Hi neighbors and 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, listen to, 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. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.
We’re all going to lose an hour of sleep this coming Sunday morning as we comply with the “times that will be a’changin.” However, gentle readers, rejoice with me as we relish that extra hour of sunshine we’ll have in the evening–perfect for cocktail hour on the porch at the “Huckleberry Inn” here in the Hamptons of western Massachusetts!
On to the early morning mission . . . To maintain appropriate silence, I won’t be whistling a tune or strumming a banjo when I tiptoe around the house to set all of our clocks forward at EXACTLY 2:00 A.M. this Sunday, as required by law.
I wouldn’t want to awaken Alison on a Sunday morning with a raucous tune, but here is one of a few that addresses the controversy some folks have with our recurring time-change responsibilities. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a seriously timely take on the issue–but let’s not turn up the volume during our 2 A.M. mission!
Alison believes that I could set all our clocks ahead BEFORE I go to bed. But, in this day and age, I would not want to be caught breaking the law. Besides, it could be hazardous!
There are cameras everywhere, you know! And ICE—the Incremental Clock Enforcers!
Anyway, by 3:00 A.M. or so, all of our clocks will be reset and we will—as I believe we Happy Valley folks must—be in compliance with the 2 A.M. mandate of the law.
For all of us to quietly waltz back to bed after completing our Sunday morning mission, here is an appropriate tune. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to dance along!
And, so to bed—with the banjo (reset, of course) and back in its place back hanging on the wall.
Moving ahead, here are a few vintage sheet music reminders of time and clocks and a few timely tunes.
Or, how about this one from my high school pep band days?
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image and rock along!
And, of course, here’s the grandfather of the genre!
Despite the name of this duo, this is a fun take on this old chestnut of a clock song from the 1840s. Click or tap on the next image for a bit of musical fun by a duo that seems to have stood the test of time!
And, how about a different kind of “savings time?”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a 1931 version of this one.
Here’s a tune from 1945. Remember this one?
Click or tap on the triangles in the next two images for two really, really different versions of this timely tune.
So, on Sunday morning, remember—EXACTLY at 2 A.M. or you are breaking the law! After all, we must do our bit for our soldiers and farmers—the whole reason we have daylight savings time in the first place. Right?
To wind things up, click or tap on the triangle in the next image to see how these folks are musically addressing the time change as they get ready for church this Sunday.
So, on Sunday morning, do your duty, don’t break the law, enjoy all that extra sunshine, and . . .
This sprightly song, “Zip-A-Dee-D00-Dah,” was written for the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South.”
The film was one of the first to combine animation and live action and brought to the screen many folk tales of the South as collected and published by the 19th century Georgia newspaper reporter and editor Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908).
These were based on classic, unwritten tales of Southern folk culture collected over the years by Harris who adapted and began publishing these in 1879. His books and stories were widely read and beloved by generations of American children. In the books the stories were narrated by a fictional former slave named by Harris, “Uncle Remus.”
I remember reading the stories from books in my school library, seeing the movie three or four times (only 25 cents plus a dime for a bag 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 popular film was a huge financial success at the time.
The film was set on a bucolic (albeit fictional) cotton plantation in Georgia in the years after the Civil War . . .
. . . and featured folk tales narrated by an older, former slave living on the property–Harris’s “Uncle Remus.”
Harris’s stories were written and voiced by his Uncle Remus in the Black vernacular of the day and introduced readers to characters like “B’rer Rabbit,” “B’rer Fox,” “B’rer Bear,” “Tar Baby,” and a host of other anthropomorphic creatures. The stories told of their antics, adventures, and provided simple–almost biblical– lessons in morality.
Harris’s stories, mostly originated from the African-American oral storytelling tradition.
In their day, these tales were seen as charmingly revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personages, and true-to-life landscapes. They were lauded by contemporaries of Harris like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. And, of course, on a postage stamp.
But, that was then; this is now.
Today, folklorists praise Harris’s work in popularizing and preserving Black storytelling traditions. His work, however, remains controversial to many due to his use of dialect, racial stereotypes, and a setting on a cotton plantation in the old South.
Even when first screened in 1946, “Song of the South” became the subject of controversy and protests. Needless to say, these grew over the years and prompted the Disney corporation’s decision to never re-release the film in either theater or video format for showing in the United States. So, don’t look for the movie on Netflix or HBO or even Disney+. Not available, not in this day and age.
The animated characters from the film are, however, still found in Disney’s books and other media and once were popular features in the Disney theme parks. Now, even these are touched by controversy.
And, just this past year, the popular “Splash Mountain” water slide at Disney World in Florida–with its “Zip-A -Dee -Doo-Dah” theme– has been removed.
Meanwhile, let’s just focus on the song.
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was composed by Allie Wrubel (1905-1973) with lyrics by Ray Gilbert (1912-1976).
These two 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. Digging back a bit, however, the song can trace its origins to a pre-Civil War, blackface minstrel song, “Old Zip Coon“—one of multiple variations of “Turkey in the Straw”—with a chorus: “Zip a duden duden duden, zip a duden day.”
Needless to say, this song is considered by many today to be wildly racist, but by others to be of historical and musicological importance. Food for thought.
Moving on. In the movie the song is sung to the children—both black and white—living on or visiting the plantation by the appropriately avuncular 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 busy cotton plantation. He befriends other children—black and white—and all are mesmerized by the tales told by the former slave still living on the plantation in what was implied in the film as “contented retirement.”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to see and listen to our song.
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 come from a period in our history many would rather forget. To me, however, forgetting history is seldom a good idea. We can’t learn from what we are not taught.
But, beyond the context and controversy that still swirls around the movie, the song “Zip A-Dee-Doo-Dah” has a life of its own and lives on in many musical interpretations. So, click or tap on the triangles in the next images to pick and choose a favorite and, thoughtfully, have a “wonderful feeling” and a “wonderful day!” Just remember from whence it all came.
So, with some thought, let’s not throw the musical (tar) baby out with the historical bath water.
Just listen to the happy song, but know of the unhappy history– and STAY TUNED!
Well, we whizzed by Mardi Gras this past Tuesday and, I am sure, the good folks down in New Orleans are still cleaning up the messes in the streets of the French Quarter, the Garden District, Congo Square, Treme, Storyville, and all those other “Nawlins” hotspots. So, it seems like a good time to muse on another tasty Louisiana tradition made famous in a simple song that is one of the most well known in America–“Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” We have all heard this foodie/frolic tune a few hundred (thousand?) times over the years, but the story behind our song is is also worth a listen.
Our song was written (sort of) 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. Mmm . . .
And, of course, Crawfish Pie. Mmmmm . . .
And, File Gumbo. Mmmmmmmmm . . .
Our song tells the pretty story of a young man poling his flat-bottomed pirogue through a Louisiana Bayou to meet up at a house party–what the Cajun community calls a “Fais-do-d0“– with the extended family of his girlfriend, Yvonne.
Needless to say, this lively tune spawned many, many cover versions over the years. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look at and listen to the original:
Now for the backstory.
The melody that Williams used (purloined?, harvested?) was based on a much older Cajun song, “Grand Texas,” that didn’t have a thing to do with food or, for that matter, frolic. Rather, it told the woeful story of a lost love–a Louisiana bayou man’s sweetheart who left him in the lurch to run off with another man to the big, bad state of Texas. It’s still a popular Cajun “swamp fiddle” tune and the similarities with Williams’s song are easy to discern.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to listen to a take on the original Cajun song. I hope you understand Cajun French!
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 a scratchy fiddle with an asthmatic accordion and lyrics in 17th century French-Canadian patois!
Anyway—just to make a point—click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a real Cajun version of “Jambalaya.”
“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. Alas, no credit for Mullican.
This was typical of the handshake deals and fuzzy royalty arrangements common in those days. Mullican was a prolific, if not particularly well remembered, songwriter whose honkytonk piano style was said to be rambunctious enough to “knock the beer bottles off the bar.”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image, hold on to your bottle, and give a listen to one of his honkytonk tunes.
Williams with another even more obscure songwriter, one Jimmy Rule, composed a sequel to our song from the female perspective–“I’m Yvonne (Of the Bayou).” This was recorded in 1953 by country singer Goldie Hill, but never became as popular as the earlier “Jambalaya.”
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to listen to the “her side of the story” song.
So, here we have a good musical example of mid-20th century “cultural appropriation” that has given us a truly countrified, if not truly Cajun, musical classic—and a craving to savor some tasty Louisiana cuisine and, of course, moonshine in a jar!
So, stay safe, keep away from alligators, wear a mask to avoid swamp fever or whatever.
Have as much jambalaya and moonshine as you can find, and . . .
It being the week of the annual Presidents Day remembrance, we need look no farther than out our windows to see our local link to this parade of American history. Now, I am sure that most of you gentle readers who live in or near Northampton, Massachusetts, are steeped in the lore and history of the city’s most famous citizen, the 30th President of the United States Calvin Coolidge.
But, perhaps, a few of you out-of-towners or newcomers to our Happy Valley may not be as up on local lore as the rest of us. So, this is why his story is of importance and how we can link Coolidge with a musical musing—sort of.
As a quick setting of the stage, Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, was born in Plymouth, Vermont, on July 4, 1872. The only president born on the 4th of July! After graduating from nearby Amherst College, he began a career in law and politics in Northampton eventually becoming Governor of Massachusetts, Vice-President of the United States, and–after the death of President Warren Harding–President in his own right.
And, as a matter of local pride, the nationally known (I presume, of course!) Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum is located in Northampton’s venerable Forbes Library!
And, to make a musical point, Northampton’s own AEIOUkes meet in the Library’s Coolidge Room for many of our weekly ukulele strum sessions!
This museum resource began when Coolidge, as Massachusetts Governor and Vice-President-Elect, began giving documents and memorabilia to the public library for the city of Northampton.
There are several good biographies of Coolidge and his times—as well as our good friends on the internet—that can give you as much of his life story as you care to learn.
Suffice it to say that, for our purposes, simply knowing that his law office . . .
. . . was in the Main Street building above what is now Fitzwilly’s Restaurant . . .
. . . and that he and his wife, Grace–a teacher at the nearby Clarke School for Hearing and Speech, lived in a rented duplex on Massasoit Street before their moves to Boston and Washington.
After leaving the White House in 1929, they returned to Northampton where he lived for the rest of his life. As a historical tidbit, he is the only President to have moved from a rented duplex to the White House—and back! They later moved to a larger house in Northampton to accommodate, as Coolidge commented, all the visitors of a “has-been President.”
Most historians note his calm, shy personality that appealed to the attitudes of the time.
His common sense and dry wit earned him a well-deserved reputation for being wise. Most of us recall that he earned the nickname “Silent Cal” because he refrained from giving public statements unless they were absolutely necessary, and when he did, they were short and to the point. How novel in this day and age! Just saying.
In 1924, Coolidge was nominated and ran for President on his own and, with all the campaign hoopla of the day, was elected in a landslide.
He campaigned on the promise of a “calm hand on the rudder of state” and “safe, sane, and steady” were emblazoned on his posters.
His reasoned demeanor and deliberate decision-making process sparked his campaign slogan—“Keep Cool with Cal.”
Voters bought into this and he was elected in a landslide.
But, on to music. In those early days of radio and rallies, campaign songs were the rage and Coolidge was first mentioned in one for the Harding campaignof 1920.
In the 1920s, these songs were catchy tunes with easy to remember and sing lyrics. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for one from the Harding campaign that was written by none other than the most popular musical performer in America of the day, Al Jolson!
For the 1924 election campaign of Coolidge and Charles Dawes, his running mate, there were several songs.
But, by far, the most memorable was “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” This was written for the “Home Town Coolidge Club” of Plymouth, Vermont, but soon became popular nationwide.
It was even performed on the White House lawn for the Coolidges, again by Al Jolson himself.
Here is a relatively recent recording of this tune by the performing musicologist Oscar Brand. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a listen.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for another iteration of this tune complete with newsreel footage of a rally back home in Northampton!
As a reminder that Coolidge was president during the dry (mostly) days of Prohibition . . .
. . . keep cool and listen to some words of wisdom from a hundred years ago.
So, to get ready for the super-hoopla of the 2024 election campaign, stay as masked as you need to be . . .
Every mid-February over the past four or five years I’ve done a musical musing pertaining to Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, there are tons of songs, sheet music covers, ukulele- or banjo-oriented cards, and YouTube recordings to give some sparkle to these.
This year, however, I’ve decided to do things a tad differently and focus on just one song, probably one of the most familiar and most covered songs of the “heart-shaped” genre—“My Funny Valentine.”
“My Funny Valentine” is a melancholy show tune from the Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart musical “Babes in Arms” . . .
. . . in which it was introduced by popular teen-aged actress and singer Mitzi Green.
“Babes in Arms” opened at the Shubert Theater on Broadway in 1937 and ran for 289 performances. In the original play, Mitzi Green’s character, “Billie” sings the song to her boyfriend “Val”—whose name matched the lyrics of the song.
In the song, “Billie” describes “Val’s” characteristics in unflattering and derogatory terms (at one point she describes his looks as “laughable,” in keeping with the title), but ultimately affirms that he makes her smile and that she doesn’t want him to change.
Alas, gentle readers, there seems to be no YouTube of her performance in the role. You may click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to see and hear her a couple of years before “Babes in Arms.” A teenager heading into adulthood!
She went on to an on-again, off-again career that faded by the 1950s. Some folks still remember, however.
“My Funny Valentine” lasted much, much longer and has become a jazz standard appearing in over 1300 albums performed by over 600 artists! Not too shabby for a minor-key, melancholy show tune from the Depression Era.
Here’s one of the earliest stand-alone recordings of this song, probably in the Mitzy Green style. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link for a listen.
What has given the song a long, long life in the musical world, however, is that the lyrics are sufficiently gender-neutral to allow the song to be sung by or about either gender, and a large proportion of the cover versions are by men describing a hypothetical woman. What’s not to like?
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link for a guy’s version of our song, sung to his daughter!
And, of course, there are innumerable jazz versions. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for one by Sarah Vaughan.
In addition to “My Funny Valentine,” several songs from the Broadway production of “Babes in Arms” have become jazz or pop standards—”Where or When,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Johnny One Note,” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again.”
But, back to Broadway in 1937.
Basically, the plot of the musical centered on a group of precociously talented teen-age children of impoverished vaudevillians–so-called “babes in arms”–banding together to oppose the closing of their small-town theater by stuffy, fiscally conservative, local authorities. They kids did it by by doing—what else?—“PUTTING ON A SHOW!“
That was Broadway; then along came Hollywood. Sorry Mitzi; hello Judy!
Delightful in its own right, the 1939 film version of “Babes in Arms” starred teenagers Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and was directed by the inimitable choreographer Busby Berkeley. However, it was–as Hollywood was wont to do–heavily massaged and rewritten. So, in the movie, the “babes” band together to prove to their pooh-poohing vaudevillian parents that they had real talent and could make it to Broadway on their own. Needless to say, they did this by doing–what else?–“PUTTING ON A SHOW!”So much for helping out the impoverished little theater in their home town.
The movie script — as significantly revamped, restructured, and rewritten to accommodate a Hollywood take on things–avoided much of the mildly leftist political slant of the original musical. And–tragedy of tragedies–left out almost all of the Rogers and Hart songs from the Broadway musical, including “My Funny Valentine.” Go figure!
Just for fun, however, click or tap on the next image or link to hear bits of the songs that did win the Broadway vs. Filmdom battle of 1939–with the full Hollywood treatment!
But, I digress . . .
Now, as far as ukuleles are concerned, there are quite a few out there in ukulele land with a valentine or sweetheart theme–minor or major key. Here for fun are a couple of “sweethearts” from my collection.
Now, before we go and spend the better part of the day opening all of the valentines that we’ll be getting from all of our sweethearts on the 14th, here is one of many, many YouTube versions of “My Funny Valentine.” Click or tap on the next triangle in the next image or link for a guitar instrumental that will give you a Valentine’s Day earworm for the next few days!
And of course, there are a lot of vintage cards that could easily fall into the “funny valentine” category. Sadly, there are way too many that, in my humble opinion, may be a tad to prurient for the eyes of many of my gentle readers. But just for fun let me focus on a few that fall into the more benign genre of “What Were They Thinking?”
So stay safe, stay sequestered (from everyone except your music loving valentine!), . . .
. . . stay as masked as you would like or need to be . . .
And, without question, stay a funny valentine!
And for those of you who just might be watching the Super Bowl this weekend . . .
Since we are still deep in the New England Winter doldrums, it might be worthwhile to take a peek at some of the songs we play or sing that keep us “by the fireplace” on days like this. Anyone skimming through a list of early country and folk songs will run into a genre with a certain chilly greyness to them: “Prison Songs.”
Songs about prisoners, jail time, and other forms of judicial restraint were well known by most folks—even if experienced by only a very few.
A night spent in the “hoosegow” to dry out or as punishment for a bit of wanton revelry was common.
Less common were months, years, or a lifetime in the “pen” or on a chain gang.
Newspapers, movies, and, needless to say, sheet music and songs on the radio kept folks reminded of the perils of punishment and, to a great extent, kept them on the right side of the law.
As would be expected, many prison songs can be tear jerkers as well as admonitions to the potentially wayward.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to hear one of the first recordings of what many believe to be the granddaddy of the prison song genre, appropriately named “The Prisoner’s Song.” This version was recorded in 1925 by Vernon Dalhart, one of the more popular country (or “hillbilly” as it was known then) singers of his day. Get ready to wipe a tear or two from your eyes!
It is said that Dalhart learned this song from a cousin who had learned it while in prison. That gives the tune some cred and, perhaps, that’s why it became one of the most played songs of the early 20th century.
And then, of course, there seemed to be just as many prison songs with a novelty or humorous touch
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link for this 1928 Jimmie Rogers yodeling interpretation of this much older jug-band standard: “In the Jailhouse Now”:
And, just for the fun of it, here’s a string band version of the tune, written much earlier than Roger’s opus but recorded just a few years ago by a group often appearing here in our “Happy Valley.” Remember them at the Iron Horse? Click or tap on the next image for a listen to this tune not about the perils of gambling but of voter fraud! How topical!
So, let’s move on with probably the most well-known—and certainly most covered—prison song out there: “Folsom Prison Blues.” This became Johnny Cash’s signature song since he first recorded it in 1955, and he opened nearly all of his concerts with this rhythmically pulsating—think “passing railroad train”—prisoner’s lament.
It is, however a tale of both Cash and cash–a bit of musical thievery, but with no jail time. That is unless you count Johnny Cash’s epic performance of the song at California’s Folsom Prison back in 1968.
Click or tap on the triangle in next image or link to listen in on one of his later prison concert presentations.
Although Cash cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail several times for various misdemeanors, he was never locked up for more than one night at a time—and never in Folsom Prison! Still credit goes with the territory. He did have this mug shot taken at Folsom Prison just to hand out as a souvenir. Creepy!
Now, on to the musical thievery!
The theme, and many of the lyrics Cash included in “his” signature song were actually lifted (stolen!) from an earlier song titled “Crescent City Blues” written in 1950 by one Gordon Jenkins, a composer and arranger. Cash had heard Jenkin’s song earlier while serving in the Air Force in Germany.
Jenkins, in turn, had based his melody (also used by Cash) and song title on a much earlier ragtime/jazz tune written and recorded by pianist “Little Brother” Montgomery. Ah, evolution . . .
The upshot is that Cash, who readily acknowledged his “borrowing” but thought it unnecessary to mention it at the time, had to spend nearly $100,000 on the copyright infringement suit filed against him by Jenkins in the 1970s.Cash from Cash!
Whew . . . After all that, click or tap on the next image or link to listen to the 1953 recoding of Jenkin’s song by singer Beverly Mahr. Do these lyrics sound familiar?
And, of course, there are a few hundred ukulele covers of the Cash version. Click or tap on the next image or link just for a bit of fun!
Well, back to dreary reality . . .
But, as an escape from within the high stone walls, chain gangs, or work farms of this musical musing . . .
. . . stay safe, stay innocent, stay un-incarcerated, stay as masked as you should, and . . . STAY TUNED!
And, just to brighten things up for you musical scientists out there . . .
Before we moved to “the 413” back in ’05, Alison and I had lived for many years in northern Virginia. Settled in the early 1600s, the so-called “Old Dominion” was, needless to say, strong on historical reminiscences and commemorations. So, in 1983, when the date for the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was set, it was conjoined with two other statewide celebrations that had been on the state’s docket for years. Virginians called this calendric convenience “Lee-Jackson-King” day—a curious amalgam of Civil War and Civil Rights history—observed until the year 2000.
What would Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., think about all that? Go figure.
Anyway, what does this have to do with music, banjos, and ukuleles? Well, for every photo or illustration I run across depicting African American men, women, or children playing a playing a banjo or a uke, too many are demeaning caricatures. And, way too many show whites in even more demeaning blackface makeup. I don’t need to illustrate these negatives in my musical musings when there are positives out there!
Those demeaning, but all too common, illustrations are testament to a history that should not be glossed over. But, these are not part of this special day we’ll be observing on Monday. So, for this posting, here are some photos of good folks having a good time making music in the past and—more importantly—today. And yes, they include ukuleles and a banjo or two!
Mid-January brings us to one of the newest and most meaningful of all American remembrances—Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Newspapers and television will be full of the history of this man and the movement he led to bring civil rights issues to public attention, to congress, and to the law of the land.
As meaningful as this is to us all—and since it will be thoroughly covered in other media—I’ll just stick with our theme and focus on a tiny facet of all this: music.
To begin, the phrase “Jim Crow,” with all its racial and civil rights connotations, had its origins in a song and dance routine from 1828 that was done in blackface makeup by a white minstrel performer, one Thomas Dartmouth Rice.
His song, “Jump Jim Crow,” is said to have been inspired by the singing and eccentric dancing of an African slave by that name. In the cultural context of the early Nineteenth Century, Rice’s song—and its multiplicity of verses—became overwhelmingly popular as he performed all over the country as “Daddy Jim Crow”.
As a result of Rice’s fame and the popularity of his song, by the mid-Nineteenth Century the term “Jim Crow” had morphed from the merely comic into a pejorative meaning a Black, Negro, or African American.
From this, laws and reguations enforcing racial segregation became known as “Jim Crow Laws.” These were endemic in towns, counties, and states throughout much of the country.
Rice’s song “Jump Jim Crow” was also a key initial step in a tradition of American popular music that was based on the imitation, if not outright mockery, of blacks.
The first song sheet edition of this tune appeared in the early 1830s, and a couple of decades later this genre exploded in popularity with the rise of the blackface minstrel show, both in America and abroad.
And, even in amateur theatricals.
A ukulele player who frequently appeared in blackface was Cliff Edwards, otherwise known as “Ukulele Ike.”
The Duncan Sisters were a popular duo and there were, of course, many other performers with or without ukuleles.
In retrospect, some of what was popular in the context of yesteryear’s popular music is not just unpopular today. Rather, it is unconscionable–way beyond merely politically incorrect.
Admittedly, this is a touchy topic for a posting. I much prefer levity, but we cannot move forward without looking back. The observation of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day gives us that opportunity. It is from history that we learn, even if filtered through the theme of music and our favorite musical instruments.
We cannot sweep history under the rug. We cannot unplay those songs. But, here is one song we should play.
This is a song to play over and over again on this important day of remembrance of a great American, his life’s work, and the historical context of our still imperfect society.
Pete Seeger recorded this song back in the late 1940s. His version–the one we hear most often today–was based on an interpretation of an old gospel hymn he had heard in the 1930s sung by Black tobacco workers in the fields of the South and a variation he had learned dating back to 1901 as sung in both Black and White labor union meetings in the North. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for his version:
And as a finale, tap or click on the next image to hear the Moorhouse College Glee Club in concert:
We have a lot to overcome in our society. But, with the humble tools we have, we shall.When will our song be “We Overcame?”
When I was in high school, way back in the middle of the last century, I bought two musical instruments at a local secondhand store. For a total of seventy-five cents I got a ukulele and—of all things—a bugle, both made of “genuine” plastic. The uke was a cheap “Carnival” brand but the bugle was sturdy Army surplus. Sadly, both are long gone from my various collections.
I strummed at the uke, learned the three or four chords that are all that are really necessary, had some fun, and set it aside until college. In those early days, however, I was in the high school band (trombone) and knew enough about tooting a horn to be able to play the bugle. Sorta . . .
We all know that with a ukulele and its four strings and dozen or so frets, one can play over fifty distinct notes and innumerable chords. The bugle, on the other hand, is one of the simplest of musical instruments.
It has no valves and pitch changes are achieved by “embrouchure,” that is to say, lip control. Consequently, the bugle is limited to only five notes, middle-C, G, C, E, and G—the basis for the entire repertoire of standard bugle calls!
While the musical range of the bugle is limited, the music surrounding the bugle and those who play it—buglers—can be quite a rhythmically and melodically complex. Take the famous”wake up call” . . .
The bugle, along with an array of drums, has long been a favorite marching group genre.
Alas, not so with the ukulele, even a nice loud banjolele!
And that, gentle readers, is what we are going to explore in this week’s musing.
Ancestors of the modern bugle were made of animal horns and have been used for communication and signaling since ancient times.
And, remember what the biblical Joshua did to the walls of Jericho with those animal horns!
Here’s a quite youthful take on the old, old Jericho spiritual on the ukulele, no less. Click or tap on triangle in the next image for a listen!
Needless to say, a more modern brass bugle has been used by military forces since the 17th century and most countries developed a series of standard bugle “calls” that could direct and regulate military life and actions.
After World War I . . .
. . . the bugle also became a standard part of the camp routine of the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, I even earned a merit badge for it! Toot, toot, tah!
American and British music publishers touched on bugle themes in the 19th century and early 1900s.
Even the suffragettes joined in!
But, particularly during World War I, the bugle became a rallying trope!
This one was written by Irving Berlin as part of a World War I era musical review for troops returning from France. Tap or click on triangle in the next image or link to rise up with this one.
Here’s a Ted Lewis rendition of this swing favorite of the 1920s. Click or tap on the next image or link to start to swing and sway
One of the more musically intriguing versions of this one is by the Mills Brothers. All of the “instruments”–including the bugle and other horns being “played” are actually vocal sound effects. What fun! Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link for this really different sound.
The popularity lasted through the World War II era . . .
with, probably, the most well-known “bugle song” ever!
Here we have the Andrews sisters with this one. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to hear their lively version!
Since this is the 21st Century, why not a Zoom/Ukulele version of this old chestnut–one singer, three screens. Wow! Click or tap on the next image for this high-tech treat!
There were other songs, of course.
Now here’s an rchestral version of this classic along with some really nice graphics! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to watch and listen.
Back to basics! The three or four best known bugle call that most of us know and relate to today seem to be:
First, the good old “wake up” call of “Reveille.” So as to not jar you awake with this one, here it is on a ukulele! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to see the simplicity of fingering for this one.
Then there is the “Call to Post” that brings horses and riders to the gate in the Kentucky Derby. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image or link to thrill to this one!
Omnipresent at any sporting event where the stadium organist has the stage is the good old cavalry bugle call “Charge.”Here’s a musically augmented take on this simplest of bugle calls. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image or link to be taken out to the ball park. How many times have you heard this one?
And, probably, the most moving five note melody ever composed—“Taps,” as played at the end of the camp day or at military funerals. Click or tap on the next image to hear this tearjerker clip from the movie “From Here to Eternity.”
The British Commonwealth’s equivalent to “Taps” is “Last Post.” Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to this poignant call of remembrance.
So, while we contemplate the hundreds of combinations of notes and chords we have available to us as we strum on our favorite little musical instrument, the ukulele, let’s appreciate what can be done with only five single notes!
So, stay safe and stay as masked as neede to protect your lungs and embrouchure,
and STAY TUNED!
So, give a salute to all those veterans out there and remember: There’s no substitute for the real thing!
This is the time of the year here in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts, when home and farm gardens–as well as farm stands and markets–are filled with the bountiful produce of the year. Spring planting, summer tilling, and fall harvesting make the cycle from garden to table that we all look forward to.
As an example, here’s the haul from one of Alison’s and my Sunday “farm market” drives here in our “Happy Valley.”
Garden produce has been a common theme for writers of both prose and poetry and, not to be left out, for musicians as well. Needless to say, there are many examples of so-called “fruit and vegetable” songs out there from the early days and also quite a few about the folks who plant, harvest, and sell these. So, gentle readers, let’s take a look out there to see what we can gather and, of course, take a musical taste.
But first, it should be noted that many of the early tunes that fit within this “fruit and vegetable” musing were written as “rags,” that is to say in “ragtime.”
As a too brief intro to this historical musical form, ragtime originated in African-American music in the late 19th century and descended from the lively dance and march music played by Black piano players and bands.
By the start of the 20th century, ragtime music became widely popular throughout North America and was listened and danced to, performed, and written by people of many different subcultures, particularly those Tin Pan Alley sheet music publishers.
A distinctly American musical style, ragtime is considered a synthesis of African syncopation and European classical form. Just for fun, as a real “crossover style,” consider the marches made popular by John Philip Sousa . . .
. . . who would often rearrange and perform his more formal compositions in ragtime, particularly as audience-pleasing encore pieces. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to hear “Stars and Stripes Forever” played in ragtime, Sousa style!
Ragtime is usually written in 4/4 or 2/4 time and sometimes in 3/4 time as a “waltz rag.” If you listen carefully to the piano part of a ragtime song, you’ll hear a left-hand pattern of strong bass notes on beats 1 and 3, with chords on 2 and 4. Meanwhile the right hand plays a syncopated, often called “ragged” melody. Hence the name.
Ragtime music had a resurgence in the 1970s when the movie “The Sting” won seven Oscars including “Best Picture.” Because of this, many performers and listeners rediscovered the music of composer and pianist Scott Joplin–considered the “King of Ragtime Composers.”
Many of the earliest ragtime tunes–such as Joplin’s–were written for solo piano or as instrumental dance band music without lyrics. Composers gave them fanciful “rag” titles more to differentiate between tunes in their portfolios rather than to provide some sort of musical description of their subject matter. Here’s a good example of a lyric-less, musically generic “vegetable rag” from 1910. It could just as easily have been called “The Happy Valley Rag” or “The Ukulele Rag” or whatever. It would still sound the same!
Here’s a simple version of this tune with an adjacent piano score that you can follow and see just how the basic ragtime style is played. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen.
A lot of our “fruit and vegetable” tunes fit into that ragtime, no-lyrics category. To me, the sheet music cover graphics are often as much fun as the music! See what I mean?
Later, more “fruit and vegetable” songs were published with lyrics and most were quite danceable one- and two-steps as well as rags. Needless to say, novelty songs both in ragtime and other forms were the rage.
Here’s a delightful, albeit contemporary, take on this Irving Berlin “fruit” song. Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for some fun!
Now let’s take a look at a few more of these tunes starting with gardens themselves. Not only did these fill the family larders but they often seemed like favorite trysting spots too. Ah youth!
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for a whistling and singing rendition of this oldie along with some nice ukulele strumming. The YouTube is a bit long as it moves along into a tutorial which you can strum along with or not. Your choice at the garden gate!
And there are a few vegetables that we left out but must not be forgotten!
And, here’s one of the best of the old vegetable tunes.
The phrase “she knows her onions” is a down home term for “one smart cookie” who “knows her stuff.” So much for roaring twenties slang! Tap or click on the next image for a “vegetable” singing and dancing treat.
And, let’s not forget all of those “spuds” or “taters” songs out there.
Here’s a version of one of these with some nice strumming on a six-string ukulele–a variation on that little musical instrument not seen that often! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a down home treat!
Now I searched high and low (quite low may be a tad obvious . . .) to find a performer with a “vegetable name.” Needless to say, a rare breed! But, never fear, I remembered that late, well-dressed (well?) Grand Ole Opry clown and great old-time clawhammer banjo picker–“Stringbean!” Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for something a bit different. Not a “fruit and vegetable song” but his name is right!
Moving on, we can’t leave fruit out of our musical mix, now can we?
And, there are a few rather suggestive, if not quite X-rated, songs out there!
And, one of the great fruit songs of the 1920s.
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to listen in on this overly popular ( to some) oldie. There’s a rather long instrumental introduction to this but the lyrics show up sooner or later!
The over-popularity of that song led to the writing of this one!
Here’s a ukulele version (I found one, believe it or not!) of this tune. It starts slowly then slips (ahem) into high gear! Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for this one.
And, of course, many others.Some sweet, some sour!
This one is not about a specific fruit. Rather, it’s about a fruit “product.” Worthy of inclusion as far as I’m concerned.
So, gentle readers, as we sit down to the table for homemade pie, fruit salad, or vegetable soup, stay as safe, sequestered, and masked as we feel the need to be these days . . .
And remember to laugh in our gardens as well as enjoy the harvest . . .
Here’s one from a few of years back that I keep polishing and updating and reposting. I do this because of the confluence of two of the most important days of the year! Some say . . .
Anyway, enjoy–and for many of you gentle readers who have let me onto your screens over the past few years–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 strive to 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 except in song!
And, “shadowy” songs are out there!
Here’s another that we can take a listen to. Shadow Walz was featured in “the “Gold Diggers of 1933,” one of the great musical review movies of the depression era.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell over-the-top take on this shadow tune!
This next one is one of my favorite shadow songs of the era.
“Me and My Shadow” was published in 1927. Officially the credits show it as written by Al Jolson, Billie Rose, and Dave Dreyer. Alas, Jolson was often given credits on sheet music so he could earn more money by popularizing them, but he played no actual part in writing this song and never recorded it! Those were the shady song-plugging days of Tin Pan Alley. But, dozens of others did making it one of the jazz standards of the day!
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to listen to one of the earlier recordings and one of the few that includes the verse.
Now if you want to take the time and have a bit of fun, here’s an example of what became a favorite vaudeville routine based on our song–the “shadow dance.” It starts a bit slowly but the hammed up performance by Zero Mostel and Tommy Tune is worth the wait! So, click or tap on the triangle in the next image for the intro by Dean Martin and the “schticky” performance of the dancers!
Now, back to our furry friend of the day. 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! (Probably never!)
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!
At the risk of all my vegan and vegetarian friends—to say nothing of those simply of the squeamish persuasion—I must add a good ole recipe for groundhog stew. Well, why not?
Or, take the easy way out.
Now go seek out a groundhog, before he sees his shadow, and chase him back into his hole with a tune on “World Play Your Ukulele Day!”
Stay Tuned! And, stick with groundhog music instead of stew . . . .
Or, maybe, some groundhog cupcakes and milk while we wait for the shadowy forecast!