other polymers  that became standard right after World War II. 

You can still get gut strings for your uke and, just for fun, I keep a set on one of my older Martins. 

They sound great provided that you don’t mind retuning every time the humidity goes up or down a notch!

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear some commentary as well as strumming on a gut strung uke.

This bit of trivia leads me, as would be expected, into the vast and wild world of cat and kitty songs—a seeming staple of the Tin Pan Alley oeuvre. 

I touched that base in one of my musings from a couple of years ago so some of you might want to re-explore that.  Alas, few of these deal specifically with our, shall we say, gutsy subject. Here’s just another musical tidbit!

So, let me use a little intestinal fortitude to forego a rerun and focus on just a couple of gutsy gut and cat songs just for fun.  There is one song (only one!) from my aging musical memory bank that makes a direct, albeit somewhat oblique, reference to catgut.  Only one! 

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear the song “Freddie and His Fiddle” from that 1940s musical homage to the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  Listen carefully to the playful, folksy lyrics to pick up the appropriate reference!

Let’s wind up this musing with a bit of ukulele “Cat” music (No cats were harmed or otherwise misused in the preparation of this video!) from our fellow strummers, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Click or tap on the next image or link for a look and listen and laugh!

And now, gentle readers, let us return to our at-home, sequestered strumming sessions—complete, I’m sure, with safe and happy musical kittens. 

So stay safe, stay masked,

stay musically gutsy, and STAY TUNED!

MUSICAL MUSINGS, 30 December 2022: A Noisy, Nostalgic Tune for A Not-So-Snowy New England Winter: “JINGLE BELLS!”

Not needing to navigate through a lot of snow so far in this quasi-winter of few flakes and fewer sleigh rides, I find myself motivated to end this rather complicated year with just one more of my musical musings.  So, gentle readers, bear with me as I retreat from my favored songs of relative obscurity to one of the best-known and most commonly sung American songs in the world—“Jingle Bells.” 

Our song was written by one James Lord Pierpont—an impecunious son of a fiery abolitionist preacher from Medford, Massachusetts. Written a couple of years earlier, it was officially published in 1857 with the title “One Horse Open Sleigh.” This was after Pierpont had moved from relatively snowy Massachusetts to seek his fortune in relatively snowless Georgia.  

Musical historians have noted that the song was probably cobbled together from a variety of sources and that it was originally intended to be sung by his father’s Sunday School choir for Thanksgiving.  Or, as a more likely story, it was written as a slightly ribald minstrel song.  It all depends on which historian or folklorist is telling the story.  So what else is new in history?  

Anyway, the song is said to have been inspired by popular 19th century sleigh races in Medford where, in those days, long strands of small brass or iron bells were strapped to horses as a public safety measure. 

A horse pulling a sleigh was almost noiseless and the jingle-jangle sound of the bells gave fair warning to those who might be in the way—a quaint safety measure of the day. 

By the late 1800s, the song “Jingle Bells” had become an integral part of the Christmas musical genre. It was first recorded in 1889 on an Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley titled “Sleigh Ride Party,” considered to be Americas first “Christmas album!”  Needless to say, it was a trend setter of sorts both dubious and not.

Now here’s where musical history takes a bit of a jog as well as a jingle.  In 1857, well after the Sunday School performance, the ever cash-strapped Pierpont copyrighted “Jingle Bells” and sent it to print. 

It was his intention to generate some much-needed cash royalties from stage performances, particularly in cities with more lively musical reputations than sleepy Medford. Accordingly, it was quickly taken up and first performed on the stage in nearby Boston by a popular white blackface minstrel performer, one Johnny Pell. 

It soon became a popular, money-making standard on the minstrel circuit and Pierpont wrote and published several more polkas and songs that became standards on the minstrel circuit of the day–and relatively forgotten today.  

As a so-called story song, “Jingle Bells” tells of a dashing young man-about-town who took his sweetheart sleighing and, in what must have been a moment of inattention to horse and road (wink-wink!), upset them both into the snow—a somewhat disguised but rather suggestive narrative at the time.

 The theme was thought humorous as it was well understood that an evening sleigh ride just might give an unescorted couple a rare opportunity to be together—unchaperoned (oh my!) in distant woods or fields and far from prying eyes.  Is our tune tainted because of its brush with blackface minstrelsy, or 19th century lovers’ shenanigans?  I can’t think so—certainly not by today’s pop music standards!

Moving on . . . Over the past hundred and seventy-plus years, “Jingle Bells” has been performed by everyone from that original Sunday School group to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  It’s also been recorded by every big and not so big name in the music business from country to classical.  But, it’s just too good and sing-able a song not to live on, even if it jingle-jangles on a bit too often in too many shopping venues at this time of year.

So, for a retreat from modern times, click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to listen to a modern (not a scratchy 19th century cylinder) rendition of Pierpont’s original lyrics and melody of “The One-Horse Open Sleigh.”

Next, even though we ukulele strummers are known to say that “more than four strings is just showing off,” I am compelled to include one of my favorite multi-multi-string versions of “Jingle Bells.”  Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear the late Earl Scruggs and friends attack our song in bluegrass style!

And, where would we be without a ukulele version?  Click or tap on the next image or link to hear The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have a rather bizarre go at this one!

So, keep your non-plastic ukuleles out of the snow (if and when)  .  .  . 

and stay well, and stay as masked as necessary . .  .  

and STAY TUNED as we sleigh away from a less than perfect 2022 and dance into a more than perfect (please!) 2023!

UKULELE MUSINGS, 29 October 2021: “From the Dark Side to the Sunny Side!”

I don’t know about you, gentle readers, but I am increasingly finding the news of the day disheartening if not depressing; too much “this and that,” too little “that and this.”  I am reminded not just of the deeply worn depressions found in too many of the streets in our little part of New England, but also of the phenomenon of economic and social depression—particularly that rocky chunk of American history known as the “Great Depression.”

Few of us around today lived through those days, but all of us have heard the admonitions of our parents or grandparents: “Make do or do without;” “Poor folks have poor ways;” or “Think about the children from—wherever—who don’t have enough to eat.” 

However, there are silver linings on the dark clouds of those days and these fit right in with these musical musings I have been posting for the past five or six years; it’s in many of the songs we remember, play, and sing today as we troll through our songbooks and strum away on our favorite little musical instruments.

There were dozens and Dozens and DOZENS of songs written in the time span between presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. 

Many of these were in the blues, country, and protest song traditions and reflected the woes of the time. 

Still others, mostly in the jazz and popular traditions, focused on the optimism that everyone needed to survive. 

After all, songs on the radio (if you were lucky enough to have one in those days) were free and (it was said by many) that: “You can’t be sad when you’re dancing!” 

So, let’s take a look at just a few of these songs–from both sides of the cloud, of course–to illustrate my point and, then hopefully, give us a bit of cheer once we set aside our newspapers (screens today!) and pick up our ukes!  

To begin, fellow strumers, let’s “eat our spinach before our desert” and look at the most quintessentially woeful song, the one that defined the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Without a doubt, this is one of the best-known American songs of the era of bread lines and soup kitchens and, in effect, has become the anthem of the Great Depression. Written in 1931 by lyricist Yip Harburg (who, incidentally, wrote all the songs for “The Wizard of Oz”) and composer Jay Gorney, the song was part of the 1932 Broadway musical revue “Americana.”

The melody begins in a minor key—unusual for a popular song at the time—and is based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby that Gorney had grown up with as a child. The song tells the story of the universal everyman, whose honest work was towards achieving the “American Dream.” 

Although blues songs often reflected a dark, more rural or racially oriented take on the times,

Brother Can You Spare a Dime” became one of the few Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs of the era to shine on the darker aspects of the county’s collapse.

Click or tap on the next image or link to listen to this song that defines the dark side of the era.

But, enough of the dark side!  Let’s, indeed, move over to the—shall we say—sunnier side of the street. 

American popular music reacted to the Great Depression with optimism—albeit guarded—and a spate of lighter songs became radio and Broadway hits.  Many of these have endured and, in fact, have found their way into our Blue and Yellow books.

A happy song from the sad days is “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a 1930 tune composed by Jimmy McHugh, who wrote another great depression era song, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Her other contribution to this “try to feel good” genre includes the lyrics for “Pick Yourself Up, And Start All Over Again.”  All three songs have been covered by scores of performers over the years.   

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear Cliff (Ukulele Ike) Edwards’ version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with the rarely included verse as well as the well-known chorus. 

Now, click or tap on the next image for a ukulele take on “Pick Yourself Up  .  .  .” with phenomenal strumming but, alas, not so phenomenal singing.

Now, tap or click on the next image or link for Ella’s interpretation of “Sunny Side  .  .  .” 

And, just for fun, here’s a jazzy ukulele version. Click or tap on the next image or icon for a quick listen.

Now here’s another happy tune from our songbooks. Although written a couple of years before the 1929 Stock Market Crash that sparked the Great Depression, “Side by Side” became one of the most popular songs of the 1930s and, today, is considered a standard. 

It was written by Harry Woods, who practiced songwriting only as a sideline, and, as a bit of trivia composed his songs on the piano despite the fact that he was born without fingers on his left hand!  He wrote a couple of other Blue and Yellow Book favorites: “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin Along,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”  

Click or tap on the next image or link to see a war-time movie version of “Side by Side”: 

Oh yes, here are a couple of Art Deco style ukuleles from my collection in a style that was popular, to say nothing of symbolic, during the Great Depression—an inexpensive uke fancied up with an inexpensive paint job.  What’s not to like?

And, of course we have to end with probably the most optimistic song of the Great Depression—at least at the beginning of its end—you know what it is! 

I’ve used this YouTube before, but it’s too good (and wacky!) not to include here.  And, besides, we need a bit of levity to raise us out of what ever DEPRESSION we’re in, GREAT or NOT!  Click or tap on the next image or link for a nosefull!

And to come back to reality, click or tap on the next image or link for an jazzy instrumental of “Brother  .  .  .” on a beautiful looking and sounding baritone uke.  Enjoy!  

So, stay safe, stay un-depressed, and STAY TUNED! Because, perhaps, hopefully . . .