UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 32, 25 July 2020: “Make Do With What You Have, Ukulele Style”

My mother, with her wisdom honed during the Great Depression, often said to me that: “Poor folks have poor ways.” and: “Make do with what you have.”  These words describe not just household chores (When is the last time you darned socks?) but what inventive, often impecunious, musicians have been doing for a long, long time.  That’s why we see all those examples of so-called “folk” fiddles, banjos, guitars and—yes—ukuleles made by poor folks with what they have at hand.  

Discarded cigar boxes, ham or coffee tins, mixing bowls, motor oil cans, old wood hoops, or even hospital bed pans (sanitized!) have all been used to make the sound boxes of various stringed instruments including ukuleles. 

While these cobbled-together instruments made of man-made materials function, sound decent, and—often—look pretty good (?), there is another category of “found” materials I’m going to muse on today—those found in (or wrested from) nature.

Natural materials, such as bone, skin, and shell, have been used for various bits and bobs of lutherie for generations. They have been used both functionally like bone or ivory nuts and saddles, as well as skin banjo heads, or decoratively like tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl. 

Next, here’s my very own, mother-of-pearl decorated “Snowshoe” Art Deco tenor!

Now let me dig into another and broader category of natural materials used in luthiery—sound boxes made of “shells,” of one sort or another.  Here’s one in my collection that I built a few years ago.

While renewable plant materials, such as dried gourds and coconut shells are easy to find and work with, there is yet another category of shells I must touch on (albeit with trepidation) as an essential part of this topic—the shells (unlived in, of course) of turtles and even armadillos. 

Now, my intentions are not to offend any of you gentle readers who are vegans, vegetarians, animal rights-ers, or who simply might be squeamish with the thought of using large and recognizable parts of no-longer-living creatures to form our favorite little instruments.  Suffice it to say that what I am about to muse on is in the form of acknowledgement rather than advocacy Be that as it may, now is the time to opt out if you must. Otherwise, soldier on!

And, by the way, I have no idea where—short coming upon some road kill down Texas way—one could find an armadillo shell that could be put to luthier use today. I have not, of course, asked our good friends at Google about sources for these, but turtle shells are a tad easier to locate and can be found from time to time on eBay. But, who knows what’s out there in the dark corners of the internet! Anyway, more about these so-called “critter shells” further along in this musing.

But first, lets look at coconut shells and hollow gourds which, by the way, are totally different animals, so to speak.  These are readily available, renewable resources to say nothing of being a lot easier to scrape out, clean up, and prepare for luthiery! 

A dried gourd is, by far, the easiest type of “shell” to work with.  Simply find a good, solid one and trim it off, add a skin or wood head, fix a neck to the whole thing, string it up and—Bob’s your uncle!—you’re ready to strum.

I don’t know if these “double headers” sound better but they sure look craftier!

Now, here’s a pretty good tutorial on banjo ukes made from gourds. Click or tap on the next image to learn a bit and, perhaps to become inspired!

Click or tap on the next image for some good fingerpicking on a gourd uke.

Now here’s some really sweet clawhammer picking on a fretless gourd banjo. Click or tap on the next image for a look and listen.

Coconut shells are a much harder substance than a gourd and thus a bit trickier to work. Also, sometimes two or even three need to be fitted together to make a decent sized sound chamber. They clean up pretty well, however.

As an aside, here’s a bit of a coconut shell mystery that I stumbled across in my internet searches. After pondering a bit, my uneducated guess is that the next image must be of some sort of coco-coronavidian “face mask for two” or something like that. Needless to say, your thoughts will be appreciated. Alas, I digress. 

Quickly moving on, coconuts work quite nicely for a ukulele and can be polished up to a really glossy, deep brown finish.  These are usually topped with a thin wood head like our usual ukes. Here’s a nice antique coconut uke and some fancy strumming. Click or tap on the next image for a look.

Here’s some nice strumming on a double coconut uke, amplified, no less! Click or tap on the next image for this one.

How about an old chestnut of a coconut song from England, strummed on a uke. Click or tap on the next image for this carnival treat.

Leaving our thoughts of coconut shells and icy pina coladas behind, let’s drill more deeply into our topic of the day starting with the shells of an Armadillo (Spanish for “little armor-plated critter” or something like that). These have been used for generations in Mexico and South America for crafts and, more particularly to us, luthiery.

While armadillo shell ukes can be found, armadillo shells have been used traditionally for those South American cousins of the ukulele, the “charango”–a small, ten-stringed instrument similar in configuration to the “tiple” that was a popular cousin of the ukulele back in the 1920s.

The cleaned and dried Armadillo shell is formed into a bowl-like chamber and the rest of the process is much like the gourd or coconut examples.  Many YouTubes exist but, alas, mostly in Spanish—except for the music!

Tap or click on the next image for some strumming on an armadillo shell charango.

Next is a rather fast-charging charango piece from Bolivia. Click or tap on the next image for a listen. Lucky for us, the music doesn’t need a translation!

Now for those of you gentle readers who have stuck with me so far into this musicological exploration, we shall move on to turtles! Turtle, or tortoise, shells can be worked in just about the same way as the armadillo. Plus, turtle shells are readily available even on eBay! Take your pick and bid away.

I think that these look a bit less gruesome than armadillo shells but, it’s all a matter of taste and, I am sure, sound quality. As an aside, and if you can find or make some, turtle soup is traditional and quite tasty. I don’t know about armadillo soup or stew, however. Again, I digress.

It might be a bit easier making a uke out of a discarded turtle soup can but, moving on, here’s a nicely crafted example of a turtle-shell uke. In my aesthetic opinion, the heavily grained oak compliments the texture of the shell quite nicely. As to tone and playability, who knows!

Now, here’s a bit of strumming on a turtle-shell uke. Click or tap on the next image to hear what this sounds like.

Here is a nice, soprano sized turtle-shell uke nicely played. Click or tap on the next image for this one.

Needless to say, the so-called “critter” and natural shell instruments are a rare breed in the world of ukuleles, but they can be found in most collections of folk instruments and, as we have seen in the various YouTubes, are used by some performers today. 

So, if you are adventurous, and not the least bit squeamish, keep your eye out for road kill and see what you can make do. 

On the other hand, seek out a good looking gourd or a couple of sturdy coconut shells and craft a little nature into your strumming.

As a final treat, here’s a uke of wood made to look like a shell.  A whole different critter! Click or tap on the next image to see this facsimile critter in action.

Now there are not that many songs out there in music land on the topic of gourds, armadillos, and turtles that ukulele players have espoused or covered.

Sadly, no ukulele version of this Texas favorite but here is a “turtle tune” with Northampton connections! Click or tap on the next image for a ukulele version of this local “folk song.”


Stay safe (particularly when walking across highways), stay sequestered in your shells, and STAY TUNED! Oh yes, and wear an appropriate mask!

UKULELE MUSING 2020, No. 30, 18 July 2020–Reflections on Political Songs of the Past

Note: A couple of things about included YouTubes. From time to time you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Alas, in these days of political scrums, its hard to tell just whose face will pop up. I just haven’t popped for the premium service. Sorry. And, from time to time a particular YouTube might seem a bit too long for you busy folks out there.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make.  Sometimes less is really more! 

Now, off we go!

I am not a clairvoyant but I have become convinced–during these months of introspection, sequestration, and arm’s length association–of one salient fact. To wit: that we dedicated strummers are all working feverishly to push all things from our minds save for our ukuleles. I assume, therefore, that few of you have been bothered enough to look up from your many songbooks to notice the world of cloudiness hovering around us. No, not the nasty, #$%& virus but the nasty, #$%& political shenanigans that are fast afoot! Alas, gentle readers, we must STAY TUNED in!

Therefore, I muse on . . .

Now, of course, this little blog is not the place to opine on the varying shades of reddish or blueish colors of the swirling political clouds.  Suffice it say that I know we will all be bombarded with a full range of punditry and polemic again, again, and still again between now and the presidential election in November.  So, as is my wont to do, let me avoid those clouds by drifting back to childhood memories particularly of MY first president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—”FDR.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Lot of Thirty Prints, Sheet Music, Post ...

Now FDR was not a ukulele player and I doubt that he paid much attention to our favorite little instrument. But, it has been noted that he did play the piano (a bit) and sang soprano (?) in his school choir. 

And, lucky for us, there is a PLETHORA of sheet music extolling his time in office from his first presidential campaign in 1931 through the Great Depression, Prohibition, and World War II to his death in 1945.  While he was reviled by some and revered by many (what else is new in politics?) it was the latter who seemed to write the songs of those days that a few (a very few, alas) of we so-called “eldies” might recall. 

While FDR did, at least in the above photo, show an interest in old-time string bands, here are just a few songs–really quite forgettable musically but nonetheless extant–from FDR’s four (!) successful presidential campaigns.

THREE PIECES OF FDR SHEET MUSIC. Includes: "Veto ... Political ...

Not memorable but, nontheless, available to us. Tap or click on the next image for a quick listen.

His vice-presidential running mate, James Nance Garner, known affectionally as “Cactus Jack,” had a much more colorful musical link! Alas, I can’t find a ukulele version of this one, nor any other recording for that matter, but the sheet music cover is great!

A Western balance to the Eastern Roosevelt, politically speaking.

There were, of course, more dignified songs written for FDR’s subsequent campaigns but, again alas, not particularly noteworthy musically speaking.

For some reason the “R-R-R” trope was the thing. Go figure.

THREE PIECES OF FDR SHEET MUSIC. Includes: "Veto ... Political ...

Tap or click on the next image for a listen to this enthusiastic jingle of a song.

And still another . . .

At least with this one, someone has bothered to remember and record it. Tap or click on the next image for a quick listen.

Just imagine if the Gershwins had written a campaign song for Roosevelt! Click or tap on the next image for a three-syllable “name song” from 1938 that would have worked.

Then there were the songs that simply honored the president during his terms in office.

How about the end of Prohibition? It ended on FDR’s watch.

Finally, a tribute song that someone recorded!

Click or tap on the next image for a song that thanks the president for his so-called “Fireside Chats” by which he periodically radioed his voice (and persona) into the homes of anxious Americans. He reassured them that they really had the freedom to not fear the terrors and travails of the day–imagine a president doing that!

Needless to say, there were many, many more accomplishments during FDR’s terms in office–way too many to trace musically in this brief posting. Perhaps more anon.

Roosevelt was, of course, president during the lead-up and fighting of World War II.

And this is where ukuleles come in! Here is one of the favorites from my collection, a so-called “Victory” uke that was made and sold early in the war years.

Note the “V for Victory” design in Morse code–dit, dit, dit, dah!

He was also honored in death as Word War II was ending–a sad and anxious time for a lot of Americans . . .

. . . who had never thought that much about the possibility of that piano playing haberdasher from Missouri, Harry Truman, becoming “Commander in Chief!”

At least when Truman ran a campaign on his own he had a lively theme song, purloined and adapted from the 1921 Harlem musical review “Shuffle Along.”

There are many, many YouTube recodings of this tune but, since a lively campaign song would be a fun addition to this posting, here’s the revamped (for his campaign) version. Click or tap on the next image to “shuffle along” wildly with Harry.

But, I digress; now, back to FDR. He served not without error, as history points out, but with honor for his time.

And, we can’t leave without a musical homage to the then first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an unelected but renowned statesperson in her own right.

Someone should write a song on this theme of hers. Now is your chance!

However, I was able to find a YouTube of another “Eleanor Roosevelt tune.” Click or tap on the next image for a look and listen.

Now here is the windup to this posting.

While not originally an “FDR tune,” “Happy Days are Here Again” is the song most of us associate with my first president.  This tune (actually a “saloon standard” associated with the end of Prohibition) was written by our old Tin Pan Alley pals Milton Ager and Jack Yellen and published in 1929. 

The story is that the score was among the house band’s “cheat sheets” reached for by the conductor when he was asked to play a “lively” song during the windup of the Democratic Convention of 1931. It has ever after been associated with FDR and with the Democratic Party.  Tap or click on the next image to see and hear!

Tap or click on the next image to hear a good old country song about good old FDR being elected!

Alas, singable songs and colorful sheet music associated with our latest run of presidents can’t match those of the past.  But, we learn to live with what we have and hope for the best even if today’s politics don’t deliver the tunes of long ago. 

So, stay sequestered, stay safe, stay masked and STAY TUNED! 

Now, for you gentle readers and fellow strummers, here is a bizarre but decidedly non-political interpretation of that great FDR campaign tune. I won’t dignify it with a description; it speaks for itself. Click or tap on the next image and watch out!

I think that he is smiling under that mask!

UKULELE MUSING 2020, No. 29, 11 July 2020–A Song for Sequestered Times: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”

Note: A couple of things about the YouTube videos that I include in my postings.  First, I don’t want to spend the money to purchase access to YouTube without ads.  So, from time to time you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Alas, in these days of political scrums, its hard to tell just whose face will pop up. Sorry.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  And, from time to time a particular YouTube video might seem a bit too long for you busy folks out there.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make by including it.  Sometimes less is really more! 

Also, I don’t mean to make light of the pandemic facing our world, nation, state, community, friends, and family. Sometimes, however, we need a bit more lightness than darkness and so, gentle readers, I muse on.

Now, on to this week’s posting . . .

With our days of sequestration now extending into months rather than weeks, I found myself looking for appropriate songs in our good old Yellow Book (“The Daily Ukulele,” by Liz and Jim Beloff) that would touch on the main topic of today.  Sitting at home, songbook on the stand in front of me and gazing out the window, it came to me: the song for these trying times, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”—a fact, not fake news! 

Talk about an easy choice for a musical musing!  Written as a lover’s lament, the song takes on a whole new meaning as we sit home by ourselves these days.

Anyway, this jazz standard was composed and recorded by Duke Ellington in 1940 and first titled “Never No Lament.”  The song was just one among many similar, moody, bluesy songs of the Ellington orchestra’s Harlem repertoire.  When songwriter Bob Russell added lyrics for the song in 1942, the name was changed and it soon became a national hit. In those days of loose copyrights and tiny royalties, it was played and recorded by just about everyone in the music business. 

It really became a “standard”—orchestral as well as male or female singers.

Let’s start with the 1942 Ellington version.  Tap or click on the next image for this. 

The other chart-topping rendition of the song, recorded in 1943, was by the widely listened to quartet, The Ink Spots.  Click or tap on the next image for a listen to their close harmony and distinctive style. 

Another great interpretation of the song—with some good illustrations for us—was recorded by the blues harmonica virtuoso “Big Walter” Horton in 1961.  Tap or click on the next image for this one.    

And, of course, for a song that has been around for nearly eighty years, many performers—both instrumental and vocal—have worked their own magic with this tune.  You don’t need to listen to the whole YouTube recording unless, like me, you get carried away.  But, here are a few of my good-for-being-sequestered favorites!

Stephane Grapelli on Gypsy Jazz Violin, tap or click: 

 A 1940s film version on some artificial beach, no less. Tap or click:

Willie Nelson Country/Western Version with his beat up guitar, tap or click:  

And, of course, a jazz ukulele instrumental, tap or click: 

So, stay safe, stay sequestered, and STAY TUNED!  But, as a bit of a sendoff, here are a couple of parody versions—as we might expect—of our song.  Stay smiling!

Let’s start with an up to the minute parody version, tap or click: 

 And, of course, a close harmony Zoom version, tap or click:    

Now if you would like to give this a try at home, hopefully not too much by yourself, here is a chord melody TAB version I put together a couple of years ago. It’s set up for a DGBE-tuned baritone (or sopranino) uke but you GCEA folks can simply follow the TAB numbers and it will be in the Key of C.

Oh yes, stay appropriately masked when tabbing or strumming!

And shirted!

More lightness than darkness, I hope!

UKULELE MUSING 2020, 4 July 2020–The Earworm of All Earworms: “Puttin’ On the Ritz”

Note: A couple of things about the YouTube videos that I include in my postings.  First, I don’t want to spend the money to purchase access to YouTube without ads.  So, gentle readers, for a few of my postings, you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Sorry.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  And, from time to time, a particular YouTube video might seem a bit too long.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make by including it.  Sometimes less is really more! 

On to this week’s musing which is going to . . .

. . . leave you, my gentle readers, with the earworm of all earworms because I’m only going to focus on ONE song, that choice bit of so called “sticky music”—“Puttin’ On The Ritz.” 

This song was written by Irving Berlin in 1927 and published a couple of years later.  It was performed in the movie by the same name in 1930 . . .

. . . and is said to be the first song and dance routine in film to be performed by an interracial ensemble.  The title is a slang expression meaning “to dress very fashionably” and was inspired by the opulent London hotel, The Ritz.  

The original version of Berlin’s song included references to the then-popular fad of fashionably dressed black residents of Harlem parading up and down Lennox Avenue. 

Here is the original production–with Harlem lyrics–from the movie “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”  Tap or click on the next image to take a peek: 

Cinema and vaudeville heartthrob Harry Richman sang the song in the movie and his recording became the number-one selling record in America.  Alas, his career faded soon after.

Aside from the witty lyrics, the danceable melody is both complex and provocative. According to music critics of the time, the A-section of the song used a “delayed rhythmic resolution: a staggering, off-balance passage, emphasized by the unorthodox stresses in the lyric, suddenly resolved satisfyingly on a held note, followed by the forceful assertion of the title phrase.  The B-section is a contrasting march rhythm.” Whew!

The whole song is considered by many as one of the most complex and provocative rhythmic patterns ever seen and has been loved by hoofers ever since. As a surprising sample (to me, at least) of all this, the original Harlem homage lyrics were used again in the 1939 song movie “Idiot’s Delight . . .

. . . featuring a song and dance routine by none other than Clark Gable, of all people!    Click or tap on the next image for a surprisingly good performance.  Who knew? 

Later versions revised the lyrics to apply to affluent whites strutting up and down Manhattan’s famed fashion center, Park Avenue. 

Alas, the only uke I have in my collection appropriate for a Park Avenue strut is this “Tuxedo” model endorsed by the singer Al Jolson. Alas, alas, don’t look too closely at the logo showing Jolson in his oft-worn blackface makeup. I’m not going to throw this bit of musical history into the land fill, however!

Moving on, here’s a 1930s recording of our song with some delightful illustrations of the time. Click or tap on the next image for the show:

Needless to say, the quintessential song and dance performance of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” is, of course, the Fred Astaire version–with the revised Park Avenue lyrics– in the 1946 movie “Blue Skies.” 

Click or tap on the next image to take a look at this classic:  

And, we mustn’t  forget that great film parody of our song by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in the movie “Young Frankenstein.”  Click or tap on the next image for this unforgettable bit of comedic film/music history:

And, of course, we can’t leave without a ukulele take on the tune.  Tap or click on the next image to hear some really good fingerpicking and strumming on this one:

To end our “ritzy earworm journey” with an international note, how about a Russian (of all places!) flash mob doing a take on this.  Small world!  Click or tap on the next image for this Moscow moment: 

Now, if you haven’t had enough of this singable, danceable tune, here is a chord melody arrangement for ukulele that I put together a couple of years ago. Go slow at first and then bring it up to “delayed rhythmic resolution” or whatever. 

It’s kind of hard to play the uke while twirling a cane so you might want to limit yourself to a top hat and, of course, spats! Don’t forget an appropriate facemask, however.

Now, there are probably well over a hundred covers and interpretations of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” out there in the internet world ranging from homages to parodies.  There are even several ukulele tutorials.   Needless to say, you can explore these at your leisure.  I’ve only attached a few of my favorites to this musing so, put on your “YouTube Ritz” facemask . . .

. . . and explore these yourself from the safety of your sequestration. Good luck with that earworm, however!

So, gentle readers (and strummers), stay sequestered, stay safe, and STAY TUNED!

But, protect yourself from those pesky earworms!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 27–27 June 2020: “Popeye to Ukuleles to Whisky–The Art of the Tattoo”

Note: A couple of things about the YouTube videos that I include in my postings.  First, I don’t want to spend the money to purchase access to YouTube without ads.  So, gentle readers, for a few of my postings, you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Sorry.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  And, from time to time, a particular YouTube video might seem a bit too long.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make by including it.  Sometimes less is really more! 

On to this week’s musing!

Those of us who have come from well back in the relatively sedate Twentieth Century sometimes find ourselves a bit bewildered if not befuddled in our journey deep into the Twenty-first.  In this year’s exploration of ukulele lore and musical history I have often bumped into things that, to my eyes, may once have been seen as either salty or unsavory yet today are deemed as saucy or sophisticated.  We know, of course, that the rise and fall of the popularity of the ukulele parallels this path. But, there is another cultural and artistic phenomenon appropriate (to me, at least) for this week’s musing—not Popeye but “TATTOOS.” 

Tattoo” as the word for symbolic or decorative marking on the skin came into the English language in the Eighteenth Century from the Polynesian cultures of the Pacific Islands; Captain Cook’s journals are the first to record the word. This “art on a human canvas” has been explored by scientists, anthropologists, and even a few art historians from that time to today. Needless to say, it’s an acquired–or, shall we say, applied–taste.

I have not yet succumbed to this form of physical adornment myself.  But, needless to say, I have many friends and family—albeit decidedly much younger (most friends and all family) and more au courant (many friends and most family) than myself—who are well decorated.  Some discretely, others not so much.  And, as a caveat, no friends or family sources were harmed or used for illustrations in this posting. Or so I am led to believe . . .

But, on to ukuleles, here in “ink” rather than wood.

Tattoos have long been acquired as so-called “skin art” by sailors and seamen wandering ashore in exotic foreign ports or bored aboard a ship far asea.

Designs have ranged from the romantic to the ribald, from the homey to the homely, and—to many—from the tasteful to the tasteless, albeit sometimes felt to be necessary with changing circumstances. 

Moving on, the ukulele theme for tattoos has, as would be expected, gained in popularity over the years in all its forms and fashions. However, gentle readers, I shall muse herein only on the more tasteful (?).  Enjoy a peek!

Moving on . . . Since the subjects of my musings revolve around ukuleles and related musical themes, I find it fascinating to see tattoos used as decorative motifs on our favorite little instruments. 

There are some handsome examples out there based on those historical forms of tattoo design that come, mainly, from the aboriginal South Pacific and the Antipodes–or from the movie version of “Moby Dick.”

And then there are a few others based on more, shall we say, traditional nautical themes, particularly for those with a penchant for the popular “Sailor Jerry” rum.

Or even a banjo uke, this one appropriately from Australia!

The phenomenon of tattoo art was not limited to the chests, arms, and whatever of sailors and other burly, macho types. 

It was also a cosmetic phenomenon embraced by ladies—certain ladies. 

And this brings us this week to our songs.

By far, the most known and performed song of this genre is “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady,” a 1939 song written by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen–the same team that wrote all of the music for “The Wizard of Oz.” and a few thousand (it seems) other Tin Pan Alley tunes.  It first appeared in the Marx Brothers’ movie “At the Circus” and became one of Groucho Marx’s signature songs.

The complex lyrics—with clever rhymes such as “Lydia/encyclopedia” and “Amazon/pajamas on”—were inspired by the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan and made many references to contemporary events such as the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Click or tap on the next image for a view of the movie version of Groucho’s song and antics.

I must, of course, include a ukulele version of this tune with some stunning graphics and a new, Twenty-First Century ending!  Click or tap on the next image to go for it!

With such richly decorated inspiration to be found on nearly every vaudeville stage or carnival side-show . . .

. . . there were other “Tattooed Lady” songs out there.  It’s too good a musical subject not to explore (ogle ?) more intently. Tap or click on the next image for a peek-a-boo of a “hillbilly” take on this theme.

Now the version of this musical genre of which I am most familiar was the Kingston Trio’s song “The Tattooed Lady” recorded way back in my impressionable college days–the late 1950s. 

They sang this one in a broadly faked “Cockney” accent thus leading many to believe it to be a British music hall song.  Actually, the lyrics (in many variations both benign and obscene) originated as a fiddle and dance tune in Tennessee that the trio “harvested” and adapted.  The melody is the well-known and bawdy “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” which has been around dance halls seemingly forever. 

As an aside for you stringed instrument techies, Nick Reynolds–an original member of the trio–played a four string tenor guitar tuned DGBE just like a baritone uke. In this pic he has a capo at the fifth fret bringing it up to GCEA–ukulele tuning! Today, his tenor is in the musical instrument collection of the Smithsonian. Remember: “More than four strings is just showing off!”

Give a tap or click on the next image to hear this tune sung by this Hawaiian bred, California nurtured group who, in their own way, helped kickstart the mid-century popular (if not musicologically pure) Folk Song phenomenon in America.

For those of you who would like to give this one a try at home, sequestered of course as we must be (and with body art covered or uncovered as is your wont), here is a ukulele chord and chord/melody arrangement I put together for this tune a couple of years ago.  Enjoy!

There are those–not we sophisticated strummers, of course!–who think that ukuleles as well as bodily tattoos are, at best, an acquired taste. Here, then, is a more appreciated (again, by some) musical form of a“tattoo” heard if not worn around the world—the so-called “military tattoo.”   

This musical signal of sorts was sounded by drum or bugle to recall soldiers to their quarters in the evening.    The term comes from the early 17th-century Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe”, roughly translated as “turn off the tap.”  

It was the signal sounded by the garrison bugler to instruct nearby innkeepers to stop serving beer and for soldiers to return to their barracks. It’s totally unrelated to the island origins of an ink tattoo but, why not a skirl instead of a strum?

So, Let’s end this musing with this–one of the more spectacular military musical rituals in the world.   Get those tattooed ladies out of your mind, set your ukulele aside, pour yourself a wee dram of single-malt, crank up the volume, and click or tap on the next image for a treat—whisky and music!

Turn the volume back down, return to garrison, stay socially distanced, stay safe, and STAY TUNED!

Oh yes, if you do have a tattoo. Please be discrete. There are young strummers out there!

And, above all, stay covered up. One way or another!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 26–20 June 2020: “A Day to Remember Your Dear Old Dad, Father, Papa, Grandpa, and–Oh Yes–‘Daddy'”

Note: If this pic needs an explanation, you are not a ukulele strummer. If still puzzled, go ask a strummer. If no strummer is available, you are missing out on one of the best things of life!

Well, here we are half way through my weekly musings of 2020 (number 26 of 52!) and the calendar has rolled around to another Father’s Day as of this Sunday. All of us who have or have had fathers can muse on their influence on our lives, at least our musical lives. So, as my annual musical homage to my father, click or tap on the next image to hear a ukulele version of the first song he ever taught me.

 My father, despite his pride in the fact that he was a Field Artillery officer, could only sort of hum this tune and he readily admitted that, when it came to music, the “only thing he could play was the radio.” 

And, play the radio he did.  He built a crystal set for himself in his teens and, in the 1920s (high school), 1930s (college and first jobs), and 1940s (army) listened t0 and knew all the bands and songs played on the air. We sat around the radio at home and, of course, in the car–AM, of course.

 To say that I grew up absorbing the big band/bouncy/bluesy sounds of these musical eras on the omnipresent home and car radio is an understatement. Needless to say, my musical listening proclivities were formed as my little ears grew into bigger ones. 

This was his gift to me so bear with me, gentle readers, if my musings focus on those “oldies” (to you) but “goodies” (to me.) After all, it is Fathers’ Day and, like many of you, I am a father and, like a few of you, a grandparent. So, indulge me.

Now, back to the ukulele theme! Fathers (not mine, alas) often eased their offspring into musical directions by strumming on—or at least giving a child—a ukulele and “showing them which end to blow into!”  Kidding, of course.

Some kids embraced our favorite little instrument and kept their fascination through teenage years and adulthood.  Look around you!  Alas, others moved on to screaming heavy metal electric guitar sounds.  (With apologies to our friends at Northampton’s own Downtown Sounds!)

But, fatherly influence is all important, including from the “Father of Our Country!”

Moving on. Not much in the way of “father” or “dad” ukuleles out there but, still . . .

Continuing on to tunes. Needless to say there is a plethora of “Daddy” music out there from the sweet to the maudlin . . .

Give a listen to this old tearjerker by that “singing cowboy” himself, Gene Autry. Click or tap on the next image for a treat.

Here is the Ultimate World War I “Daddy song.” Click or tap on the next image to hear an original recording.

I wish I could find the suggestive lyrics to this one. Alas, I must search on!

. . .  and then there’s that perversion of the word “Daddy” into the torchy, tinted (but not really off-color) slang of the day.

Here’s this one by Marilyn herself. Click or tap on the next image to hear (and see) her in action!

Here’s a torchy version of this “daddy song” from the 1920s. Click or tap on the next image to give a listen.

Tap or click on the next image to hear a gentle, jazzy version of this tune from 1929.

Oh yes, we can’t for get the “Papa” songs either.

Here’s this childish novelty tune of the 1920s. Click or tap on the next image to sing along.

Here’s an early recording of this bluesy song performed by Bessie Smith. Click or tap on the next image to hear her voice.

And, of course, the novelty songs about fathers or even grandfathers.  Don’t we have fun!

Seek and ye shall find! Click or tap on the next image for this one.

Believe it or not but I actually found a ukulele version of this one! Click or tap on the next image to hear that great ukulele interpreter of old tunes, Janet Klein.

Here are a few more rather curious sheet music covers of the day. Alas, again, no lyrics for these yet!

And then there’s this golden oldie.

Tap or click on the next image to look at–not listen to–a silent vaudeville dance routine based on this tune. Weird but fun!

Now we have some lyrics!

Here’s a ukulele version of this country/western chestnut of a song. Tap or click on the next image to listen in and try to follow the convoluted lyrics.

I have to digress from my wanderings among those many “Daddy” songs of yesteryear to a more contemporary one. Alas, I must admit that I do this from time to time, but I do believe it’s important (ahem) from a musicological as well as historical perspective. Pardon the language, but this is a great homage to a fascinating father and worth a listen on this special day. Click or tap on the next image for a good ole country music look at a real “Daddy!

So, to all you fathers out there–good or bad ***– and to all of you who have or have had fathers, grandfathers, dads, papas, and—in various interpretations—”Daddies,” a happy, safe, sequestered Fathers’ Day this year for you and yours!

So, remember dear old Dad, keep that mask on, keep your distance, keep on strumming, and STAY TUNED!

And, if you can, give dear old dad, grandpa, “Daddy” or whatever a great big kiss!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 25–13 June 2020: “It’s About Time to Hit the Beach”

During our stay-indoors Springtime, a lot of folks are dreaming about heading out and social distancing on a beach, any beach.  Blankets, umbrellas, and coolers in tow and sand, sun, and waterish frolic to be shared (responsibly) and enjoyed. 

I’m not a salt-water person, however.  I grew up in the so-called “Heartland” of America where we could visit a nearby lake or river, and I lived and worked for many years in sight of one of the Great Lakes.

So, needless to say, I have an aversion to water that is full of predators and impossible to drink! But others, of course, may have other thoughts.

Beaches, to say the least, have been a staple of ukuleledom since Portuguese sailors brought the ancestors of the ukulele to the sandy shores of Hawaii. 

Hordes of tourists flowed to the sand and sea and sipped their mai tais from coconut cups in the shade of palm trees, strove to learn the “wiki-waki”culture, and strummed—sort of—on their souvenir ukuleles.

I can’t believe I found a ukulele version of this oldie, played on a “Ludwig Professional” banjolele no less! Tap or click on the next image to hear some weird lyrics and really good strumming.

As with “O’Brien,” most of the tunes the tourists strummed were written and published on New York’s Tin Pan Alley but, for many, these evoked the ukulele culture that became the so-called “essence of Hawaii.” Native girls with their ukuleles and tourist men in their suits, neckties, and hats were the standard.

Needless to say, there were other beaches around the world almost, I presume, as attractive.

Of course, there were discomforts, of a sort, with beach adventures. Here’s a version of that 1930s tune, “I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes.” Tap or click on the next image for this one played on that cousin of the four-string ukulele, the six-string “guitalele.”

Needless to say, ukulele makers and sellers on the so-called “Mainland” also jumped on the ukulele beach wagon. These folks made and sold the grandparents of our favorite little instruments many of which, of course, perpetuated the beachy aura of the islands . . .

. . . even if they were purchased in Manhattan or Dubuque and never got closer to the water or a real beach than the old “’swimmin’ hole.” 

Others did, however, make it to a seriously sandy and sunny beach.

There are also some contemporary versions of ukuleles decorated with scenes of sand and sea. I’m sure they help evoke the sound of waves pounding on beaches or the like. Maybe not, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

While there are scores of sheets of more recent “beach music,” my wont–as should by now be expected by you, my gentle readers–is to focus on some of the earlier stuff out there in music land.  Not surprisingly, there are many tunes to choose from.  Here are just a few of the really old ones–way, WAY before my time!

And, of course, that perennial musical chestnut:

Now here’s an early rendition of this song with some great illustrations. Tap or click on the next image for a salty treat.

And, then, there were the novelty songs–some OK for dancing but mostly for the vaudeville stage. Ah, the simple humor of the day.

If you can put up with a scratchy old shellac record of this one, click or tap on the next image. It’s a mother’s lesson for her daughter, so to speak–about the dangers that may be lurking “in the water.”

So, now, the big question.  What kind of ukulele do you take to the beach?  Certainly not a vintage mahogany Martin or brand-new solid koa wood Snowshoe or, for that matter, anything made of wood. Bad idea!

There are, however, a few nifty ukuleles that could be considered—provided the bonfire on the beach is not too high or hot. Think plastic! Here is an appropriately decorated oldie and a couple of newer, high-tech ones that that play well and sound surprisingly good–when not filled with water or sand!

Here’s the oldie, from the 1950s.

Then there’s the newer Kala “Waterman,” a nifty little piece of modern plastic engineering. Quite waterproof, I understand.

I’m not sure of the tone and tuning when put to the ultimate test, however.

And, then, there’s the appropriately named newer “Outdoor” ukulele from Oregon. I keep one of these (a bottle-green tenor) on our screened porch here in Northampton–both handy and weatherproof!

They even make an “Outdoor” banjolele!

The classic “beach ukulele,” however, has to be that mid-century modern ukulele type specifically designed for sand and surf. You could simply jab the extended pointy neck into the sand when it was time to stop strumming and roast hot dogs, pop a cone-top, or do whatever else folks did on the beach sixty or seventy years ago. (That far back? Oh my . . .)

Needless to say, this nifty number came in all sorts of fun colors and included a double-neck!

Believe it or not, there’s a YouTube of a guy playing one of these. A bit more recent tune than my usual but, the uke’s the thing! Tap or click on the next image and you can play along even if you are sitting on your carpet not a beach.

Since we’ve swum over to mid-century in this posting, I thought I’d look up a more recent song (1950s) that is more Massachusetts “beachy.” Having found nothing musical about Musante Beach here in Northampton, or Puffer’s Pond in nearby Amherst, however, I guess the beaches of “Old Cape Cod” will have to do. Sand and fried clams. Hooray for the clams!

Here’s a ukulele version of this oldie but goody. Tap or click on the next image for a musical whiff of lobster stew with, of course, an ocean view. And clams.

So, go find your beach wherever you can, even if only in your memory or imagination. Grab those face masks. Eeeew, perhaps not these . . .

. . . maybe one of these.

Stay safe, stay socially distanced, stay away from too much sand and undrinkable salty water, keep your ukulele dry, and STAY TUNED!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 24–6 June 2020: “A Not So Nasty Pleasure or Vice”

During these weeks of sequestration and social distancing I’ve spent a bit of time in relative inactivity (tranquility?). Nonetheless, I find myself still able to muse on a wide range of ukulele- and music-related topics.  Alas, however, more than a few of these thoughts seem to touch on what some of you gentle readers (but certainly not all) may see as a few nasty (to some) habits that infuse our world. But, unsurprisingly, these have inspired much musical attention over the years—that is to say, the vices and pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, and–oh yes–bacon. 

Now, where else could my mind drift and still keep my musings relatively G-rated?  So, over my four morning newspapers, with my second large mug of coffee in hand and my thoughts roaming from potential topic to theme, there poured out the answer!  Coffee, Coffee, COFFEE! 

So, remember the anniversary of D-Day today, and pour another cup of something—coffee or whatever passes for coffee these days—

and set your uke aside between sips and follow along.

I grew up listening to my folks remember when hamburgers were five for a quarter, with a free cup of coffee. 

And, often I heard the oft-spoken opinion: “That and a nickel will buy you a cup of coffee.”  Those were the days, at least for coffee.  Can you get anything for a nickel at Starbucks today?

A so-called “teaching moment:”


Coffee songs of those days were pretty simple and spoke of the good things in life.

Here’s a ukulele version of this Depression Era “try-to-make-the-best-of-it” song. Click or tap on the next image to hear some strumming and singing.

Here’s a lively rendition of this tune with some great Art Deco graphics. Mmmm good! Tap or click on the next image to give it a go.

Here’s the quintessential version of this one by Frankie himself. Click or tap on the next image for a cuppa from Brazil.

Tap or click on the next image to hear the original version of this song by the King Sisters themselves–one of the original “Beautyshop Quartettes.”.

Here you go with Bill Haley and His Comets. If you don’t mind some 1950s rock, click or tap on the next image.

A torchy rendition of this old tune. Tap or click on the next image to listen in.

And, of course, many, many others.

And, we shouldn’t forget the ukuleles, some old . . .

And some new.

And, of course, the all important containers!

Now for a jazzy ukulele version of, appropriately named “Coffee Cup Rag” played on a vintage Martin Style “O” soprano. Tap or click on the next image to hear some nifty strumming!

So, stay safe, stay masked, stay distanced, stay well brewed, figure out a socially acceptable way to enjoy your coffee or whatever, and STAY TUNED!


UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 23–30 May 2020: “The Ukulele as Corona Comfort Food”

As we approach a third month of sequestration and social distancing, I—and I am sure that many of you fellow strummers—have a craving for what is universally recognized as “comfort food.”  Never mind thoughts of “excess avoirdupois,” I want THAT NOW!  And lots of it.  So it is with the world of ukuleles.

It is a well known fact that high on the list of comfort foods is good old bacon, either straight or as a condiment.  And, it is also a well known fact that the UKULELE is the BACON of music!  Having said that, here we go  .  .  .

First, lets take a look at a few, shall we say, bacon-ed up ukuleles.  None here from my collection but worth a look nonetheless.

A strap instead of a strip, I think.

Then, of course, we have the classic banjo ukuleles made by the BACON Banjo Company of Groton, Connecticut–later Bacon & Day or plain old B&D.  These range from simple models to the super tootsed-up, mother of pearled, gold plated numbers that sell today in the thousands of dollars—or pounds in the UK.  A pound of bacon banjo uke? Hmmm  . . .  

Just to give you a sense of the sound, here is some strumming on a BACON banjo uke. Even though this is a low-end instrument of their line, it sounds pretty good for its age! Tap or click on the next image for a listen.

And then there are the tunes.  Alas, not much in the way of BACONish sheet music out there.

How about a newer “BACON” song, just in time for breakfast! Click or tap on the next image for a taste treat.

And how about an unheralded, but appropriately named, ukulele player: Kevin BACON.  Admittedly, a bit of a stretch here but that’s what musings are all about

Click or tap on the next image to hear him in action.

Or, how about the BACON Brothers with one of our old island favorites, “Ukulele Lady.

So stay sequestered, stay safe, find your comfort food, disremember calories, and STAY TUNED!

Oh, yes. Wear your mask!

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 22–23 May 2020: “A Musical, Historical, and Ukulele Trifecta”

Well, it’s not too often that my musing stars align with a trifecta–the anniversary of a feat by an American hero, a link to our hometown Northampton’s Smith College, and vintage ukuleles!  Wow.  It’s fun to muse these days about something that has nothing to do with viruses, sequestration, and social distancing.  So, who is our hero?  None other than “Lindy” himself, Charles Lindbergh.

His solo flight from New York to Paris, in May of 1927, was a thrill for Americans living in the Roaring Twenties and adulation on both sides of the Atlantic poured out.  Men cheered and ladies swooned as Lindbergh’s picture was in every newspaper, magazine, and movie newsreel for months.

Needless to say, music publishers jumped all over this and a score of sheet music offerings—some joyful, some banal, most soon forgotten—were on music store shelves all over America. 

Here’s a contemporary recording of the “angel” tune with some great graphics. Click or tap on the next image for a look and listen.

There are more! The next one shows Lindy and his mother. His father was a US Congressman from Minnesota.

Here’s a bouncy version of this George M. Cohan tune. Click or tap on the next image for a listen.

Here are a few more of the dozens of songs that were out there in the sweet old days.

Tap or click on the next image to hear this hearty salute to the hero.

Here’s a more modern version of a “Lindy” tune but well worth a listen and a look. Tap or click on the next image for a treat.

Most, as would be expected, had ukulele chords printed right above the score

and everyone seemed to be playing and singing the tunes.  And, of course, there were ukuleles to be had!

Here’s that Stromberg Voisinet “Aero Uke,” probably the rarest of the lot today. Here’s a reproduction I made to fill a hole in my collection. It sounds pretty good!

Here’s a banjo uke version, an original from my collection.

This one from my collection was endorsed by the famed ukulele player Johnny Marvin back in the 1920s. It has a “Lindy style” airplane bridge, no less!

There were also strings!

And, alas, the one ukulele I keep looking for! I might just have to cut a stencil and make a copy, properly labeled of course. We’ll see.

Now, the Northampton connection.  According to our favorite local newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Lindbergh flew into the local airFIELD (it became a commercial airPORT in 1929) multiple times in order to visit his then girlfriend, Anne Morrow, a student at Smith College, class of 1928.   They were married in 1929.

That year, Anne–a budding aviatrix herself– flew solo for the first time.

Needless to say, aviation was in the couples blood and, in the 1930s, they explored and charted air routes all over the world. There was even a song about them!

Whether or not he courted her by taking her up in his airplane over our Happy Valley and Smith College has, alas, always been a matter of conjecture. 

Let us simply note the fact that he was a frequent visitor. 

Anne went on to literary fame with her most popular book being Gift from the Sea. In 1955, she was described as “one of the leading advocates of the nascent environmental movement” and the book became a national bestseller.

There are, of course, autobiographies, biographies, articles, and all sorts of scholarship on the Lindberghs.  And, their life story is way, WAY beyond the scope of this simple musical muse.  Suffice it to say that the charmed life of Charles and Anne was shattered by the kidnapping and subsequent death of their infant son in the 1930s. 

Alas, the Lindbergh name was again plastered over newspapers and newsreels all over the country. Sad this time. 

Alas, again, Charles, a highly visible public advocate for keeping America out of Europe’s troubles in the years leading up to World War Two, had his reputation tarred by many (including Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and Woody Guthrie in song) as being a German sympathizer as well as an isolationist.  Whereas Anne became renowned for her writing, Charles faded from public esteem during the war years although he did join the American forces once the war started and flew fifty missions in the Pacific Theater albeit as a civilian consultant rather than in the military.

And, at last, his early heroics were re-appreciated thanks to James Stewart in the way only movie magic can do.

 But we still have the stories, the songs, and—most important to us—the ukuleles! So, gentle readers, we wind up this musing with a tune played on a genuine “Aero Uke,” not mine! Click or tap on the next image to be flown away, musically speaking.  

Stay safe, keep strumming, study up on local lore, stay grounded, and STAY TUNED!

(As an aside, Alison’s mother was a Smithie, class of 1930, and remembered sharing a few classes with the then Anne Morrow. Small world . . .)