UKULELE MUSING 2020: No. 44, 17 October 2020: Only Five Notes Vs. Over Fifty!

When I was in high school, way back in the middle of the last century, I came by two musical instruments from a local secondhand store.  For a total “investment” of about seventy-five cents I got a ukulele and—of all things—a bugle, both made of “genuine” plastic.  The uke was probably a cheap “Carnival” 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 “wake up call” . . .

. . . and, 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. Oh, yes.  Some ukulele stuff too!

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 the next image for a listen!

Needless to say, a more modern brass bugle was 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 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!

Or, click or tap on the next image or link for a bluegrass version of this one! Five strings instead of four but that’s OK!

And 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 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. It’s also in our Leap Year (blue) song book. Tap or click on the next image or link to hear their lively version!

Since this is the pandemic year of 2020, why not a Zoom/Ukulele version–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 a nearly classical version on our theme of the week along with some really nice graphics! Click or tap on the next image or link to watch and listen.

While there seem to be no ukes that I could find out there in ukulele land that are decorated with bugles or buglers, there are some rather strange looking ukes sporting bugle-like brass horns intended to amplify their sound. 

Alas, I have none in my collection as most of these rarities are in one museum or another.  Who knows what they might sound like. Watch out Jerich0!

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

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 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 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 bugle cavalry call “Charge. Here’s a musically augmented take on this simplest of bugle calls. Click or tap 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, stay sequestered, stay in practice with those four strings and dozen or so frets, stay masked to protect your lungs and embrouchure,

and STAY TUNED!

And remember. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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