Hi Fellow Strummers. These “musings” are intended to share some of the things I have learned over the years of banjo and ukulele history and lore, as well as some of the songs we find and play. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within the broader musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. These are my personal thoughts and do not reflect those of any group or sponsor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.
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.”
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.”
Also, that extra hour of sunshine will help get rid of any #$%& snow or snowpiles still lingering around! Wishful thinking . . .
Here’s one from a couple of years past but, because of the day, both timely and appropriate. So, enjoy and, for many of you gentle readers, re-enjoy!
Admittedly, Groundhog Day is more of an annual “event” rather than a “holiday.” Nonetheless, it takes on importance in that is it also “World Play Your Ukulele Day.”
It is also a day that we New Englanders sense the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring—at least those New England natives of the groundhog persuasion. Pray for a cloudy day! Avoid shadows!
Aside from some cute pictures,
I couldn’t find many ukuleles directly associated with a groundhog. But, our animal friend has a long and historic association with that older cousin of the ukulele, the banjo. It seems that it wasn’t uncommon back in 19th century Appalachia to use a groundhog skin to make a primitive banjo.
There are even a few contemporary banjo makers using groundhog skins, both on five-string mountain banjos
and even—YES—a banjo ukulele or two. Sorry, none in my collection as of yet!
There is also a great old-time tune called “Groundhog.” Here it is played on a fretless banjo just like an old Appalachian mountain one!
The ukulele lends itself to being played in the old-time banjo style called “frailing” or “clawhammer.” The standard high-G string of the ukulele can serve the same melodic/rhythmic function as the fifth “drone” string on a banjo.
On the ukulele, the index finger picks a string (usually a melody note), then brushes down across all four strings followed by the thumb plucking the G string—pick, brush, thumb. The rhythm is 1-2/and, 1-2/and, etc., played in a slow, quick-quick motion. Pete Seeger called this a “bum-ditty, bum-ditty” sound. We could call it a “North-amp/ton, North-amp/ton” strum!
Got it? Of course, there are thousands of intricate variations, but this is “Clawhammer 101.” Here’s a basic YouTube to get you started. Have some Springtime fun!
At the risk of all my vegan and vegetarian friends—to say nothing of those simply of the squeamish persuasion—I must add an good ole recipe for groundhog stew. Well, why not?
Now go seek out a groundhog, before he sees his shadow, and play him a tune on “World Play Your Ukulele Day!”
Many of you fellow strummers and gentle readers have visited Alison’s and my home over the years for various musical 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 by Covid, contentedly continue. With my ukulele 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 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 ukes and building ships—and muse on the “marriage of song and sail.”
So, let’s take a look at that sailor song genre known as “Sea Shanties.” While our Blue and Yellow Books include a number of tunes with nautical themes, there is only one that has a place on the wet wood deck of a working ship in the days of the daily “grog” ration: “Drunken Sailor.”
Just to get the old earworm going, click or tap on 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 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 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 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 onboard 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 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 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 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 fellow strummers, stay safe, stay sequestered (with your crew, of course), stay masked,
and STAY TUNED!
And, of course, enjoy a shanty or two—with rum of course!Or, if wine’s your thing . . .
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.
Heading into the first few weeks of a wintry new year, some say the days are getting longer. But it doesn’t seem so to me, and on too many days what purports to be sunlight is not even as bright as the traffic lights I see on my drives around town. Green light, red light; green light, red light—a syncopation of sorts is set. So, gentle readers, how does this give us a ride into a musical musing?
Not much in either of our Yellow or Blue Books jumps out, so my weary (wayward?) mind begins to wander from traffic signals to another colorful connotation: “Red-Light Districts.”
To lead us down this less than PG path, one of the best quotations relative to our musical theme (and today’s news?) comes from our thirty-third President of the United States, that salty-tongued, accomplished piano player from Missouri—Harry S. Truman, seen here entertaining actress Lauren Bacall.
I’ve mused in the past about a couple of less than PG songs from our Blue Book that we enjoy from time to time. These seem pretty innocent and not too, shall we say, “red-lighty”—“Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”
Yet, if we walk the history of these songs back a bit, and peek at a few of the original lyrics that didn’t quite find their way into our songbooks, we’d learn that both deal with certain “nomadic ladies” popular with gentlemen of the day but, alas, in a manner more periodic than permanent.
Scholarly research will, of course, turn up dozens if not hundreds of songs from antiquity to today that touch on our colorful theme.
These are, without question, worthy of scholarly study. But, for the sake of simplicity, tender ears, and propriety, I’ll focus on just one–that ragtime homage to the composer’s old red-light stomping grounds: “Twelfth Street Rag.”
“Twelfth Street Rag” was written in 1914 by Texas-born Euday Louis Bowman (1887-1949), an itinerant pianist and writer of many ragtime, fox trot, and blues songs.
He wrote “Twelfth Street Rag“—his most successful but, alas, least lucrative song—after a period in which he worked as a piano player in what some might say were the “better bordellos” of the infamous red-light districts of Fort Worth and Kansas City.
To give our song some (ahem) street cred as well as musicological context, he composed a batch of rags—“Sixth StreetRag” “Tenth Street Rag,” “Eleventh Street Rag,” and, last but not least, “Twelfth StreetRag” all named after streets in Fort Worth’s red-light district. What a cultural homage to his hometown!
Being of considerable musicological interest in our less prurient times, there must be a couple of hundred takes on our tune on YouTube. Let’s start our red-light tour with one of the best ragtime piano versions of it with some good illustrations of the times. Click or tap on the next image or link for a look and listen.
Now, to hear our song in its appropriate musical time capsule, click or tap on the next image or link for veteran bordello musician (Quite true!) Louis Armstrong’s, 1927 take on our tune.
Our song is, of course, not at all descriptive or tell-all about the shady goings on in a red-light district domicile. (Far be it from me to muse much in that direction!) Rather, it’s the epitome of the type of music—raucous, rhythmic, and wildly danceable—frequently found in many of those, shall we say, “boy meet girl” establishments.
“Twelfth Street Rag” was written primarily as ragtime or fox trot dance music. Its slangy, syncopated lyrics weren’t added until 1919, endorsed but not written by Baldwin. To make sure you really have a red-light earworm, click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to the bouncy lyrics.
And, of course, we must have a virtuoso ukulele performance! Click or tap on the next image or link to hear Marcy Marxer and friends have a go at our tune.
And, as might be expected, there are a few ukuleles in my collection that bring to mind some—of course demurely innocent and G-rated—red-light denizens and denizettes.
To end with, here’s a musical challenge: Since so many of us find ourselves isolated and stuck at home these pandemic days, I am sure that we often reach for our favorite little musical instruments to practice, practice, practice and learn new tunes. So, here is a tutorial that will help you with a chord melody version of “Twelfth Street Rag.” Can you learn it?
“Twelfth Street Rag” is a relatively easy tune to learn and, who knows, it might give you a career on the streets as a busker—not something else!
So, as we move back from red-light districts to just plain red and green lights, stay warm, stay safe, stay masked . . .
Not needing to shovel a lot of snow so far in this quasi-winter of few flakes and fewer sleigh rides, I find myself motivated to end this disheartening 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, found in the back of our Yellow Book, 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 New England to Georgia to seek his fortune in the South.
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, “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 copywrited “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 Medford. Accordingly, it was quickly taken up and first performed on the stage in 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 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 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 masked . . .
and STAY TUNED as we sleigh away from a less than perfect 2021 and dance into a more than perfect (please!) 2022!
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 . . .
Well, fellow strummers, it seems with the fine fall weather we’ve been having (amid the many raindrops, however) I’ve found time to do another one of my musical musings.
Looking at the calendar, who knew that mid-October is the time for “National Sweetness Day.”
In the olden days—when I was a bit younger than now, this was known as “National Candy Day” and bits of candy were to be handed out to friends and family as a token of thoughtfulness and friendship. Like so much these days, this celebration has evolved with the intent of handing out bits of kindness to friends, family, and—for that matter—to all! What’s not to like?
Needless to say, there are reams of sheet music touching on the “Sweetness” theme. Here are just a few of the more noteworthy–graphically if not musically speaking!
So, in keeping with the theme of this musing, I searched through our Blue and Yellow Books and found over a dozen songs with the word “sweet” or some derivative thereof in the title. Who knew? Anyway, with my penchant to avoid songs written more recently than the 1950s, I was surprised by the several that fit into my “oldie” category. As you gentle readers might recall, I have mused over the years about two of the greatest of this genre—“Ain’t She Sweet,”
and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
If you want to re-read my thoughts on these two gems, just hit the link https://www.nohobanjoandukulele.blog and search through the entries until these two tunes show up—worth a visit if I do say so myself.
Just for a bit of fun, however, click or tap on the next link or image for a listen to a much, much newer—and with a ukulele, no less, version of this musical chestnut, “Ain’t She Sweet.”
Let’s move a few decades back with a Blue Book favorite, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” a song with lyrics written in 1950 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays of the folk group, “The Weavers.” Their tune was adapted from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s 1937 song “If it Wasn’t for Dicky,” which, in turn, was adapted from a traditional Irish tune “Drimindown / Drumion Dubh.”Who knows where the Irish got that one!
Here’s the “Lead Belly” tune. Click or tap on the next link or image for a listen:
Now, click or tap on the next image for the Weaver’s revamp.
Now, for the sake of thematic purging and to stay in a lighter mood, let’s let the late 19th century, maudlin, death-bed, Sunday School staple from our Yellow Book, “In the Sweet By and By” go unsung. OK?
But, let’s move quickly on to a “Capital-C” Chestnut, also from our Yellow Book, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Every barbershop quartet worth their pitch pipe sings this one so we should really give it a go.
Click or tap on the next image or link for a nostalgic listen to this 1910 oldie by Beth Whitson and Leo Friedman. To attest to the long-lived popularity of this one, it has been used in hundreds of vaudeville reviews and over twenty movies or TV shows over the years ranging from The Waltons to Downton Abby!
After that trip way, way down memory lane, let’s move on to a much more sprightly song from our Blue Book, the 1919 torchy “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.”
This jazz standard was written by Tin Pan Alley regulars Charles Mc Carron and Cary Morgan and has become a Dixieland favorite. Click or tap on the next image or link to hear this oldie but goodie!
As would be expected, the adjective “sweet” was used to modify girl’s names in dozens and dozens of songs from “Sweet Adeline” to “Sweet Caroline.”
We’ll forgo the 1959 Fenway favorite of our Blue Books, “Sweet Caroline,” in favor of the ultimate barbershop quartet standard that is not found in either Blue or Yellow. Go figure! Anyway, click or tap on the next image or link for a one-man “quartet” version of this oldie!
And—why not?—a ukulele version. Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen.
I could go on and on with so-called “sweet, sweetie, and sweetness” songs and, if you have the time and are so inclined, here are a few more YouTubes just for fun;
Click or tap on the next image or link to hear Bessie Smith’s bluesy, torchy version of “My Sweetie Went Away.”
And, for a bit of musical craziness, click or tap on the next image or link for a wild and wooly western take on “Sweet Little Buttercup.”
Now, let’s wind up this musing with one or our favorite Blue Book songs, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” an American traditional song developed from the cowboy song “My Lula Gal” which, in turn, is based on a bawdy British and Appalachian song known as “Bang Bang Rosie” or “Bang Away Lulu.” Tap or click on the next image or link for a real downhome bluegrass version of “Lula . . .”
Of Course, the ultimate bluegrass version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” is, beyond a doubt, that by Earl Scruggs and Lester Flat from 1951. Click or tap on the next image or link to be blown away with some lightning-fast finger picking.
And how about a ukulele version of this one! Click or tap on the next image or link for a look.
I would be remiss if I didn’t show a thematically appropriate ukulele from my collection . . .
As well as another.
And, despite the vagaries of the times, stay as sweet as you are!
A week or so ago I did a musical muse on a song stolen and, ultimately, paid for by that most popular and respected singer Johnny Cash. (Ca$h?) I have come across quite a few more situations like this in my wanderings through musical history; but, in most instances, it’s just a case of an old and venerable melody put to a new use—the musical equivalent of the architectural preservation and adaptive use process, so to speak.
Needless to say, this has been a common source of “new” songs ever since one musician listened to the work of another, liked what he or she heard, and repeated it or enhanced it or simply purloined it. Ah, musical traditions!Isn’t that what folk music is all about?
Now let’s take a look at one of the icons of American folk music—Woody Guthrie—and put the musical spy glass on the sources of three of his most played tunes, two in our Blue or Yellow Books and one that isn’t but should be.
Despite their melodic (and sometimes lyric) origins with musical precedents, these songs have become so associated with Guthrie that we don’t even bother to think about from whence they came. Simply, they ARE HIS. Period.
The first one to look at is a song that Guthrie, a former merchant seaman himself, wrote and performed to commemorate the torpedoing of the U.S. Navy convoy escort ship, the USS Reuben James, in the months just before America’s official entry into World War II.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James” is a song hurriedly cobbled together by Guthrie and Pete Seeger in an apartment they shared at the time in New York City. These two were good friends and musical collaborators over the years and they were moved to write a song about this headline event of the day about the first American ship sunk by German U-Boats. Alas, this one is in neither of our songbooks.
Tap or click on the next image or link to hear the original Guthrie/Seeger collaboration.
Guthrie had started to write the song and, ambitiously, wanted to include each name from the casualty list—over a hundred US sailors. Seeger worked on the melody and, ever conscious of how a song would play out, prevailed in suggesting that Guthrie’s list be replaced simply by the chorus: “Tell me what were their names.”
Seeger and Guthrie borrowed the melody from a pre-Civil War song written by Joseph Philbrick Webster
called “I’ll Twine Midst the Ringlets.” His song was later made famous when the Carter Family recorded it in 1928 and retitled it “Wildwood Flower.”
You can go to YouTube to listen to the original Carter Family recording, but this is just too good an opportunity to hear the tune played by a cigar box uke and a banjo! Tap or click on the next image or link to hear this one.
A second ever popular Guthrie song, and one found in our Blue Book, is “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” This topical depression era song, considered a “Dust Bowl Ballad,” was first released in 1935 and became a standard during the so-called Folk Music Revival of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Click or tap on the next image or link to listen to this rousing favorite of folkies!
As with “Reuben James,” this song also had musical antecedents. Guthrie based it on Carson Robison’s “Ballad of Billie the Kid” of the earlier 1930s and both tweaked and added to the lyrics. Although Robison’s musical impact is generally forgotten today, he played a major role in promoting country music in its early years through both recordings and the radio.
And, unlike Guthrie or even Seeger, had a ukulele marketed in his image! Here’s one from my collection.
Click or tap on the next image or link to hear Robison’s original recording of his ballad.
And last, but certainly not least, is “This Land Is Your Land,” probably Americas most famous folk song. Its lyrics were written by Guthrie in 1940 and based on an existing melody.
This was another Carter Family tune called “When the World’s on Fire.” Guthrie wrote his song in critical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie said that he was “just plain tired” of hearing Kate Smith sing that song on the radio in the late 1930s.
Guthrie sarcastically called his song “God Blessed America for Me” before thinking a bit more deeply and renaming it. The rest is musical history!
Let’s start with the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire.” Click or tap on the next image or link to hear this lead-in melody to “This Land . . .”
In Guthrie’s own words about his many song copyrights, he said: “This song is Copyrighted . . . for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it; that’s all we wanted to do.“
And the rest is a musical legacy for us all. These songs are our songs even if they started as someone else’s!Tap or click on the next image or link to hear and see my favorite version of “This Land . . .”
Well fellow strummers, it’s September and—to my wonderment—I just learned that this is “National Chicken Month!” Just the theme for another ukulele musing! Well, why not? There are some fun old tunes out there to explore and—believe it or not—quite a few ukulele renditions. Who knew?
Let’s start with one of the most often played (only two chords!) old, old fiddle tunes: “Cluck Old Hen.” Click or tap on the next image or link for a lively ukulele/clawhammer banjo rendition of this oldie.
Moving on, it is said that chicken, as well as onions, are part of nearly every ethnic cuisine—Kosher, Halal, Asian, Hispanic, as well as good old American Country.
I remember those homey fried chicken restaurants in the Midwest,
Beer can chicken on the grill,
even a rare bucket from Colonel Sanders in my impecunious student days!
My favorite treat, however, was my grandmother’s chicken and noodles served (how else?) over mashed potatoes—about 400 calories per forkful!
But, oh so good! But, alas, I digress . . .
Now, to begin our journey through the musicological chicken yard, I would be remiss, however, not to point out a few potential pedological pitfalls of what some might call the teaching of “critical musical theory.”
For example, in my scholarly explorations on the web, there seem to be three major themes relative to today’s theme of “chicken music.” First, of course, are sweet songs about the good old days of raising chickens back on the farm, and those simple but savory Sunday (or church basement) dishes served by our mothers and grandmothers.
Then there are bouncy and (ever so slightly) bawdy tunes using the ubiquitous Tin Pan Alley slang of the day when “chick” and “chicken” referred to all those pretty young girls out there capturing the attention of a flirting “rooster” or two.
Alas, last but not least, are all those songs of chicken chasing, eating, stealing and whatnot tainted by the graphic and lyrical racial caricatures way too common at the time.
That said, I’ll only focus on the first two categories and let the third remain buried in the depths of the internet.
Moving on, here are just a couple of sweet and homey “chicken” tunes: “The Chicken Reel” and “Chicken Fried.” Click or tap on the next couple of images or links to hear some good strumming and singing on these two oldies.
So much for chickens in the coop or on the plate; now the bouncy, Tin Pan Alley stuff. Here is a use of “chicken” slang that Eddie “Banjo Eyes” Cantor performed way back in the days of World War One.
Click or tap on the next image or link and listen carefully to the vaudevillian lyrics of “Would You Rather be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Collar or a Private with a Chicken on Your Knee? Whew!
Now, click or tap on the next image or link for another of this genre with as convoluted a title: “There’s a Trick in Pickin’ a Chick Chick Chicken,” another slangy Tin Pan Alley fox trot take on today’s theme.
Ah yes, one more in the cinematic “country comic” mode . . .
Click or tap on the next image or link to listen to a ukulele version of this one!
If your brain isn’t, um, fried, you can click or tap on the next image or link for for the wind up—how to make a chicken sound on your very own ukulele! This YouTube tutorial is a bit long, but it is a must-have skill for any stage performing uker! Perhaps not. You decide and report back!
And, let’s not forget the poultrified ukuleles out there!
So, remember the theme of the month and, hopefully, have a taste soon of healthy broiled chicken or deep fat fried—your choice! And, yes, stay masked unless munching away
and, of course, STAY TUNED! And listen to the chick, chick, chicken . . .