Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musings–“San Francisco Bay Blues”

UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 22, 1 JUNE 2019—ONE OF AEIOUKER STEVE JEWELL’S FAVORITES, “SAN FRANCISCO BAY BLUES”

Today’s the day many will gather to celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, one of our good ukulele friends who passed away a couple of months ago.  This is one of Steve’s favorites that we often played during our Saturday morning strum sessions at the Forbes Library here in Northampton. It’s a great blues tune written by a great performer.  Let’s give it a go one more time for Steve!   

A one-man-band rendition of the song—featuring a kazoo solo—was recorded by Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller (1896-1976) in 1962 and included in a Smithsonian Folkways compilation title “Friends of Old Time Music.”  

Jesse Fuller, One-Man Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhAZsCP7z9Y

“San Francisco Bay Blues” is considered an American folk/blues song and is the best known—and most often performed—composition by Fuller who first recorded the song in 1954.  The song was brought into wider popularity in the early 1960s by club performances by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan.  Covers have been performed by many artists including Jim Croce, Eric Clapton, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary just to touch on a few.

 Peter, Paul, & Mary:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wfJhgcxrMI

Fuller was born in Jonesboro, Georgia, and, growing up, worked at numerous jobs: grazing cows for ten cents a day; working in a barrel factory, a broom factory, and a rock quarry; working on a railroad and for a streetcar company; shining shoes; and even peddling hand-carved wooden snakes.   By the age of 10, he was playing the guitar. In the 1920s he worked his way to California and settled in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where he worked on the railroad for many years as a fireman, spike driver, and maintenance man.  During World War II he worked as a shipyard welder, but when the war ended he found it increasingly difficult to find work.  So, around the early 1950s, Fuller began to consider the possibility of making a living as a musician.

Up to this point, Fuller had never worked as a professional musician, but he was an accomplished guitarist and had busked for money by passing the hat. He had a good memory for songs and had a large repertoire of crowd-pleasers in diverse styles from blues to country.  He began to compose songs, many of them based on his experiences on the railroads, playing them in his syncopated style. When he set out to make a career as a musician, he had difficulty finding reliable musicians to work with. Thus, his one-man-band act was born.

Richie Havens:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yXVwv6MTRU

Fuller could play several instruments simultaneously, particularly with the use of a headpiece to hold a harmonica, kazoo, and microphone. In addition, he would generally include at least one tap dance, soft-shoe, or buck and wing in his sets, accompanying himself on a 12-string guitar as he danced.

His style was open and engaging. In typical busker’s fashion, he addressed his audiences as “ladies and gentlemen,” told humorous anecdotes, and cracked jokes between songs.

During those one-man-band years, Fuller also devised a new kind of instrument he called a “fotdella”, a big six string bass viol that he played with his foot via a system of pedals and levers.   To complete his rig, he had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo. While sitting down in the middle of all this, he also sang and played a twelve-string guitar.  Whew!  No ukulele, however.

Here, however, is a one-man-band version—with ukulele:

Ukulele, One-Man Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdx4e1wOIDM

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Fuller became one of the key figures of the blues revival, helping bring the music to a new, younger audience. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s he toured America and Europe, appearing at numerous blues and folk festivals, as well as countless coffeehouse gigs across the U.S.  He continued performing and recording until his death in 1976.

So, let’s celebrate the life of Steve Jewell, his ukulele, and one of his—and our—favorite songs  . . .

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo Ukulele Musings

BRUCE’S UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 20: 18 MAY 2019—“PENNIES FROM HEAVEN,” A GREAT SONG FEATURED IN NOT SO GREAT MOVIES

The Great Depression of the 1930s gave us many songs that touched on the hard times of the era, including the iconic “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,”

and one from our Yellow Book, “Pennies from Heaven.” This was written in 1936 with music by Arthur Johnson (1898-1954) and lyrics by Johnny Burke (1908-1964).

 It was introduced by Bing Crosby in the 1936 film by the same name and recorded by just about every name in the book.    Johnston and Burke were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song that year for “Pennies . . ..”    Burke wrote the song “Swinging on a Star” that won the Academy Award in 1944—another great Crosby tune.  

Not only is this song a popular American standard, but two movies used this as a title—the 1936 Crosby film and one in 1981 with Steve Martin. 

The Martin film was actually based on a BBC Television series with the same title starring Bob Hoskins.

The earlier Crosby film had an offbeat story line of a wrongly imprisoned singer who promises a condemned fellow inmate that he will help the family of the inmate’s victim when Crosby is released.  (Whew!)  Needless to say, complications ensue with the best part of this tearjerker of a movie being our song.

The BBC Series and the later Martin film share a totally different and rather bizarre plot of sheet music and record salesmen in the 1930s (Chicago for Martin and London for Hoskins) who fantasize about the songs they sell while lip-synching and dancing to them, along with other characters in the film.  Here’s a fun one with Martin’s co-star Bernadette Peters and a bunch of musical kids:

Don’t watch these for the plot (which, in my opinion, is pretty dreadful!) but fast forward to the music and choreography—much fun! 

Here’s a down-and-out street musician, just given a free meal by Martin, and his take on the title tune.

Here’s the same scene from the BBC:

The best version of this song I ever heard, however, was a couple of years ago when our own AEIOUker David Juno played his uke and sang the song as the offertory hymn at a Northampton Unitarian Society service—truly, pennies from heaven!  Sorry, no U-Tube of that one!  But here is another ukulele version just for fun.

tps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn8yeEEJl10

Almost as good as Dave!

STAY TUNED!

Noho Banjo & Ukulele Musings

BRUCE’S UKULELE MUSING NUMBER 19: 11 MAY 2019—ONE FOR THE LITTLE ONES, “ON THE GOOD SHIP LOLLIPOP”

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One of the songs hidden in the back of our Yellow Book hasn’t been asked for that often–”On the Good Ship Lollipop.”  This might be a good tune when we have children in the audience.

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Anyway, “Lollipop” was the signature song of child actress Shirley Temple (1928-2014) who first sang it in the 1934 movie “Bright Eyes.”

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The song was composed by Richard A. Whiting (1891-1938, composer of “Hooray for Hollywood,” and “Ain’t We Got Fun”) with lyrics by Sidney Clare (1892-1972, credited in 1934 with the earliest usage of the term “rock and roll”).  In the song, the “Good Ship Lollipop” travels to a candy land.

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Contrary to general belief, however, the “ship” referred to in the song is an airplane—for your aviation buffs, it was an American Airlines DC-2.

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Shirley Temple:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLLSqpYyPD8

In addition to Temple’s film performance, 400,000 copies of the sheet music were sold and a recording by Mae Questal (the cartoon voice of Betty Boop)

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sold more than two million copies—a quintessential kid’s song from two or three generations back.

Mae Questal:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Q7ybTGzaHQ

We often forget that Shirley Temple Black served her country in vastly different ways. As a child star in the late 1930s, she cheered up a nation suffering the effects of the Great Depression, making 20 movies by the time she was six years old.

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As an adult she became a businesswoman and then a diplomat when President Nixon appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations.

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President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana in 1974, and later as his Chief of Protocol, the first woman to hold that job.

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In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia—quite a career move up from the good ship Lollipop!

Now for the hard part. 

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In the 1935 Civil War themed film “The Littlest Rebel,” six-year-old Shirley Temple  appeared in blackface briefly.  Not enough, in my opinion, to tarnish the reputation of a beloved child star who became a respected diplomat in adulthood—certainly not enough to tarnish a tune–from a different, earlier movie–as innocent as “Lollipop . . .”   

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Also, in my opinion, Tiny Tim—while forever tarnishing the reputation of the ukulele as a serious musical instrument—gives us this falsetto version of “Lollipop.”  

Not as bad as you might imagine:  

Tiny Tim:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klwUGSScs0s

Back to ukuleles for those of us with a sweet tooth.

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Stay tuned!

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