Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“AFRICAN-AMERICAN SPIRITUALS”

UKULELE MUSING 33, 17 AUGUST 2019—AFRICAN-AMERICAN SPIRITUALS, A GIFT TO THE WORLD

Both our Blue and Yellow Books are dotted with beautiful, traditional songs identified simply as “African-American Spiritual.”  Most of these we have listened to, sung, and played nearly all of our lives.  Needless to say, there is a good backstory to all this—one we should know. 

While these songs originated in and were common throughout the American South during slavery days, they were virtually unknown in the American North until the late 19th century. 

Credit for telling this “spiritual story” goes to a group of students and faculty of Fisk College, a historically African-American school in Nashville, Tennessee, who “took their music on the road” with the hope of raising funds for their cash-strapped school.

This was back in 1871 and their early repertoire consisted mostly of traditional spirituals—songs handed down orally, not from published hymn books, and sung a cappella.  Their original tour took them along the route of the historic Underground Railroad and eventually they toured in England and Europe. 

Fisk College was founded after the end of the Civil War to educate freedmen and other young African-Americans.  After its first five years, however, the university was facing serious financial difficulty. To avert bankruptcy and closure, Fisk’s treasurer and music director, George L. White,

a white Northern missionary dedicated to music and proving African-Americans were the intellectual equals of whites, gathered a nine-member student chorus, both men and women, to go on a singing tour to earn money for the university. The group of students, consisting of two quartets and a pianist, started their tour under White’s direction.

Taking sabbaticals on and off from their studies over the next eighteen months, the group toured through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.  After their first concert in Cincinnati, the group donated their small profit, which amounted to less than sixty dollars, to the relief to the victims of the great Chicago fire that had just occurred.  The group traveled on to Columbus, Ohio, where lack of funding, poor hotel conditions, and overall mistreatment from the press and audiences left them feeling tired and discouraged.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1909:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUvBGZnL9rE

The group and their leader gathered and prayed about whether to continue with the tour.  They decided to go on but White believed that they needed a name to capture audience attention. The next morning, he met with the singers and said “Children, it shall be Jubilee Singers in memory of the Jewish year of Jubilee.” This was a reference to the biblical “Year of Jubilee” in which all slaves would be set free.  Since many if not most of the students at Fisk University and their families were newly freed slaves,  the name “Jubilee Singers” seemed fitting.

The Jubilee Singers’ performances were a departure from the familiar “black minstrel” genre of white musicians’ performing in blackface and, not surprisingly, more or less of a puzzle to the critics and audiences of the time.  One early review of the group’s performance was headlined “Negro Minstrelsy in Church–Novel Religious Exercise,” while further reviews highlighted the fact that this group of “Negro minstrels were, oddly enough, genuine negroes,” not the burnt cork caricatures of negro minstrelsy so familiar to most audiences of the day.

This was not a uniquely American response to the group’s performance, but was typical of European audiences as well.  

As the tour continued, however, audiences came to appreciate the singers’ voices, and the group began to be praised.  So, historically, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are credited with the early popularization of the Negro Spiritual tradition in the 19th century—particularly among white and northern audiences, many of whom were previously unaware of this musical genre.

  They soon began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of the songs and, after the rough start, the first United States tours eventually earned $40,000 for Fisk University.  

The singers then toured Great Britain and Europe, New York and Washington, and by 1878, had raised over $150,000 for the university.  These funds were used to construct Fisk’s first permanent building named, appropriately, Jubilee Hall.  The building still stands and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975—a building made with, if not of, music.

Fisk University is perhaps most widely known for its music, but that legacy is intertwined with money

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still touring and performing around the world today and, in 2008, they were awarded a National Medal of Arts—not bad for what began a century and a quarter ago as a simple fundraiser!

 Jubilee Singers Today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8W22FteUdo

Their biggest legacy, however, is the sparking of an appreciation throughout the United States and the World for a true American musical art form—the African-American Spiritual. 

Jubilee Singers Then and Now:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H_GmvZxCbM

So, as we sing any of these songs from our Yellow and Blue Books, know that they came from the dark days of slavery to the bright lights of today.  A gift to us all.  

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“BEER BARREL POLKA”

UKULELE MUSING 32, 10 AUGUST 2019—“Beer Barrel Polka,”  A GREETING FROM MILWAUKEE

Alison and I are out of town this week heading to Milwaukee for a gala family reunion. Just to keep this year’s musing streak alive, however, I’m going to cheat a bit and rework something I posted a couple of years ago. So, just pop a beer, sit back, and go along with the show. Or, better still, get into the oom-pa-oom-pa-oom-pa “Polka Mood!”

Beer Barrel Polka“, also known as “Roll Out the Barrel,” is a song that became popular worldwide during Word War II. It was was composed by the Czechoslovakian classical musician Jaromir Vejyoda (1902-1988) in 1927 as part of the score for a movie titled: “Skoda Lasky,” a comedy I think, roughly translated as “the shame of a woman who jilts a man.” Who knew?

Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnUEJ4lBwKU

The catchy tune became a hit with dance bands around the world after Czech and then English lyrics about happy dancers in a beer garden (nothing to do with shameful ladies!) were added in 1934. And, in 1939, a recording of “Beer Barrel Polka” rose to number one on the popular American radio program “The Hit Parade.”  (Do any of you gentle readers remember this Sunday night staple?)  Anyway,  the popularity and rapid, world-wide spread of the song was probably due to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany and the subsequent emigration of thousands of Czechs to other parts of the world.

Although the times were trying, they carried this happy polka tune with them.

The English lyrics we see in our Blue Book were written by Lew Brown (1893-1958), a Russian-born American bandleader and songwriter of Tin Pan Alley hits such as “Button Up Your Overcoat,”and Wladimir Timm (1885-1958) who first wrote the lyrics in his native Czech. Meanwhile, the song was recorded and played by many, many others including the Andrews Sisters, the Glen Miller Orchestra, and Benny Goodman during the war years.

During World War II, versions in many other languages were created and the song was popular among soldiers and their sweethearts regardless of their allegiances. On VE Day, in fact, it was played on an accordion by a British soldier standing on a handcart outside Buckingham Palace, a performance that could be heard in the BBC broadcast from the victory celebrations. 

It was claimed many times that the song was written in the country where it had just become a hit; its actual composer was not widely known until after the war.

Andrews Sisters:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KRc-ceWE2E

My saturation with this tune came during my tenure in Milwaukee back in the ‘70s and ’80s. 

The so-called Frankie Yankovic polka band version is played during the 7th inning stretch at every Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. It also became a standard at Green Bay Packers and University of Wisconsin football games.

Brewer’s Game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlhicpJEgmY

Yankovic (1915–1998) was an American accordion player and band leader known as “America’s Polka King.”

He was considered by many fans as the premier polka performer in the country over a long, long career.

Yankovic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaKOB7-J-Jw  

Although a Clevelander by birth, Yankovic made “Beer Barrel” Milwaukee’s own. It resonated with the city’s polka dancing immigrants generations from every European country and a few dozen other places around the world. 

I understand it’s taught in kindergarten in that “great city on a great lake.”  Why not? After all, Milwaukee is the city that made beer famous–so they say!

Anyway, for those of you who are interested in the nuances of language, the term “terrara,” as found in the song, is roughly translated as “a source of pride–something to be cheered and to drink to.” Now we know!

Lawrence Welk with Dancers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq0pCQXuh6g

Anyway, digging about in my stash of uke and banjo photos and stuff, I am pleasantly surprised to find that I do have a few “Milwaukee Treasures” to share.

Needless to say, having lived and worked in Milwaukee for quite a few years, I have absorbed some of the cultural, historical, and musical highlights—namely beer, brats, cheese,

fish frys,

brandy,

and, of course, the Brewers.

Sadly, our trip doesn’t coincide with any of the ukulele meet-ups or workshops going on,

but I will survive and there are enough ukes within the family so I won’t have to carry one of my travelers.

The Milwaukee downtown is booming, the lakefront and coastline looks as good as New England’s, and Lake Michigan’s waters do have a couple of advantages. 

There are also some local icons of American pop-culture!   

And here we go!

One of these days, however, we have to get the “Beer Barrel Polka” down pat! It is in our Blue Book and we get better every time we give it an oom-pa-oom-pa go!  For a real musical hoot, here is a (non-ukulele) version by a local boy who made good! 

“Ya der, hey!”  (Milwaukee-ese for what in New England would be “I comprehend and concur with unrestrained enthusiasm.”)

Liberace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLvd4JyKd14

And, of course, there is the University of Wisconsin in nearby Madison. That’s where our oldest grandaughter will be starting as a first-year this Fall. Go Big Ten!

So, best wishes from Milwaukee. See you all next week!

Just for fun . . .

Chico Marx: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXAVISpS4wM

Stay tuned and practice that oom-pa-oom-pa!

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Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“ZIP-A-DEE-D00-DAH”

UKULELE MUSING 31, 3 AUGUST 2019—“ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH,”  A SIMPLE SONG WITH A COMPLEX STORY TO TELL

This bright song found on the last page of our Yellow Book was featured in the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South.”  The film combined animation and live action to bring to the screen many folk tales of the South as collected by the 19th century Georgia newspaper writer and editor Joel Chandley Harris (1848-1908). 

These were classic tales collected over the years by Harris who began publishing these in 1879.  His books and stories were widely read and beloved by generations of American children. 

I remember reading the stories from books in my school library, seeing the movie two or three times (only 25 cents plus a dime for a box of popcorn!) and happily singing this snappy tune over and over in school and camp during the “sweet old days” of my youth. 

Zipp-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in a movie in 1947 and the film was a huge financial success at the time.   

The film was set on a plantation in Georgia in the years after the Civil War and featured stories narrated by an older, former slave living on the property, “Uncle Remus.”  Harris’s stories were written in the vernacular dialect of the times and introduced readers to characters like “B’rer Rabbit,” “B’rer Fox,” “B’rer Bear,” “Tar Baby,” and a host of other zoomorphic creatures and their antics, adventures, and simple lessons in morality.   

Harris’s stories, mostly originating from the African-American oral storytelling tradition,

were revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personages, and true-to-life landscapes and were lauded by contemporaries like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. 

But, that was then; this is now. 

Even when first screened, “Song of the Southbecame the subject of controversy with some critics describing the film’s portrayal of African-Americans as racist stereotypes and the plantation setting as idyllic and glorified—cinematic artifacts of its time and place.  That’s why the Disney Studio has never released a video format of the film for showing in the United States. 

The cartoon characters from the film are still found in books and other media and show up in the Disney theme parks, but don’t look for the movie on Netflix or HBO.

So, as “homework,” any of you who would like to learn more about the early accolades heaped upon Joel Chandler Harris and his pioneering work as a folklorist of the South—and the scorn in which his work is seen by many of the woken today—can Google for information just like I have. 

It would make for an interesting evening’s read and discussion. 

Meanwhile, let’s just focus on the little tune in our Yellow Book.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was composed by Allie Wrubel (1905-1973) with lyrics by Ray Gilbert (1912-1976).  These two white songwriters collaborated on many of the Disney and other Hollywood songs of the era and our song is considered by many as one of the top tunes of American cinema.  The song can trace its origins to a pre-Civil War blackface minstrel song—one of multiple variations of “Turkey in the Straw”—with a chorus: “Zip a duden duden duden, zip a duden day.”  Again, Google if you would like to delve into this a bit deeper and listen to versions of the original song.    

In the movie, the song is sung to the children—both black and white—living on or visiting the plantation by the character Uncle Remus, played by the actor James Baskett (1904-1948).  

Set during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the story follows a seven-year-old white boy who is visiting his grandmother’s plantation.  He befriends other children—black and white—on the plantation, and all are mesmerized by the tales told by the avuncular Uncle Remus. 

  Baskett Original:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kpWM292c1Q

In 1948, Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, the first black male performer to receive an Oscar. 

In a sad footnote to film history, however, Baskett was not allowed to attend the 1946 theater premier of the film in Atlanta, a city racially segregated by law. 

The stories preserved by Joel Chandler Harris, and the Disney movie “Song of the South,” are part of our American heritage even though they deal with a period in our history we might rather forget.  To me, however, forgetting history is seldom a good idea.  But, beyond the context and controversy surrounding the movie, the song “Zip A-Dee-Doo-Dah” lives on in many musical interpretations.  So, pick and choose a favorite and have a “wonderful feeling” and a “wonderful day!” 

Jackson Five:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uza33915sP0

Bluegrass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8PkgnDYl9k

Louis Armstrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX35fJH46xY

Boston Pops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNo44y933Co

And, let’s not throw the (tar) baby out with the bath water.      

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Second Hand Rose”

UKULELE MUSING 30, 27 JULY 2019—“SECOND HAND ROSE.”  FROM THE FOLLIES TO FILM, AND GENERATION TO GENERATION   

Most of us who have heard this song from our Yellow Book probably associate it with Barbra Streisand in the 1968 film “Funny Girl” for which she won an Oscar.   Interestingly, the song was not part of the original Broadway musical by the same name but was added for the film.  Who knew? 

FUNNY GIRL, Barbra Streisand, 1968

The song bemoans (with tongue in cheek) the sad-to-her life of the daughter of a second-hand dealer—her home, her clothes, and even her boyfriend.  Ah, woe is she!

Barbra Streisand:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCtrcAp3TEY

Those of us with a grey hair or two might recall, however, the performer who originated the song and on whose life the film was based, Fanny Brice. 

The song was written by Grant Clarke and James F. Hanley, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters, specifically for Brice’s appearance in the “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1921. 

A critic at the time describing Brice wrote: “This inimitable artist chalked up one of the few high marks of the evening with this song. For clarity of utterance, economy of means and a highly developed comic sense, Miss Brice has no peer on our stage.”  A pretty good review!

Fanny Brice:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxEwMcJ8GXc

Brice (nee Fiania Borach, 1891- 1951) was born into a Hungarian-Jewish family in Manhattan.  Her father ran a saloon and she became an entertainer first in Burlesque and then in the Follies. In all, she was a model, comedienne, singer, recording artist, and stage as well as film actress.

She became the star of many Broadway musicals and shows during her career and her good looks, comedic personality, and brassy but beautiful Broadway voice made her a popular headliner of the ever-renewing Follies in the 20s and 30s. 

Fannie Brice, My Man:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKivfzjQxOQ

Through the 1950s, the medium of radio gave her another broad audience with her most memorable role as the creator and star of the top-rated radio series “The Baby Snooks Show.” 

Needless to say, a rather broad range of talent—from burlesque girl to bratty toddler!

Baby Snooks with Judy Garland:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RlBJ8PbKuM

Interestingly, she always performed as Snooks in costume even though it was a radio show with no studio audience!  Go figure.

For her contributions to the film and radio industries, Brice was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with two stars, one for radio and one for film.

Grant Clarke (1891-1931) was a prolific Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter of the era and wrote hits like “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and “Oogie, Oogie, Wa Wa.” 

(I wonder why this one isn’t in our books.  Perhaps the next edition!   Check it out anyway.)

Oogie:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZrwzW8YNP8

James F. Hanley (1892-1942), also of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, wrote such standards as “Back Home Again in Indiana” and “Zing Went the Stings of My Heart.” 

Those were the days!

So, we have another Yellow Book song—“Second Hand Rose”—of more than one generation, the Streisand latter paying homage to the Brice former.  Both renditions live on.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Ain’t She Sweet”

UKULELE MUSING 29, 20 JULY 2019—“AIN’T SHE SWEET.”  IT’S NOT ABOUT WHO YOU THINK

Ain’t She Sweet” is a song composed by our old friend Milton Ager (1893-1979), with lyrics by Jack Yellen (1892-1991).  This is probably one of the most prolific songwriter pairs of the Tin Pan Alley era and our Blue and Yellow Books are well-salted with their work.  This bright little tune was published in 1927 and epitomized the Flapper Era of the Roaring Twenties.  

Like their song “Happy Days are Here Again,” a tune we talked about a few weeks ago, it became popular in the first half of the 20th century and became an oft-performed standard over the years.

The Flapper Era:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPe9qibckTw

We’ve talked about Ager a few times before, but it’s worthwhile to touch a bit on Yellen.

Born to a Jewish family in Poland, Yellen emigrated with his family to the United States when he was five years old. He was raised in Buffalo, New York, and began writing songs in high school.  After college, he became a reporter for the Buffalo Courier and continued to write songs on the side.  Early on he collaborated on a number of “Dixie” songs including “Alabama Jubilee,” “Are You From Dixie?,” and “All Aboard for Dixieland”—contributing to Tin Pan Alley’s nostalgic (by the standards of the day) perception of bucolic life in the “Old South.” 

Yellen’s collaboration with vaudeville star, Sophie Tucker, for whom he was retained to write special material, produced one of her most well-known songs, “My Yiddishe Momme,” a song in English with some Yiddish text.  Sorry, this one is in neither our Yellow or Blue Books!

But, here is a nice 1920s version of “Ain’t She Sweet” by ukulele virtuoso Johnnie Marvin.

Johnnie Marvin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozTeeMTrebo

Probably one of the more interesting musical links from the past to the near present was the 1964 version of “Ain’t She Sweet” by, of all groups, The Beatles.  This rock and roll arrangement was recorded in Germany with John Lennon on lead vocals. 

Popular also in Europe, it reached number 19 on the US Billboard Hot 100 at the time.  Go figure!

The Beatles:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1FSRMfNtLU

So, here we have a song most of us hear as a celebration of a 1920s fellow’s flapper sweetie.  Actually, Ager’s musical inspiration was his daughter Shana, age 4. 

Sweet!  (Later in life, she became the author and TV journalist Shana Alexander.) 

Anyway, here is—perhaps—a more age-appropriate interpretation of the song. 

Shirly Temple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0HO_g6_0sQ

Now, gentle readers and fellow ukers, I can’t leave you without a serious, contemporary ukulele version—with all the verses, no less!

Ukulele with Verses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap6SgJpbB9o

Now I ask you very confidentially to  . . .

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“I Ain’t Got No Body”

UKULELE MUSING 28, 13 JULY 2019—A CROSS-CULTURAL SONG: “I AIN’T GOT NO BODY, AND NOBODY CARES FOR ME.”

To avoid an accusation of being “un-woke,” let me preface this musing with a bit of musical history. 

The early part of the 20th century saw a rise in the popularity of African-American blues and jazz.   At that time music by African-American composers and performers was classified by publishers and recording studios as “race music.”  

This was also the era when African-American contributions in the fields of visual, literary, and musical arts became known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” a time rooted in the history of cross-cultural communication among the races in America. 

Jazz blended African and European musical traditions into a distinctly American style of music. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were popular jazz musicians.

This was when black musicians and music were embraced by white audiences, who—before the age of jazz and ragtime—would seldom have accepted African-American performers and their music as more than minstrelsy or, at best, a novelty.

Such were the turbulent, but formative days in the evolution of American popular music.  In its heyday, so-called “race” music both celebrated and popularized the work of African-American composers and performers. 

This category was a recognition of the growing demand for this musical genre by both black and white sheet music and record buyers—as well as performers—and was the antithesis of those comic Tin Pan Alley songs mostly (but not all) written by white songwriters that mocked and caricaturized immigrant and racial groups, particularly African-Americans. 

This, then, is the genesis of many of the enduring songs of this era that are found in our Yellow and Blue books. †

Now, on to a tune in our Yellow Book that helps tell this story.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, and Nobody Cares for Me” is a popular blues song copyrighted in 1915 that fits right in to the music publishers and record producers catalog category of “race music.”  It became a perennial standard, recorded by many artists of many generations—both white and African-American—in styles ranging from pop to jazz to country music.  In the loosey-goosey music publishing business of the time, some credit Roger A. Graham (1885–1938) with the lyrics and Spencer Williams with the music—both African-Americans. 

On the other hand (and as attributed in our Yellow Book), Chicago and St. Louis ragtime pianist and blues composer Charles Warfield (1878–1955) claimed to have originally written the song and copyrighted it in 1914, with himself as the composer and David Young and Davy Peyton as the lyricists—again, all African-Americans.  Because of the growing popularity of African-American jazz and blues in Chicago, Frank K. Root & Co., a white music publisher based in that city, acquired both copyrights and published the sheet music in 1916.  Ah, the music business in the sweet old days!  

1920s Jazz Band Version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40ZRNsyA0sw

Many artists had hit records with the song, starting with Marion Harris in 1917. Famous hit versions in the 1920s included those of Bessie Smith,

Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, and Louis Armstrong.  In the 1930s, it was a hit for Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb.  Later it was even recorded by Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Sammy Davis, Jr., Coleman Hawkins, Rosemary Clooney, and many others—white as well as African-American.

Bessie Smith:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi_vKZe5NWk

Needless to say, musical funsters liked the “bodyless” title. Marty Feldman, as Igor, sang the first few bars in a scene from the movie Young Frankenstein,

where only his character’s head appears in a line of skulls, thus making it appear as if he literally “had no body.”

In the 1950s Louis Prima and wife Keeley Smith paired “I Ain’t Got Nobody” with the tune “Just a Gigolo” and that musical pairing was copied my many including—of all people—the Village People in a disco version of the medley in 1970s.  The two tunes didn’t have a thing to do with each other; they just became one of those musical “couplings.”  Go figure! 

Louie Prima & Keely Smith Medley:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrJ7DQojzIY

What was stacked on and sold from the “race music” shelf over a hundred years ago, I Ain’t Got Nobody, and Nobody Cares for Me,” has transcended musical boundaries and remains a simple, bluesy jazz standard with a long, long life—well worth listening to and playing. 

It has a relatively simple chord progression in the key of F, and is right at home in our Yellow Book.  There are many more where this one came from! 

This is not a ukulele version but features a tenor guitar—four steel strings that can be tuned DGBE like a baritone uke.  Follow the bouncing ball!

Mills Brothers with Tenor Guitar:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruLIkHIIuwE

If you want to learn more about this musical era, I recommend Arnold Shaw’s book: BLACK POPULAR MUSIC IN AMERICA—The Singers, Songwriters, and Musicians who Pioneered the Sounds of American Music.  Another good read is Phillip Furia’s and Michael Lasser’s book: AMERICA’S SONGS—The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley.   Check them out—history you can listen to!

STAY TUNED!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–The Dark Side of Collecting

UKULELE MUSING 27, 6 JULY 2019—A MID-YEAR BREAK FROM SONGS: THE DARK SIDE OF COLLECTING . . .

At the halfway point of the year, I thought I’d take a break from my stroll through the backstories of songs found in our Yellow and Blue Books and look again at our favorite little musical instrument—the ukulele.  In particular, I want to focus on a few ukes in my collection that, as some purists might contend, are of a clouded ancestry—i.e., FAKES.  Or rather, to me, HOMAGES.

Since I began my personal exploration of ukulele lore and collecting a dozen or so years ago, I have managed to acquire, restore, and display a goodly number of vintage ukes—well over a hundred at last count—thanks to the tolerance and forbearance of my wife, to say nothing of empty spaces in our house suitable for display.  These have come into my hands via swaps, tag sales, antique shows, and—needless to say—the internet. 

A tiny part of my collection.

Many of these are, of course, nice examples of fairly common, so-called “novelty” ukes from the 1920s through the 1950s that, when I started collecting, could be had for just a few dollars.  Several others in the collection are much more uncommon.  When and if they ever come to market, these command a significantly higher price.  But all are fun to own, restore, display, and—at times—play. 

There are, however, a few ukuleles out there that, among serious collectors, are known as “Holy Grails.”  These are the ones that rarely show up on the market; but when they do, can command prices that are way, WAY beyond the reach of my impecunious fingers!  What to do? 

To be quite honest, being a craftsman as well as a collector, I FAKE IT.  Scratch that!  I PAY HOMAGE.  I do research, work out designs and patterns, gather bits and bobs of vintage instruments, and—Bob’s your uncle!— the result is what I call an “Un-Holy Grail” for my collection.   I don’t do this to fool folks with a “counterfeit”; all are clearly acknowledged and labeled.  Rather, these additions help me to study and tell in a hands-on way the often strange, always interesting stories of the “royalty” within the family of our favorite little musical instrument.

More from the collection.

Here are four examples from my collection, with pics of some originals.

THE AERO-UKE

Here’s an original with the S/V ad.

In 1927, America went gaga over the aeronautical adventures of Charles Lindbergh.  This coincided with the same level of craziness Americans were showing for the ukulele and the Stromburg-Voisinet Company of Chicago hurried to touch both bases. 

Expect to pay well over $1000 for an example in good, original condition—whew!  Here is my humble effort, mahogany with a spruce top in a concert scale.  No; the propeller doesn’t work. 

Here’s my take on this one. It sounds pretty good!

THE KAMAKA PINEAPPLE UKE

Before World War II, Hawaii’s Kamaka Ukulele Company made a variety of well-crafted, high-quality instruments.  One of their signature products was a vaguely oval shaped uke dubbed “the Pineapple.”

Made of locally harvested koa wood, some were decorated with a waterslide decal of—what else—a pineapple.  This caught the fancy of tourists flocking to the islands in those days, particularly those interested in bringing home a high-quality ukulele.  The decal was, so to speak, the frosting on the cake and a koa Kamaka Pineapple in good, original condition—with an intact decal, of course—can sell for around $600 or so.  

An original Kamaka Pineapple.

Here is my lower-case pineapple, of koa but by an unknown maker, with a decal made with the magic of today’s computer technology.  A fun project that’s a bit better than a wall hanger, it sounds pretty good. 

Never underestimate the power of a decal!  A future project will be to make a copy of the still rarer, and much pricier, hand-painted Kamaka Pineapple.       

My next project!

THE JUNGLE UKE

This fabric-covered uke was made by the Regal Company of Chicago back in the 1950s.  I can’t imagine that they sounded very good with that layer of leopard-skin fabric glued to the sound wood.  That’s probably why very few were sold and why fewer survive today. 

If you run across one in good, original condition, expect to pay at least $500. 

I started my project with a beat up, bottom-of-the-line Hilo soprano.  I found some fabric from a remnants bin at the craft store and, once again, made an appropriate decal.  No.  It doesn’t sound very good, but it does attract attention! 

This is my humble effort from the remnant bin.

The fringe is an added touch from the selvage of the remnant—a design step above the original!  I guess it’s a Style-2 Jungle!   

THE POINSETTIA UKE

Back in the 1920s, the Gibson Company offered these as a special order and very few—probably only five or six—were made.   

This is a $10K original . . .

They used their higher-quality soprano uke models and had an artist on their staff hand-paint them with—of all things—a poinsettia theme.  My guess is that these were meant to be a Christmas thing but became a dud on the non-holiday market.  Nonetheless, there are only a couple of these that have survived over the years with the latest selling at auction for over $10,000! 

This is my $10 effort . . .

I had fun taking a beat-up mahogany soprano with a pearloid fingerboard and peghead (definitely NOT a Gibson) and, with a few tubes of acrylic paint and some gold and India ink pens, came up with this fun fooler.  Mele Kalikimaka!

So, for the purpose of transparency, I thought it worthwhile to discuss with you—my gentle readers—my drift to what some may call the “dark side” of collecting.  Done for fun, not for profit, I will keep at this as long as I have holes in my collection that only craftsmanship rather than cash can fill.  Alas, such is the life of one suffering from Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome! 

But I digress from my 2019 mission.  So, now, back to the Yellow and Blue Books for the rest of the year.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musings–“Ja-Da”

UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 25:  22 JUNE 2019—A SIMPLE SONG BY A SAILOR, “JA-DA (JA-DA, JA-DA, JING, JING, JING)”

“Ja-Da (Ja Da, Ja Da, Jing, Jing, Jing!)“—found in our Yellow Book—was written in 1918 by a piano player, Bob Carleton (1894-1956), while he was serving in the US Navy during World War I. 

He was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, just north of Chicago, and performed with a trio on the base and in local bars. 

The simple tune became a jazz standard over the years and was recorded by just about every performer from that day to this—a simple 16-bar tune with a long, long life.    

In his definitive American Popular Songs, Alec Wilder writes about the song’s simplicity: “It fascinates me that such a trifling tune could have settled into the public consciousness as “Ja-Da” has. Of course, it’s bone simple and the lyric says almost nothing.  Perhaps the explanation of its success lies in the lyric itself—”That’s a funny little bit of melody—it’s soothing and appealing to me.” It’s cute, it’s innocent, and it’s “soothing.” And, wonderfully enough, the only other statement the lyric makes is “Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Jing, Jing, Jing.”  There are, however, more verses!

Sheet Music Verses:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSqO7FUiMUc

Here it is again but this time for we Ukers!

Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD51pqAEUIQ

Carlton went on to be a prolific songwriter/performer and published over 500 songs.  He wrote ditties like “Teasin'”, “I’ve Spent the Evening in Heaven”, “I’ve Got to Break Myself of You”, and “Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans.” 

 Ever hear any of these?  Thought not.  But, just for fun, here is Carlton himself at what he describes as his “Bar Room Baldwin”

Bob Carlton, Ragtime Piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5YzVHI9aMI

At least we and the rest of the musical world still have “Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Jing, Jing, Jing!”  A simple song by a sailor.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Jambalaya”

UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 24, 15 JUNE 2019—”JAMBALAYA,” COUNTRY OR CAJUN?  TASTY EITHER WAY!

Here’s a simple song that is one of the most often played from our Yellow Book—“Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” 

For being easy to play (only two chords!) and sing, this song carries an interesting backstory.   Basically, it is a song written and recorded by the great country music singer Hank Williams.  It was first released in 1952—a year before his untimely death at the age of 29.  It was named for the Creole/Cajun dish by the same name—Jambalaya.

And, of course, Crawfish Pie,

And, File Gumbo,

It tells the pretty story of a young man p0ling his pirogue to a Louisiana Bayou to meet up with the family of his girlfriend Yvonne. 

Needless to say, this happy tune spawned many, many cover versions over the years.  Here’s the original:

Hank Williams:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnKOVPXhlnE

The melody was based on an older Cajun song, “Grand Texas,” that didn’t have a thing to do with food. 

Rather, it told the sad story about a lost love, a woman who left the singer to go with another man to the great big state of Texas.  It’s still a popular Cajun dance tune and the similarities with Williams’s song are easy to hear.  

“Grand Texas:”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXwQh8vkur4

Williams’s version, however, is much more “country than Cajun.”  He understood that his broader audience would probably not relate to a true Cajun two-step led by an asthmatic accordion with lyrics in 17th century French-Canadian patois! 

Anyway—just to be impartial—here’s a real Cajun version of “Jambalaya.”  Sorry, no ukuleles:

Cajun “Jambalaya:”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUgLafbQtc4

“Jambalaya” was most likely co-written with a hillbilly piano player, one Moon Mullican, with Williams’s better-known name on the sheet music and record labels. 

This was typical of the handshake deals and royalty arrangements common in those days.  Mullican’s honky-tonk piano style was said to be rambunctious enough to “knock the beer bottles off the bar.”  Hang on to your bottle and take a listen:

Moon Mullican:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iFwiZ2a8cs

Williams (probably again with Mullican) composed a sequel to the song from the female perspective, “I’m Yvonne (Of the Bayou)”, recorded by country singer Goldie Hill—never as popular as the earlier “Jambalaya.”  But, as a musicological footnote, here it is:

Goldie Hill:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NXPuVRw7pI

So, we have a good example here of mid-20th century “cultural appropriation” that has given us a country, if not truly Cajun, classic—and an excuse to try some tasty Louisiana cuisine and, of course, moonshine in a jar!

Shtay, hic, twooned!

Noho Banjo And Ukulele Musing No. 23: “We’ll Meet Again”

UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 23, 8 JUNE 2019—“WE’LL MEET AGAIN,” A POIGNANT SONG OF WORLD WAR II AND TODAY

During the celebration this week of the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy landings during World War II, I would be remiss not to touch on one of the most meaningful songs of that era and one that is in our Yellow Book.  “We’ll Meet Again” is a 1939 British song made famous by singer Vera Lynn. 

The song is one of the most famous of the era, and resonated with soldiers going off to fight as well as with their families and sweethearts on the home front.  The nostalgic lyrics (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.“) were very popular during the war and made the song one of its emblematic hits.  Here’s her version:

Vera Lynn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHcunREYzNY

In 1941, during the darkest days of the Second World War, Lynn began her own radio program, Sincerely Yours, sending messages to British troops serving abroad. 

She also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas. 

Because of her work with the troops, Vera Lynn became known in Britain as “the Forces’ Sweetheart.”

Those were the days of parting and meeting and parting, hopefully, to meet again.  “We’ll Meet Again” became a standard finale on both sides of the Atlantic for musical theater and music hall performances, and even movie theaters with their “bouncing ball” sing-alongs.   

Vera Lynn is 102 years old today and still singing, if only in the hearts of those who remember those war years.

“We’ll Meet Again” lived on beyond the war years and found its way into many films and television shows, particularly as a “closer.”  Probably the most well-known version—if not the most depressing—was in the ending to the blackly satirical 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” The film ends with an ominous montage of nuclear explosions accompanying Lynn’s song of hope (?).  

Dr. Strangelove Finale:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEtldt-FI8Y

Even Stephen Colbert used it to end his show “The Colbert Report” a couple of years ago.

Stephen Colbert:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ09nAwVkVM&t=4s

Not to be outdone, there are a few dozen ukulele versions, plus the song in our book.

Ukulele:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji77K-8agNs

Lynn herself sang the song in London on the 60th Anniversary of VE Day in 2005 and it was sung just this week at the Normandy Invasion Anniversary Celebration in Portsmouth, England—the departure port for the many American, British, Canadian, and other Allied troops boarding their ships to cross the English Channel to land on the beaches of Normandy.

75th Anniversary:   https://www.smoothradio.com/news/music/sheridan-smith-d-day-vera-lynn-cover-video/

So, let’s remember the boys and men, girls and women of the “Greatest Generation” who fought, lived, and sang throughout the war.  “We’ll Meet Again!”

Stay Tuned!