Talk about an earworm!  Here is another one of those songs from our Blue and Yellow Books that has been around forever and recorded by just about everyone. 

The YouTube list seems endless!  “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” is a popular song written in 1936 by one Billy Mayhew.  It began its recording odyssey with several dance bands

1936 dance band:

and a couple of years later was jazzed up and popularized by Fats Waller. 

Fats Waller:

The Ink Spots made this one of their standards.

Ink Spots:

Recording data bases list over ninety versions!  Whew.

Originally written as a waltz, Waller made it a fast jazz tune, and—in the 1950s—it began being played by almost everyone in a fast four/four tempo.

Four/four tempo:

To me, however, it’s a bluesy, message tune—what I often call a “whiskey and cigarette” song—best heard in in darkish, smallish, oldish place with a piano, bass, and singer.  Maybe just a scratchy old 78 RPM disk.  A fast four/four?  I don’t know; I’m a bit too old for that!   Here’s a version first recorded during World War II, a time of liaisons and partings and, I’m sure, promises made and broken.

Vera Lynn:

And, of course, the ultimate jazz singer of the day.

Billie Holiday:

To me, an intriguing part of the song’s backstory is the composer, Billy Mayhew.  After a search on Google, Wikipedia, and my dozen or so books on the history of popular music, there is NO reference to be found other than his full name of William P. Mayhew—no biography, no obituary, no amusing anecdotes, no mention other than dozens of references to him as the composer of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”  It doesn’t look like he wrote anything else and no one out there in musical history land seems to have pursued his story.  Go figure.

Anyway, there are a lot of recordings of the song in a variety of interpretations–its a real “shape-shifter. You choose your favorite! 




Ukulele Parody:

Alas, I don’t have a YouTube of this, but one of the best renditions I’ve heard of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” was the musical theme—and all-cast finale—of a jazzed up, 1920s version of one of the Shakespeare comedies as presented by Shakespeare and Company, in Lennox, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago.  With accompaniment by—what else—a ukulele!  Perhaps Billy Mayhew and Billy Shakespeare are one and the same!

Do you have an earworm yet?  Three/four time or four/four?

Stay Tuned!



This week I’m breaking out of the theme box I set for myself this year, that of focusing my weekly musings on songs from our Yellow and Blue books.  Instead, I’m going to jump sideways a bit because—for some inexplicable reason—this song was featured in the Ken Burns PBS series on Country Music but failed to make the cut for either of our books.

At our Saturday strum sessions at Forbes Library, several of you who had been watching the Country Music series were bemoaning the fact that none of Jimmie Rogers’s songs show up in any of our songbooks.  Go figure!  A particular song of his that was mentioned was “In the Jailhouse Now.”  I’ve attached sheets for this song (in the key of C) that those of you who might want to learn can copy (and practice!).  You might want to insert your own best yodel—a la Jimmie Rogers!

Here is his version of this lively tune:

Jimmy Rogers:

Rodgers version of “In the Jailhouse Now” was recorded in 1928 with Ellsworth Cozzins on the banjo.  While Rogers didn’t actually write the song—it had been around for a dozen or so years—it features Rodgers on vocals and guitar, with his famous yodel throughout the song.  Needless to say, the song has been covered (and parodied) by hundreds of artists over the years.

Prior to 1930, several different versions of it were recorded and copyrighted. The earliest is Davis and Stafford’s 1915 version, which has verses about a man named Campbell cheating at a card game and a corrupt election.  In 1924,  it was recorded it under the title “Jail House Blues,” which was the same title as a famous blues tune by Bessie Smith but was, in fact, the same song as “In the Jailhouse Now.”  Here’s a version with a political background, no less!

Memphis Jug Band:

Two African-American bluesmen also recorded the song prior to Rodgers and an African-American vaudeville performer, Bert Murphy, is given credit for actually writing the song.  But it will always be linked to Jimmy Rogers—the definitive version!

When Johnny Cash recorded the song in 1962, he used a more humorous set of lyrics, based on the 1915 version; after Campbell is locked up, his wife Sadie carries on an affair with the sheriff. Cash learned this version from the African-American jug band musicians in Memphis. 

Johnny Cash:

In spite of this, most writers claim that Cash was covering Jimmie Rodgers’ song, which further obscures that the song originated with African-American performers and was kept alive in a vaudeville and jug band tradition for many decades.  Ah, musical history!

The newer version of our song, and the one I like best, is from the film of a few years back, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”  The song was sung in the movie by what were called the “Soggy Bottom Boys.” 

Here’s the track:

Attached are the sheets for this version.  Enjoy!   

Practice your yodeling!

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Wildwood Flower,” a Carter Tweak

UKULELE MUSING 37, 21 SEPTEMBER 2019: “Wildwood Flower” vs. I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”—The Evolution of a Song. 

Those of you who have been watching the Ken Burns PBS special series on Country Music this week are probably up to date on the history of Virginia’s Carter Family and their early recordings.  These—and the radio broadcasts that featured their music—cemented them and their work as true American musical pioneers. 

We have several of their songs in our Blue and Yellow Books and one of the most musically beautiful and haunting of these is the ballad “Wildwood Flower.”  The Carter Family discovered and gave us this lament by a young woman whose “true love” turned out to be a two-timing rascal who made off with someone else.  Our heroine—who calls herself a “pale wildwood flower”—reflects on and then rejects her sad state.  She then vows to move on while wishing her roaming ex-lover his “regrets.”  You go girl!  How many times have we heard this story in musical genres from blues to country to rap?  This song is the grandmama of them all!

Here is the original Carter Family version from 1928:

Carter Family:

Of particular interest to music historians is Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing style, dubbed the “Carter Scratch.”  She played melody with her thumb on the low strings and harmony on the high ones—a finger picking style adopted by many folksingers today.  You can try this on your uke if you have it set up with a low G.

The “Carter Scratch”:

With music composed by Joseph Philbrick Webster

and words by Maud Irving, the original version of the song was published in 1860 and titled: “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.”   

Webster was a well-known composer whose most famous work was the hymn “In the Sweet By and By.”  Irving, on the other hand, was probably a pseudonym used by one J. William Van Namee, a poet and spiritualist who used this more feminine name when his rather eclectic poetry was published in the “lady’s magazines” of the day.  Needless to say, many other versions of the song evolved in the decades before the Carter Family “harvested it from the hills” and remade it their own.

It’s worth it to take a look at the poetry of the original 1860 lyrics, a tad different and certainly more poignant than the simple lyrics found in our Yellow Book!

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets/Of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale/And the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright/With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus/With eyes of bright blue.

I’ll sing, and I’ll dance/My laugh shall be gay,
I’ll cease this wild weeping/Drive sorrow away,
Tho’ my heart is now breaking/He never shall know,
That his name made me tremble/And my pale cheek to glow.

I’ll think of him never/I’ll be wildly gay,
I’ll charm ev’ry heart/And the crowd I will sway,
I’ll live yet to see him/Regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected/The frail wildwood flower.

He told me he loved me/And promis’d to love,
Through ill and misfortune/All others above,
Another has won him/Ah! misery to tell;
He left me in silence/No word of farewell!

He taught me to love him/He call’d me his flower
That blossom’d for him/All the brighter each hour;
But I woke from my dreaming/My idol was clay;
My visions of love/Have all faded away.

Here’s the original song performed by Robin and Linda Williams with a good introduction:

Robin and Linda Williams:

The Carter version includes the line about “wishing his regrets.”  But the original lyrics clearly show that our young lady remains heartbroken and lays out the sad, tragic nature of the song.  On the other hand, the Carters (and our Yellow Book) seem to give us an updated version with—to me—a bit more upbeat ending.  Was this an early attempt to keep a song commercially viable for a rural radio audience in the hard times of the 1920s?  Hmmm  . . .

On a further note, the melody of our song had another well-known incarnation. 

It was used by that famous re-worker of traditional melodies, Woodie Guthrie, in his song: “The Sinking of the Reuben James”—a musical plea to “remember the names” of the 100 sailors who perished in the 1941 sinking of the American convoy escort USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by German U-Boats in World War II. 

Later, during the war, Guthrie served with the US Merchant Marine on convoy duty and twice survived torpedo attacks himself.  Who knew? 

Reuben James:

Goes to show—you can always tweak an old song with a few new lyrics; and—in folk or country music—you can’t keep a good melody down.

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny side of the Street”

UKULELE MUSING 36, 14 SEPTEMBER 2019: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street

While many of our favorite songs from our Yellow and Blue Books were first recorded by female artists, few were written by female songwriters.  Again, we have a “two-fer”—“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

Both were the work of librettist Dorothy Fields (1904-1974) and composer Jimmy McHugh (1894-1969). 

On top of this, both songs helped pioneer the way for talented black artists to thrive and become popular with both black and white audiences on Broadway, movies, and throughout musical America—what became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. 

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” became an American jazz standard performed by just about every performer in the book, black or white. 

The song was introduced by singer/actress Adelaide Hall (with a tenor guitar, not a baritone uke)

at New York’s Les Ambassadeurs Club in 1928 and was featured later that year in producer Lew Leslie’s highly successful Broadway revue “Blackbirds of 1928.” 

Adelaide Hall:

Fields and McHugh wrote the entire show—book and music—and It became the longest running, all-black show on Broadway.  Although white, Lew Leslie was the first major impresario to present African-American artists on the Broadway stage.

The idea behind the song came during a stroll Fields and McHugh were taking one evening down Fifth Avenue when they saw a young couple window-shopping at Tiffany’s, obviously without the resources to even think about buying any of the showcased jewelry. 

Fields overheard the man say “Gee, honey I’d like to get you a sparkler like that, but right now, I can’t give you nothin’ but love!” Hearing this, McHugh and Fields rushed into a nearby bar and, within an hour, they came up with their song.  Needless to say, there are more lyrics than show up in our simple song books!

Ella Fitzgerald:

And, of course, where would we be without our old pal “Ukulele Ike.”

Ukulele Ike:

On the Sunny Side of the Street” is another song written by the pair.  In 1930, it was introduced in another all-black Broadway musical “Lew Leslie’s International Revue.”  

 Here we have two songs that came to us written by whites and performed by blacks—all for a white audience. 

Billy Holiday:

And, for something a bit different,

Willie Nelson:

Fields wrote over 400 songs for Broadway and Hollywood and, over her long career, collaborated with top figures in the American musical theater, including Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.  Needless to say, she was one of the most prolific and successful female songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. 

On Broadway, she collaborated on a dozen or so musicals including “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Redhead,” and “Seesaw.” 

Her musical movie credits include “Roberta,” and “Swing Time.”   As a pianist and lover of classical music, Fields was noted for being able to fit witty lyrics to a range of melodies by some of the greatest composers of the time.

There are quite a few interesting backstories of songs in our Yellow and Blue Books.  It’s about time we took a look at a couple of those from the distaff side—and a couple of tunes that helped train the spotlight on black performers in America. 

American eyes and ears were opened and the musical world has never looked back.   

Louis Armstrong:

And, of course, we have to wind up with a jazzy ukulele version!

Jazzy Ukulele:

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Side by Side,” and “Ain’t We Got Fun.”


During the so-called roaring ‘20s jobs were plentiful for men and available for women who had to work for a living.  Confidence and prosperity were in the air and the Great Depression of the ‘30s was years away.  Still, a few songs reflected the simple things of life—just having a good time, just getting by, not going it alone.  A couple of songs in our Yellow Book remind us of this musical point in history: “Side by Side,” and “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

One of the simplest songs in our Yellow Book—easy to play and telling a simple story—is the 1927 tune “Side by Side.”  This was written by Harry Woods (1896-1970), a Massachusetts native and Tin Pan Alley songwriter of many of the so-called standards that were first recorded in the ‘20s.

Nick Lucas, 1940s:

A couple of other tunes he wrote that show up in our books are “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobin’ Along,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” 

He composed his songs on the piano despite the fact that a birth defect had left him with a deformed left hand.  Amazing!

A Harvard graduate, Woods lived on Cape Cod until drafted into the Army for World War I.  It was during that time he developed his talent for songwriting.

Once again, a fun recording of “Side by Side” was made by our old acquaintance Cliff Edwards, better known as “Ukulele Ike.” 

Ukulele Ike:

Needless to say, dozens of other performers recorded the song all the way into the 1990s.  With simple lyrics and a simple beat, it was a favorite “shuffle dance” duet on the vaudeville stage. 

Here are a couple of more “off the wall” takes on this simple tune!

The Beatles:


Moving on, “Ain’t We Got Fun” is a jaunty foxtrot recorded a few years earlier with music by Richard Whiting (1891-1938) and lyrics by Raymond Egan (1890-1952) and Gus Kahn (1886-1941)—all stalwarts of the Tin Pan Alley music scene during the Jazz Age and beyond.

1920 Recording:

Both of our songs use abrupt, colloquial—even ungrammatical—phrases. 

Piano Roll with Verses:

Because of its universal theme, a variety of timely verses have been added and subtracted by performers over time.  Both songs, despite their jocularity, reveal a certain resignation to economic forces beyond the control of working people. 

It’s a small step from “Ain’t we got fun,“ to “The rich get richer and the poor get laid off.”  Still, the singers will survive “side by side.” 

A good read on this topic is “The Poets of Tin Pan Alley,” by Philip Furia—a little-studied genre of American literature.  The film “The Great Gatsby” dealt with this era and used these songs in the soundtrack.

Great Gatsby:

Whiting, Egan, and Kahn collaborated on many, many popular songs including “Ukulele Lady,” and “Japanese Sandman” just to touch on a few.  

Here’s how some fellow ukers had fun with this one.


So, here we have a couple of simple songs that reflect the optimism—despite the uncertainties—of the so-called sweet old days.  What will the songs of today tell our grandchildren—uncertainties despite optimism?   

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“It’s Only a Paper Moon.”


This week’s musing lets me drift off in one of my favorite directions.  “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is one of those befuddled-lover songs of the jazz age when moon- and star-light set the scene for what, I am sure, was innocent romance.  This song from our Yellow Book plays on this as the singer begs his or her sweetie to “believe.”  Also, for some unknown (to me) reason, in those days a seat in the form of an artificial moon (probably plywood rather than paper) was often used as a prop on stage and in photo studios. 

Whether or not this had anything to do with our song or just the dozens of moon songs that were hits of the day, who knows.  

 Anyway, sometimes these were fixed in place; at other times they, and their occupants, were raised on high.  What fun in the days before we were possessed by screens and selfies and a “moon shot” could be had in your local dime-store photo booth!

Our song—which we don’t seem to play that often, probably because we are hesitant about a couple of diminished chords (or we are not befuddled romantics)—was published in 1933 with music by Harold Arlen (1905-1986) and lyrics by Yip Harburg (1896-1981) and Billy Rose (1899-1966). 

Originally titled “If You Believed in Me,” it was written for short-lived Broadway musical called “The Great Magoo” that was set in Coney Island.

The song was resurrected for the movie “Take a Chance” in 1934 and finally achieved popularity as a jazz standard when recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that same year.

Paul Whiteman:

Arlen was a prolific songwriter of the day and is best known for writing the music for all of the songs for the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” including one of our favorites “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”   

The recording that, to me, should be most interesting to we ukers is by our old friend Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.  He usually accompanied himself on a Martin tenor and he, with his uke, was a big star of films and vaudeville in the ‘30s and 40s. 

He is probably remembered best, however, for being the singing voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney film “Pinocchio.”    

Ukulele Ike:

Needless to say, more enduring recordings that assured the song’s place in the American Songbook were made in the 1940s by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and a slew of others.  Here’s a big band version:

Bennie Goodman:

Or, how about Gypsy Jazz?

Django Reinhardt:

In relatively recent years, the melody of the song was used as a haunting musical theme throughout the Ryan/Tatum O’Neal, father/daughter film “Paper Moon.”   

Paper Moon:

Sticking with musical movies, a great “moon prop” scene was an inebriated Sean Penn, guitar in hand, attempting to mount a swinging moon in the film “Sweet and Lowdown.” 

Sorry, no YouTube of this, but a fun movie to check out—great jazz guitar!

So, here’s to the many folks who took a ride on a paper moon, under a cardboard sky and left us wondering.  Are we missing something today? Do we need to believe?

And now, how about some moon ukuleles?

And, of course, my favorite!

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboy Songs”


An ever -popular form of American music today is what we call “Country.”  In years past, the category was called “Country and Western” and still further back in time “Hillbilly and Cowboy.” 

Many, many songs in our Blue and Yellow Books come from this genre and most were composed and written by real folks from the hills and prairies—think The Carter Family, Carson Robeson, and that ilk.

As to the so-called cowboy songs in our books, many evoke the mythic ways and denizens of the American West and are fun to sing and hear.

Take a listen to our nearby “Sugarloaf String Band” to see what I mean.  Good friends, good tunes, and good times right here in our “Happy Valley!”

Sugarloaf String Band:

There are a couple of so-called cowboy tunes in our book, however, that just might rate an asterisk—ones that are a bit more Hollywood than Wild West.  Take, for example, “I’m an Old Cowhand, From the Rio Grande.”

This was from the pen of the prolific songwriter from Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Mercer (1909-1976)—about as Eastern as you can get—who wrote lyrics for dozens of witty hits like “Ac-Cen-Thu-Ate the Positive,” and “That Old Black Magic.” 

He wrote it for the movie “Rhythm on the Range” and it was sung by its star, Bing Crosby, a quintessential Hollywoodian.  This was back in 1936 and the Bing Crosby/Tommy Dorsey recording became a huge hit of the day.


The story is that Mercer and his wife were driving across the USA back to Savannah after having apparently failed to succeed in Hollywood.  Mercer was amused by the sight of cowboys, with spurs and ten-gallon hats, driving cars and trucks instead of riding horses.

Singing cowboys were popular in films and on the radio then, and within fifteen minutes, writing on the back of an envelope, Mercer transferred the image he was seeing into a song whose satirical lyrics about a 20th-century cowboy who has little in common with the cowpunchers of old vented some of his own bitter frustration with Hollywood. 

Sons of the Pioneers:

This song was recorded by many folks over time and members of the Western Writers of America—a regional literary and cultural society—chose it as one of the top Western songs of all time.  Go figure!

Another example of a Hollywood/Western song from our books, albeit with a tad more cowboy cred, is “Don’t Fence Me In.” 

This was written in 1934 with music by Cole Porter (1891-1964)—another decidedly non-Westerner who had been a Yale Whiffenpoof and a Broadway songwriter of such American Songbook standards as “Begin the Beguine” and “Anything Goes.”   

Originally written for an unproduced movie, “Adios, Argentina,the lyrics were based on a genuine cowboy poem by one Robert Fletcher of Helena, Montana.

Roy Rogers:

Porter, who had been asked to write a cowboy song for the movie, bought the poem from Fletcher for $250 and tweaked the lyrics to fit his melody.  Although it became one of the most popular songs of its time—number one on “The Hit Parade”—Porter claimed it was his least favorite of his compositions and, in fact would never play it—even if begged—at any of the many New York cocktail parties where he was a frequent martini-drinking, piano-playing guest. 

Yet, this is another song that members of the Western Writers of America chose as one of the top Western songs of all time.  Again, go figure.

Ella Fitzgerald (With original lyrics):

Porter’s revision of the song retained quite a few portions of Fletcher’s poem, such as “Give me land, lots of land”, “… breeze … cottonwood trees”, “turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle,” “mountains rise … western skies”, “cayuse,” “where the West commences,” and “… hobbles … can’t stand fences.”  But in some places he modified them to give them what critics have called Porter’s sophisticated “Manhattanite” touch. 

Once again, many singers recorded the song over the years.  It seems that everyone but Porter liked it!

Cole Porter (At the piano):

So, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we can strum our little four-string cowboy “gitars”

and have some fun with how a couple of songwriters from way out East produced a couple of classic tunes from way out West.   Enjoy, pardners!



Stay Tuned!  

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1909:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jubilee Singers Today:

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

Jubilee Singers Then and Now:

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

Stay Tuned!

Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“BEER BARREL POLKA”


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Andrews Sisters:

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

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

Brewer’s Game:

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

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


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

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

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

Lawrence Welk with Dancers:

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

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

fish frys,


and, of course, the Brewers.

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

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

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

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

And here we go!

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

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


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

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

Just for fun . . .

Chico Marx:

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

Click here to Reply

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, that was then; this is now. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Baskett Original:

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

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

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

Jackson Five:


Louis Armstrong:

Boston Pops:

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

Stay Tuned!