UKULELE MUSINGS, 21 AUGUST 2021: Trains, Prisons, And A Tale of Musical Thievery, Sorta . . .

Anyone skimming through a list of early country and folk songs will quickly run into two prevalent, often piggybacked genres: “Train Songs” and “Prison Songs.” 

Part of this is because of the dominance of railroads and trains, especially linking communities of the rural and heartland with the rest of urbanizing America.  In those days everyone knew the train schedules, knew of the skills and hazards of railroad operations and building, and knew railway workers who were found in nearly every family. Women too! 

It was a deep-seated part of American life and railroads offered work, movement, adventure, and—increasingly—escape. 

No wonder that railroad trains are an integral part of American folkways and, of course, music.  Our Yellow and Blue Books, as well as many others, are full of these simple songs of the sweet old days of “ridin’ the rails.”

On the other side of the musical coin, prisons, prisoners, jail time, and other forms of judicial restraint were well known by everyone—even if experienced by only a 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. 

I could spend a year or so musing on only these two musical genres, but, for this go-around,  I’m just going to touch on the latter–prison songs.  And then, wind up with the one song that has it all—trains AND prison. And, a tale of both Cash and cash . . . 

The Cash/cash backstory here tells a tale of “musical thievery” and, of course, an appropriate penalty.  Oh yes, there’s some ukulele stuff too!

Now, as would be expected, many prison songs can be tear jerkers as well as admonitions to the potentially wayward. 

Click or tap on 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.   Dalhart’s other best-selling song was, by the way, a train song: “The Wreck of the Old 97.”  It figures.

And then, of course, there were just as many prison songs with a novelty or humorous touch.  Click or tap on 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 that Roger’s opus but recorded just a few years ago by a group often appearing here in Northampton. 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! Not a ukulele but some great banjo picking!

Along with those about trains, our songbooks are chock full of those prison songs that—one way or another—remind we law-abiding folks about those among us who may not be so.  Ah, the well-known price of a life of crime!

So, let’s move on with probably the most well-known—and certainly most covered—train/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.   

But there is a bit of musical thievery here with no jail time—unless you count Johhny Cash’s epic (and, of course, recorded) performance at California’s Folsom Prison back in 1968!

Click or tap on the 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! 

Now, on to the musical thievery!

The theme, and many of the lyrics Cash included in “his” signature song were actually lifted 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 spent 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?   

If any of you fellow strummers (particularly you ladies) might be interested, the lyrics for “Crescent City Blues” can be found at this link:   https://genius.com/Beverly-mahr-crescent-city-blues-lyricsThis might make a nice addition for our Yellow Books!

And, of course, there are a few hundred ukulele covers of the Cash version.  Click or tap on the next image or link, however, for a bit of fun!

Musical Instruments, including ukuleles, were often gifted to prisoners, particularly POWs.

As to prison-made ukuleles, I could only find a couple of examples.  I’m sure there are a few more but our friends at Google need to try a bit harder!  For example, here is a uke made by a World War II Australian POW, now in a local ANZAC museum.

Alas, the next is a prison-made “guitar” (a uke, sorta) made of cardboard stitched together with twisted plastic bags!  It was not to be played, just displayed. 

I guess that prison authorities had some misgivings about the potential lethality of long, steel guitar strings that might find an alternative use in a dreary and dangerous prison setting.  SAD  .  .  .

So, 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 masked, and  .  .  .  STAY TUNED!

And for you scientist ukers out there . . .

UKULELE MUSINGS, 13 August 2021: THE HIATUS IS OVER! SORTA . . .

Hi Fellow Strummers.  The hiatus is over!  Sorta  .  .  .

Alison and I have settled (more or less) into our new home in the Lathrop Community here in Easthampton, Massachusetts. 

It’s just a couple of miles from our old place in Northampton that many of you fellow ukers have visited over the years. So, while we have let the old house go, we are happily hanging on to our Happy Valley community!  Remember the sweet old, maskless days?

Although the distance between the two houses is short, the effort to sell, pack, move, and nestle has taken an inordinate amount of time, will, and energy—particularly when relocating the infamous banjo and ukulele collection.  Never fear, however; it’s all here!   

Our email addresses stay the same.  The “Ukulele Musings” blog address hasn’t changed.  And, as long as my musical muse continues to prod me to ponder, research, strum, write, and post,  I’m “Back in the Saddle Again!” 

This is kind of a hokey tune to home in on, but the title says it all; and, after all, it is in our Yellow Book. Anyway, here’s a fun ukulele version of this Gene Autry musical chestnut from 1939. Click or tap on the next link or image for a bit of a practice session singing along with the singing cowboy himself!

Moving on (ahem), I did a quick search for any songs about moving days, packing and unpacking boxes, arranging and rearranging furniture but found few that touched those basic bases. Here might be a good idea though . . . 

Perhaps not!

Anyway, the themes of “houses and homes” pervades American popular music so it’s pretty low-hanging fruit to pick through. And, needless to say, more than a few of the tunes do, in one way or another, home in on domiciles or dwellings–albeit in a variety of quite inapplicable genres relative to our present circumstances!  Anyway, it’s fun to take a peek at a few of these “house” songs.

Just to set the mood, here’s a modern string band version of this music hall song written way, way back in 1901. It’s a bit maudlin and doesn’t have a thing to do with our move, but it is about a house! Tap or click on the next image or link, grab a hankie, and listen to this tale of a little boy, his house, and–alas– his too busy mother.

Although our new place was spotless and vermin free on move-in day, here’s another not quite appropriate “house” tune with great cover graphics!

And still another–this one more descriptive of the moving process rather than our new house!

You ragtime fans might want to listen to a syncopated piano version of this oldie that, once again, doesn’t have much to do with our move. But it’s another “house” song, again with great graphics on the cover. Click or tap on the next image or link to follow the chart and give a listen.

Anyway, here we are, Alison and I are home at last–sorta!

Moving on again (ahem, ahem), while this next tune certainly does NOT describe the quality of the house (or neighborhood) we have moved to, here is one of my favorite “house” songs, this one from 1932: “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.”  

Click or tap on the next image or link to listen to the original Ted “Is everybody happy?” Lewis recording of this oldie!

Needless to say, this tune has become a great jazz standard and has many ukulele covers on YouTube.  Here’s one  to have some fun with. Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to some nice strumming.

If you want to try it yourself, you can get a chart from our good friend from “south of the border” (Connecticut/Massachusetts, that is), Dr. Uke.  For a thousand or so other great (and free) uke charts, just Google his website and be impressed! https://www.doctoruke.com/songs.html

And, of course, here is the ultimate ukulele “house” song, this time in the so-called “hapa haole” style!

Click or tap on the next image or link for a real ukulele (and hula) homemade Hawaiian treat! Almost as good as Spam and eggs!

Moving on (ahem, ahem, ahem), the same thing is true with songs about packing—“Pistol Packin’ Mama” just doesn’t strike quite the right chord here and probably is not PC these days. But a ukulele cover of this oldie from the 1950s is just too good to pass up. Click or tap on the next image or link just for fun!

I won’t even go near any of the hundreds of “Truck” songs out there.  Oh well, maybe “On the Road Again.”  After all, it is one of our favorites from our Yellow Book. Click or tap on the next link or image for this fun one.   

Enough for tunes; now for ukuleles!  I did a posting a couple of years ago on cigar box ukuleles. Not moving boxes but close, sorta!

But what I did run across in my internet wanderings are a number of ukuleles (and uke cases) made—of all things—cardboard moving boxes!  I can’t vouch for how they compare soundwise to my solid Koa Snowshoe but, here they are!

I think my Snowshoe wins! But, I guess this might be the silver lining of the cloud-filled moving process for some ukers. But, What would we do without boxes and, for that matter, our kitties and ukuleles?  

Settling in now, be aware that these musical musings of mine will continue as long as my will and wit are willing to work together, but probably not on a weekly basis as for the past four or five years.  After all, we did move to a retirement community!

You can always check out some of my musings from the past, however, by going to nohobanjoandukulele.blog and scrolling amongst the offerings. Here stacked up in my new studio/shop/office space are most of them–saved on paper in three-ring binders the old-fashioned way!   

Oh yes, while our new home is in what is described as a “retirement community,” Alison and I are getting to know a lot of quite lively, certainly not “retiring” new neighbors.  And, yes! There is music!

So good friends—new and old—give me some slack but, nonetheless, stay safe, stay strumming, and STAY TUNED!  And alas, once again as they say we must, stay masked and, of course, keep moving on! 

UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, 20 February 2021: Announcing a Hiatus, But “We’ll Meet Again!”

Hi Fellow Strummers and Blog Followers,

This is a note to let you know that Alison and I will be moving to the Easthampton Lathrop Community sometime in the next few months.

That’s only a couple of miles away from our present home in Northampton, but it still means means that we are both going to be busy, busy, busy preparing our Ice Pond Drive house for sale, sorting and packing stuff, and preparing to settle into our new home — a lot of work even if it’s only five minutes away and a lot of ukuleles to move!

Needless to say, this is going to be a big job and is going to occupy a lot of our mental and physical energy until we get settled into our new digs.  For that reason, I will be putting my weekly “Ukulele Musings” blog on hold until after we make our transition. Who knows when, but I’m hoping to be back on line sometime this Spring. We’ll see!

You can still access nearly all of my weekly blog postings for the past three or four years by going to nohobanjoandukulele.blog and scrolling down the list—something to do in your spare time!  And, I will certainly let all of you know when I begin to post again.

Needless to say, once this pandemic has passed and we can again get together on Saturday mornings, I will be joining with you with banjo uke in hand! 

Until then, I have to figure out where to show off my banjo and ukulele collections in a new environment.  Looking forward!

So, stay safe, stay sequestered, stay masked, and STAY TUNED! And, of course, “We’ll Meet Again.” Click or tap on the next image for this old musical chestnut. No ukulele here, but something “looking forward!”

Bruce Kriviskey

Nohobanjo of Northampton, Massachusetts           

Soon to be: Nohobanjo of Easthampton, Massachusetts — Still in “The Hamptons,” so to speak . . .                                            

UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, No. 7, 13 February 2021: “A Valentine, But In a Minor Key”

Every mid-February over the past three or four years I’ve done a musing pertaining to Valentine’s Day.  Needless to say, there are tons of songs, sheet music covers, ukulele-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 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 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 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 next image or link for a listen.

What has given the song a long, long life in the musical world 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 next image or link for a guy’s version of our song.

And, of course, there are innumerable jazz versions. Click or tap on 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.”  

Back to Broadway in 1937.

Basically, the plot of the musical centered on a group of precociously talented teen-age children of impoverished vaudevillians (their so-called “babes in arms”) banding together to oppose the closing of their small-town theater by stuffy local authorities 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 Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and was directed by the inimitable choreographer Busby Berkeley. However, it was, as Hollywood was wont to do, massaged and rewritten. So, in the movie, the “babes” band together to prove to their theatrical and vaudevillian parents that they had real talent and could make it to Broadway on their own. Needless to say, they did this by “putting on a show!” So much for helping out the theater in their home town.

The movie script — as significantly revamped, restructured, and rewritten to accommodate Hollywood’s take on things — left out much of the mildly leftist political slant of the original musical. And — tragedy of tragedies — almost all of the Rogers and Hart songs from the Broadway musical were discarded, including “My Funny Valentine.”  Go figure.

Just for fun, however, click or tap on the next image or link to hear bits of songs that survived from 1937 to 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 just a few.

And, of course, a favorite “sweetheart” from my collection:

Now, before we go and spend the better part of the day opening all of our valentines that we’ll be getting from our sweethearts on the 14th, here is one of many, many YouTube ukulele versions of “My Funny Valentine.” Click or tap on the next image or link for one showing off a rather rare member of the uke family–a “Harp Ukulele.” Our song is also in our Yellow Book if you want to follow along

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 you gentle readers. But just for fun let me focus on a few that fall into the more benign genre of “What Were They Thinking?

Whew!

So stay safe, stay sequestered (from everyone except your strumming valentine!), . . .

. . . stay masked . . .

. . . and STAY TUNED!

And, without question, STAY FUNNY!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, No. 6, 6 February 2021–“We’re New Englanders! Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it snow!”

I’m looking out the window onto a snowy, snowy landscape–with eleven inches on the ground and more on the way.  Needless to say, I am happy to be retired with no “shoulds or musts” on the calendar, just waiting for the plow guy to show up. (He did!) 

Having lived for many years in northern climes and then northern Virginia before “escaping” to New England, Alison and I were always amused at the way folks “down South” panicked at the mere thought of snow.

So, needless to say, my musical muse began to–shall we say–snowball!

Let’s warm up, so to speak, with a bit of “Winter Ragtime.” Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to this oldie from 1906.

Looking back on songs of long ago, it seems that winter and snow were common themes—particularly  touching on romance or recreation or both. 

None, however, touch on the non-romantic, non-beautiful aspects of a heavy snowfall and its effect on simply going about one’s business.  That is, no songs about shovels, black ice, or just plain COLD! Well, maybe a few . . .

Bear with me, gentle readers, as I pull from my memory one of the more obscure tunes that touches on the theme–“Twas a Cold Winter’s Evening” also known as “O’Leary’s Bar.” Click or tap on the next image or link to hear a couple of fellow octogenarians work their way through this college-days oldie. They are a bit fuzzy on the lyrics but, otherwise, ageless!

If you–and who wouldn’t!–like the chords to this one, here they are. So, grab a pint and a uke and off you go!

[G7]Twas a [C]cold winters evening, the [F]guests were all leaving,
O'[C]Leary was [F]closing [G]bar. When he [C]turned and he said
To the [F]lady in red: “Get [C]out you can’t [F]stay where you [C]are.” [G7]
Sheeee . . . [C]shed a sad tear in her [F]bucket of beer,
As she [C]thought of the [F]cold night a-[C]head.
[G7] When a [C]gentleman handsome stepped [F]over the transom,
and [C]these are the [F]words that he [C]said:

[G7] “Her [C]mother [F]never told [C]her the [F]things a young girl should [C]know. [C]About the [F]ways of college [C]boys
and [D7]how they come and [G]go . . . mostly [G7]go.
Now [C]age has [F]taken her [C]beauty, and [F]sin has left it’s sad [E7]scar.
Sooooo Re-[F]member your mothers and [C]sisters [F]boys,
And [D7]let her sleep [G]under the [C]bar. — [G]Next [Am7]to [G]the [C7] gin.

I digress however, as I am wont to do from time to time.

But, moving on, there is some romance (or romantic intentions) to be found in the notion of “Cold.” Brrrrrr.

Here’s the song in its film version from 1949. Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to this beautifully performed counter-duet. Who knew that Ricardo Montalban could sing?

Cold, snowy weather can bring about forced sequestration with which, sadly, we are way too pandemically familiar.  But, let’s move on with a look at some of the early wintry music sheets.   

Alas, I couldn’t find a YouTube of this rather odd but snow-related song. Anyway, click or tap on the next image or link for a great rendition of the 1970s song by the same name as sung and played by the late Doc Watson.

And, alas, there is the notion of “snow” as metaphor for life . . .

Moving on, we mustn’t forget those snowy winter sports and ways to play with or in the snow!

And, of course, the old favorite, as found in our Yellow Book. 

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” was written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne in 1945. Not really coping with the reality of winter, it was written in sunny, snowless Hollywood back in 1945 during a heat wave. Ah, musical imagination!

Here is one of the earlier recordings of this wintry roasted chestnut. Click or tap on the next image for a listen to Rosemary Clooney on this one.

Now here is probably a better notion of what Cahn and Styne were really thinking way back then–and with a ukulele no less! Click or tap on the next image or link to be as transported as they were.

Now, what about wintry, snowy ukuleles–plenty out there to peek at through our snowglasses!

And, of course, our favorite wintry ukulele made right here in our Happy Valley.

And, delightedly, here is me with mine on a decidedly unwintry day!

So stay safe, stay socially sequestered, stay scheduled for your vaccination, stay masked . . .

. . . and, even if snowbound, STAY TUNED!

And think SPRING!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, No. 5, 30 January 2021: Longingly Looking Up To Canada

I’ve become aware, over the past three or four years, that a lot of folks have contemplated “escaping” from the good old USA to what they believe to be safer, or at least more comfortable, havens in other lands.  One of the top choices has always been our neighbor to the north, Canada.  Maybe with the turn of events this past month, that notion will die back a bit but, why not direct a musical muse in that direction?  Besides, who doesn’t like Mounties!

Or poutine!

Canada has long been an attractive refuge from the varieties and vagaries of US politics and policies. For example, there were the Loyalists of the American Revolution and the draft objectors of the Vietnam era.  And, musically speaking, Prohibition in the USA was another factor driving thirsty folks to head up north.

Canada has long been known for the variety of music from the cowboy songs of the Rocky Mountain West to the Celtic and Acadian music of the maritime east. 

It has also been strongly influenced both by its neighbor to the south—us!—and its motherlands to the east—the British Isles and France and the rest of Europe. 

Needless to say, the music of Canada is way, way too vast—like the country itself—to be explored by my simple form of musing. But, soldier on I must! 

One can see that the music of Canada is not just Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians,

nor Harry Reser and his Cliquot Club Eskimos.

But I must limit myself, gentle readers, and touch on just one theme that has long been a fascination to me—the ragtime era rush to the frozen gold fields of the Klondike and the Yukon. Brrrrrrrr!

But first, a lively ragtime tune to get us warmed up during this freezing winter month.

Here’s a showy version of this song by that great pianist from just a bit south of the Canadian border (Wisconsin, no less). Click or tap on the next image or link for a look and listen.

Just as in the USA, Canadians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a fascination with the “piano in the parlor” and the tunes of those early years clearly was “ragtime.” We could also call it “gold rush” music!

The late, late 19th century brought thousands of seekers (if not finders) of gold to the wilds of Northwest Canada and Alaska.  And, needless to say, songwriters on both sides of the border recognized these “sourdoughs” and their travails.

Tap or click on the next image or link to hear this ragtime nugget!

Care to try “The Maple Leaf Rag,” on the ukulele anyone? Scott Joplin was, of course, not Canadian but this ragtime tune certainly has some Canadian cred! Tap or click on the next image or link to hear this on a six-string “guitalele.” A ragtime treat as good as poutine!

But, the greatest “song” writer of the gold rush days didn’t actually compose songs as we think of them but poetry; or, as he insisted it be called, “verse.” 

Born in England of Scottish descent, Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was a bank clerk by trade, but spent long periods travelling in Western America and Canada, often in some poverty. When his bank sent him to the Yukon, he was inspired by tales of the Gold Rush and began to dabble in writing verse based on what he saw and learned.

Despite having no actual experience of gold mining, he showed remarkable authenticity in his use of vivid “miner’s” language and he enjoyed immediate and huge popularity. Regarded by many as “the Kipling of Canada,” he wrote dozens of the most popular, most published, and most recited “story songs” of his day. 

Click or tap on the next image or link for what is probably his best-known “song,” and one that touches on the theme of ragtime music.  Sorry no musical (piano or ukulele) accompaniment with this one, but it’s worth the time to both read and hear his verse.  

Now for another look, this time with some really nice guitar and old-time banjo, here is a more modern take on the times and tragedies of the Gold Rush days.  Tap or click on the next image or link to give a listen and look to this one.

So, what we have when we think of Canada is folk music, music hall music, vaudeville music, popular music, and—yes!—ukuleles and ukulele music. 

And, of course, we have to wind up this rambling musing with a ukulele version of–what else?–“Oh Canada.” Click or tap on the next image or link for a ukulele take (certainly not ragtime, however) on Canada’s National Anthem.

So, stay safe, stay warm (as we New Englanders and those Canadians know how to do),

stay sequestered, stay masked . . .

And let’s stay in our own countries–as long as we can and want!


UKULELE MUSING 2021, No. 4, 23 January 2021: Waiting, Waiting, Waiting . . .

I don’t know about the rest of you strummers out there but, to me, the past few months (year?) have been ones of WAITING.  Waiting for “this” to end, waiting for “that” to begin, waiting for things to “go away,” waiting for things to simply “get better.”  The year without ending–2020.

There is, of course, the so-called “light at the end of the tunnel” but the route through seems long and the number of tunnels ahead are unknown–politically or pandemically. 

But, while there is always “hope,” my musical muse this week is pushing me toward the more pensive words of “waiting,” “wait,” “waited.”   

Let’s start with one of the earliest so-called “wait songs.” This was “Wait for the Wagon,” first published in 1851, that became a popular dance tune during the Civil War and an advertising freebie for the earliest of automobile companies.

Tap or click on the next image to hear a re-interpretation of this oldie. No ukuleles in this one but there is some good finger picking on a fretless banjo. You don’t hear one of those played that often!

There’s a batch of similar songs out there from those good old musical days, so—no more waiting, gentle readers—here we go!

By far, most of the “waiting songs” deal with the absence and anticipation of finding romance or reuniting with it.

Here’s this song from the movie “The Harvey Girls” sung by Kenny Baker. They girl isn’t Judy Garland, the star of the film, rather it’s Cyd Charisse–a much better dancer! Click or tap on the next image or link to see them in action.

While much of this longing had to do with good old boy/girl romance, the separations of wartime brought on particularly poignant songs.

Still others could be construed as a bit of salacious longing for an amorous lover’s (or over-amorous lecher’s) tryst.

And it gets worse: turns out our lover boy is a phone stalker, way back in 1919:

“Willie Snow each night would go to see his sweetheart Flo.
Her folks would always sit around the room until he’d go.
Willie never had a chance to be with her alone,
But this is what he’d tell her when he’d call her on the phone:

Wait ’till I get you alone!
Wait ’till I get you alone!

When there’s no one around to see,
I’ll make you give me all the love you promised me.
Wait ’till I get you alone.

When there is nobody home,
Your mother surely ought to know I love you so.
But she don’t understand and I want her to know,
That I’m not made of ice because my name is Snow!

Oh, wait ’till I get you alone… “

And, of course, others were just about waiting for something good to happen—luck or romance.

This one was a wartime favorite. Tap or click on the next image or link for a ride on this one.

Here’s another “waiting song,” this one by Jimmie Rogers who, as the “Singing Brakeman,” has some serious railroad cred!

Click or tap on the next image or link for a ukulele–plastic, no less–version of this sad, sad song.

First trains then ships! Here’s a recording of this one by the old crooner himself. Click or tap on the next image or link for a soothing, but melancholy, listen.

Now, on to something a bit peppier! This one is a great ragtime tune from 1912 that has found it’s way onto the vaudeville stage and into several movies over the years.

Alas, too many of the YouTubes of this tune feature a bit too much minstrel or blackface imagery for this little musing, but here is one take that captures the lively tune without too much tarnish. Click or tap on the next image or link to check out a pair of our favorite performers, doing their version of a “shuffle”–one of them backwards and in heels!

So, as some of the things we have waited and waited for have come to pass, and others are on the horizon, we still play “the waiting game.”

This Irving Berlin song was recorded by many singers back in the early days of the Great Depression. Tap or click on the next image or link to hear an Ethel Waters version from 1929.

This one is probably one of the most performed of the “wait songs.”

Here’s an early recording of this oldie. Tap or click on the next iamge or link for a lively version.

And, of course, we have a ukulele version of this one with some pretty fancy finger picking! Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen.

So, wait, but stay safe; wait, but stay sequestered; wait, but stay masked . . .

and—above all—wait and STAY TUNED!

As long as we’re not naughty!

And, let’s NOT wait without a sense of humor!  How about adding ukuleles to waiting rooms?

UKULELE MUSINGS 202I, No. 3–16 January 2021: A Counterpoint To Waaaay Too Much News!

For those of you who—like Alison and me—are glued to the news these days, it seems that everything is being split into EXTREMES!  There is right/left, red/blue, old/new, whew/whew . . .

An upshot of all this is that I keep returning to another musical earworm of mine, one that pulls extremes together but into a harmonious whole.  The song that keeps sticking in my mind is simplicity itself but, nonetheless, complex—“Play a Simple Melody” by the great Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter Irving Berlin.   What could be simpler than that?  Old Time/Ragtime? Hmmm  . . .

Play a Simple Melody” is a song from the 1914 Broadway musical “Watch Your Step,” with all the songs and music written by Berlin himself. 

The show was the first stage musical he wrote and the production was conceived primarily to show off the fancy footwork of the famed ballroom dancers Irene and Vernon Castle, as well as Berlin’s songs. 

The one non-dancing number from “Watch Your Step” that is well-remembered today is our song, “Play a Simple Melody.

This song is one of musical extremes—called by musicians “counterpoint.”  While often used in opera, our song was one of the earliest examples found in American popular music.  Unlike in a “round” that uses the same lyrics and melody offset and overlapping, counterpoint uses a first melody played against a different melody, each with independent lyrics.  Berlin was a master of these so-called “double songs” and several of his are written this way. For those of you who are musically curious, here’s a look at the original sheet music.

After an intro “verse” to set the scene, the “simple melody” plays alone. Then comes the contrasting melody and lyrics.

Finally, the two play together, both within the same key and chord progression!

The lyrics of “Play a Simple Melody” also track  a counterpoint duet in that one singer yearns for the music which “mother” sang (the style of a bygone generation), but the other singer disdains such classic fare as lacking interest and rhythm.  That is to say, “It ain’t ragtime!”

The score’s roadmap is a bit tricky to follow, but you’ll catch on once you listen to the YouTube. 

Here’s a recording of our song made way back in 1916.  Most subsequent recordings skip the intro verse but it’s worth a listen.  Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to this scratchy but original one.

And, of course, here is one out of a couple of dozen offerings on YouTube with a ukulele accompaniment, and some tricky computer imagery.  Click or tap on the next image or link for this one—not in either our Blue or Yellow books, however, but often a “show stopper” when performed.

Moving on, here are a couple of other “counterpoint songs” just for fun—another by Berlin and then one by Meredith Willson from “The Music Man.” 

Tap or click on the next image or link for a 21st Century, Washington, DC, take on Berlin’s song “Old Fashioned Wedding” from his 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” (As an aside, I remember hearing these guys performing at the Obama, not the Trump, inauguration festivities! Counterpoint? You betcha!)

And here’s what has evolved into a barbershop standard, “Lida Rose” from the 1956 musical “The Music Man.”

Click or tap on the next image or link to peek at a computer enhanced “quartet” with soprano version of this one.

So, in these hectic and newsy days, let’s think “counterpoint” rather than “conflict.”  Needless to say, gentle readers, it’s much prettier that way!

Now, to wind (tune?) things up this week, let’s go back to our original song and listen to a 1990s recording of “Play a Simple Melody” sung by Jean Stapleton, with the Muppets, and—oh, yes—a ukulele (sorta) accompaniment.  Click or tap on the next image or link to chuckle along with this one!

So, as we all move along to the next week of “news to be glued to,” let’s all stay safely away from capitol buildings (not ukulele stuff) . . .

. . . stay sequestered (away from Washington, DC) . . .

. . . stay masked  .  .  .

.  .  .  and STAY TUNED!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, No. 2–8 January 2021: Georgia On Our Minds

Closing out last year’s series of musings, I thought about taking a swing through the USA to see what the various states had to offer in the way of songs that would pique my rather benignly eccentric taste in music. 

So, I started to think about some of the states of the “Old South” as a jumping off point .

Needless to say, there is a plethora of songs that have emerged from that part of the country. Some, of course, originated there; most, however, conceived by our friends in Tin Pan Alley. Go figure!

Anyway, doing a song search through the southern states brings up dozens if not hundreds of songs. These range from reminiscences of the sweet old days of yore . . .

. . . to remembrances of sweethearts (or liaisons) past, present, and future. 

But, gentle readers, we do have a bit of a problem here.  Sadly, much of the sheet music of those days incorporated a lot of inferences and illustrations that today can only be politely described as “politically incorrect.” Some are actually “politically cringeworthy.” Pretty, but . . .

Alas, such were the songs that many of the sheet music or record buying–and parlor piano or ukulele playing–folks in those days found entertaining. 

Those were the days of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural stereotypes readily accepted by too many and seen as hurtful by too few. In those days, folks laughed at them; in these days we learn from them—hopefully.

Many scholars of both history and music have written well researched and profusely illustrated articles and books on the subject.  All you have to do is Google, or head to the library (whenever it may open again!) to study this at your leisure.  Suffice it to say, we’re not going over to the unsunny side of the street in these little weekly musings.  After all, it’s 2021, not 1921!

Moving on . . .

As a politically in-the-news state, particularly in the past few weeks, I thought we might start our little tour of the South with a peek at Georgia.  Why not?

Probably the biggest category of early songs with “Georgia” in the title tell about folks who left the state—for whatever reason—and feel the urge to head back “home.”  And then there are folks nostalgic about those pretty girls named “Georgia.” Perhaps a bit of both!

Songwriters also had a bit of a josh with the state. Here’s a song that’s kind of fun.

Click or tap on the next image or link for a listen to this early recording by the popular singing Boswell Sisters from 1932:

And another. Why not?

Click or tap on the next image or link for this peachy song about the Peach State, with tenor banjos if not ukuleles:

Now let’s take a look and listen to one of the greatest of all Georgia songs, the one appropriately titled: “Georgia On My Mind.”  

This is a song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell (both from Indiana!) and first recorded in 1930. 

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear the 1930 recording by Carmichael with Bix Beiderbecke on trumpet.

Here’s another take from the 1930s, this time from the distaff side. Click or tap on the next image or link to hear a rendition of our song by Billie Holiday.

Needless to say, this song has found a home in Georgia and the 1960 Ray Charles (born in Georgia!) version has been designated as the official state song.

For a fun mix of performers of our song, here is Ray Charles and Willie Nelson making rather free with Carmichael’s original melody. Click or tap on the next image or link for a vocal.

And, of course, we have to have a ukulele version of what has become a jazz standard. The song is in our yellow book but here is a fingerstyle version by Canadian ukulele great James Hill. Tap or click on the next image or link for this one:

Most of the recent recordings of “Georgia on My Mind” tend to leave out the intro verse. Here it is for those of you would like a bit more lyrical context, and, perhaps, to join Hoagy at his bronze piano.

Melodies bring memories
That linger in my heart
Make me think of Georgia
Why did we ever part?
Some sweet day when blossoms fall
And all the world’s a song
I’ll go back to Georgia
‘Cause that’s where I belong.” Georgia, Georgia . . .

So, as we move along through the next couple of politically disconcerting weeks, it won’t hurt to keep Georgia on our minds!

Stay safe, stay sequestered, stay glued to the news, stay masked, . . .

. . . and STAY TUNED!

Even Georgia is not the way it was and, in the words of another song, “The Times They Are A’Changin.”


UKULELE MUSINGS 2021, No. 1, 1 January 2021: “High Hopes” for the Coming Days, Weeks, Months, and Year

Well, here it is: New Years Day 2021!  With all the nasty viruses floating around, and all the political squabbles taking place, it’s a disconcerting calendric transition.  And, with the incessant facts, alternate facts, and polarized opinions being bandied about, I keep searching for something positive on which to begin a new annual (my 6th year!) volume of musical musings. 

Alas, the raising of the globe on New Years Eve here in Northampton and the accompanying festivities were only memories this year. Wait until next year! Really stay tuned for First Night 2022 you AEIOUkers!

Hence, a 2021 New Years Day focus on “Hope.”  And, needless to say, gentle readers, another earworm begins to squirm in my head—the mid-century, Academy Award winning, kinda nonsense song “High Hopes.”

 Our song was first popularized by Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) and child actor Eddie Hodges (1947-) in the 1959 movie “A Hole in the Head.”

Our song was written by James Van Heusen (1913-1990) with lyrics by Sammy Cahn.  Those two teamed up on dozens of songs for Broadway and Hollywood musicals including two other Academy Award winners: “All the Way,” and “Call me Irresponsible.” The team also wrote “The Second Time Around,” and “My Kind of Town,” both of which were gold records for Sinatra.

High Hopes” stretches the imagination by describing two scenarios where animals do seemingly impossible acts.

First, an ant moves a rubber tree plant all by himself, then a ram single-handedly puts a hole in a “billion-kilowatt dam.”  

The goals of these animals are described in the chorus as “high, apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes” although, as the song implies, they ultimately accomplish them! 

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear and see the film sequence of Sinatra and Hodges with this one. 

I hope we’re going to see as the ultimate accomplishment of our hopes this New Year!  As our song finishes by comparing problems to toy balloons, the problems have gone away when the balloons are popped–“Oops, there goes another problem, ker-plop.”

If only life were so simple!  Maybe we just need more balloons—or pins!

What makes this song a bit more interesting in todays political climate is the version that Sinatra recorded for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign.  Click or tap on the next image or link to peek in on this tune from the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in.  Remember, in those days you had to be 21 to vote (or buy a beer)!

And, of course, we need a ukulele version of our song which has become a favorite for children of all ages, and found in our blue book.  

 Click or tap on the next image or link for a very nice fingerstyle version of our song. 

As one of those quirky musical asides, one of the more obscure film treatments of “High Hopes,” including an ever so slight nod to Sinatra, is in this great entrance scene.  Click or tap on the next image or link to try to make out what the rabid fans are singing to honor their hometown boy!

Now, it should be noted that there are a couple of new tunes out there that go by the same title as our “High Hopes.”  That’s OK.  Life goes on!  I’ll show my age, however, and stick with the mid-century original!

So, as we all lurch into the new year, I have high hopes that we will stay safe, stay sequestered, stay masked  .  .  .

.  .  . and STAY TUNED!

Oh yes.  Be careful with your rubber trees!