NOHO BANJO AND UKULELE MUSING–“THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE”

UKULELE MUSING 51, 28 DECEMBER 2019:There’ll Be Some Changes Madeas we move on to a New Year!

Well, fellow strummers.  This is the last weekly musing (Number 51!) that I’ll be posting for 2019.  This year I have delved into the back stories of some of the songs from our Blue and Yellow Books and, because of my chronological age and musical interests, I have focused mostly on songs from the mid-twentieth to mid-nineteenth centuries. I have tried to explore these within their historical as well as musical contexts. 

At times that history might seem a bit too sharp or too flat for today’s ears; but, while facts and history don’t evolve over time, most music and many of our thoughts about it do. Nearly all of the songs in our books that I have mused about have morphed into so-called “standards”—fun to strum, fun to sing, and—to me—fun to know and learn a bit more about. All of this is what I have mused about over the past year.

So, thanks to those of you who have joined me for the ride.  Rest assured, my musings will continue next year in one form or another!

Anyway, as we make this transition to the New Year, there is a song found in our Blue Book appropriate for the occasion: “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” This was written by William Benton Overstreet (1888-1935), music, and William Wendall “Billy” Higgins (1888-1937), lyrics. Published in 1921, this is a good example of a popular song that has flourished in several genres, particularly as a jazz standard.

The song and its recording debut were revolutionary in that the composers, publisher, vocalist, record label, and the leader and musicians in the orchestra were ALL African-American.  Musicologists identify this song and recording as a notable milestone of the Harlem Renaissance.     

Overstreet was a songwriter, bandleader and pianist who worked in Kansas City, Chicago, and Harlem and early on used the word “jass” to describe his music. When he wrote and published the tune “Jazz Dance” in 1917, he changed things a bit and it was the first known use of the word “jazz” in a song title. 

As a songwriter, Overstreet was rated by Langston Hughes, a chronicler and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, as one of the “better poets of jazz.” 

Higgins, on the other hand, was an entertainer, and stage comedian. He was a singer as well as a songwriter—critically acclaimed as one of the most popular African-American comic actors of the 1920s. Often, as was done in those days, he performed in “blackface” makeup. Langston Hughes named him as one of the “Golden Dozen” black comedians of the Harlem Renaissance. He started his entertainment career in the South and achieved recognition performing in so-called “soldier shows” when he served in World War I.

After the war, he moved on to a vaudeville and musical career in Harlem where he linked up with Overstreet.

In the 1920s, “Changes” was recorded by vocalists Ethel Waters, Sophie Tucker, and others. 

Ethel Waters:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idtm0vGa01A

Sophie Tucker:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mw2bZFEztjc

In the 1930s, it was Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and others,

Benny Goodman:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWgOyfYYJPk

The Boswell Sisters, 1932:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWgOyfYYJPk

in the 1940s, Vaughn Monroe and Peggy Lee and the movie “Play Girl,” which used our song as one of its themes, kept “Changes” alive. 

Peggy Lee:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpPnDB2-PRk

In the 1950s and ‘60s there were recordings by Billie Holiday and Tony Bennet. 

Tony Bennett:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YElXtJelYWk

There were other movies that used the song and even Country and Western recordings by Bob Wills and Chet Atkins.  In all, there have been over 400 recordings since the 1920s! 

Bob Wills, The Texas Playboys:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbC2Pce4HRc

Chet Atkins (“updated” lyrics): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clLZqfQXsg4

And, how about some dance? Fosse Choreography:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcSE7fKYqk0

And, of course, Banjo Ukulele:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfPIckBeh4Y

IN CLOSING:

I began my postings on ukulele lore and music back in 2016 by focusing on some of the more interesting ukuleles in my collection. 

The next year I mused about ukulele history and ukulele culture.  The following year I wrote about ukuleles and ukulele music relative to holidays and calendar events.  And, of course, this year was about songs in our Blue and Yellow Books. 

Believe it or not, these add up to a posting nearly every week–almost 200 postings over the past four years!  Whew! Saved, of course, the old fashioned way. 

This might be all for this year but, all I can say is “STAY TUNED!”

NOHO BANJO AND UKULELE MUSING, “MELE KALIKIMAKA”

UKULELE MUSING 50, 21 DECEMBER 2019: “MELE KALIKIMAKA,” A Bit of Western Swing from America’s Westernmost State.

This wouldn’t be a serious ukulele posting this Christmas season without taking a look at that old favorite (chestnut?) Hawaiian holiday song, “Mele Kalikimaka”—the “thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day!”  This lively song, from our Yellow Book, is, however, a bit more “Hawaiian sort of” rather than “Hawaiian actual.”

Our song was written in 1949 by Robert Alex Anderson (1894-1995) and takes its title from the Hawaiian phrase “Mele Kalikimaka” meaning “Merry Christmas.”  The phrase, despite its island sound, is actually fashioned directly from English and was first coined and published in Hawaii in 1904.  Since the Hawaiian language follows a different phonetic system than English, it’s not possible to render a pronunciation that is really close to “Merry Christmas.” Standard Hawaiian does not have the “r” or “s” of English and it doesn’t use consonants at the end of syllables or in clusters.  So, without those alphabetical tools, the closest approximation to “Merry Christmas” evolved as “Mele Kalikimaka.”  Here’s a fun explanation of how this linguistic filtration works:

A Linguist’s Explanation:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0h-gbeI0AFQ

One of the earliest recordings of “Mele Kalikimaka”, 1950, was by Bing Crosby with the Andrews sisters—with more of a “western swing” rather than “hula” beat. 

This is the classic interpretation followed by, needless to say, hundreds of other cover artists over the past seventy years!

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJhYrC8Rq8w

And, of course, Don Ho: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mele+kalikimaka+don+ho

While our song falls squarely in the hape haole musical genre—that is, a song about Hawaii in English rather than from Hawaii in Hawaiian—it does have island cred because Anderson was born in Hawaii and settled there after college at Cornell and service in World War I.  He was an electrical/mechanical engineer and had a successful business career along with being an avid songwriter.  Not surprisingly he specialized in Hawaiian-themed songs and, aside from “Mele Kalikimaka,” his best known of more than two hundred songs is “Lovely Hula Hands.” 

Hula Hands:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yYSaXdUcrg


A graduate of Hawaii’s Punahoa School and Cornell University, Anderson was considered the “most Hawaiian” of the hapa haole composers and was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1985.

Here is a rare recording of him talking about his work:

R. Alex Anderson himself:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FvMXys3Ffw

Not just a composer, Anderson was a fighter pilot in World War I, was shot down over enemy territory, and made a daring escape from a German POW camp.  The 1935 Errol Flynn movie, “The Dawn Patrol,” was based on this adventure!

So, let’s have some fun with a few interpretations of this traditional Christmas—or should we say “Kalikimaka”—greeting from Hawaii.  Notice also how the Hawaiian steel guitar sounds a lot like the pedal steel guitar of country and western music. 

Small world!         

Dance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZTcqCGiu6A

Puppini Sisters with Ukuleles:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8iMXqHr774

The Long beard Brothers:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EWLBJTVpiQ

Bette Midler:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV_BGqgbxdc

And, of Course, Ukulele:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMBQu7aO_XI

 So, may you and yours have a Merry Christmas, “Mele Kalikimali, or whatever this year—and Stay Tuned!

NOHO BANJO AND UKULELE MUSING–“RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER”

UKULELE MUSING 48, 14 DECEMBER 2019:  “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER,” and the Author and Songwriter Who Will Also “Go Down in History!”

It isn’t often that I muse about a song that comes from a story written the same year I was born.  Yet, there is one that has become locked into our Christmas folklore. 

There is not a child today—or a Christmas display—that fails to include the ninth of Santa’s reindeer, “Rudolph!”  Needless to say, our Yellow Book recognizes this with the (probably way too often played in malls and stores this season) song “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” 

The character “Rudolph” was created by Robert Lewis May (1905-1976), a copywriter for the now defunct Montgomery Ward department store, in a booklet published in 1939. 

May created “Rudolph” for the retail and catalog giant that had been buying and giving away thousands of Christmas coloring books every year.  It was decided that by creating their own book they would save money, hence May’s assignment. 

The story goes that May, himself Jewish, was staring out his Chicago office window pondering how best to craft a Christmas story.  Meanwhile, a thick fog from Lake Michigan blocked his view.  Inspiration!  “Suddenly I had it!” he recalled. “A nose! A reindeer with a bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight!”  May considered naming this ninth reindeer “Rollo” or “Reginald” or several other names before deciding upon the name “Rudolph.”

A stumbling block in that day and age, May’s big bosses were concerned that most folks associated a “red nose” with chronic alcoholism and drunkards.  So, his idea was rejected.  

Determined that he was on to something good, however, he asked an illustrator buddy to draw a “cute reindeer” for him, one with a happily bright, red nose.  The sketch won over management and “Rudolph” went “down in history!” 

Free Christmas coloring books featuring Rudolph were made and 2.4 million were distributed, but the first publication of Mark’s book about “Rudolph” waited until 1947. 

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By that time, “Rudolph” had become so popular with children around the country that the retailer made a fortune by advertising and selling a host of Rudolph toys and trinkets.  Every kid wanted one and the Ward’s mail order catalog was the place to find them.  

Anyway, for the two or three of my followers who may not be familiar with the “Rudolph” story, here is a dry, academic summary:  Our tale is a poetic chronicle of a young reindeer who has an unusually luminous red nose. Mocked and excluded by his peers because of this distracting trait, “Rudolph” is called upon to prove himself one Christmas Eve when inclement weather at the North Pole results in poor visibility thus jeopardizing the yearly mission of Santa Claus.  Potential tragedy!  But, recognizing a glowing red nose as an instrument rather than an impediment, Santa commandeers Rudolph to lead his sleigh for the annual deliveries.  “Rudolph” agrees and is finally lauded by his fellow reindeer for his heroism and accomplishment. Positive triumph!

The story reads better as poetry and, for you English Lit Majors, here is a link to a copy of the original illustrated manuscript—written in “anapestic tetrameter,” the same as Clement Clarke Moore’s 1837, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas:”  

Link to May’s Original Manuscript:  https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript

Now, to our song!  In 1949, a couple of years after May’s book was published, our story takes an interesting turn.  The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by May’s brother-in-law, who happened to be the New York songwriter Johnny Marks (1909-1985).  Although he too was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs and, along with “Rudolph . . .,” wrote songs like “Rockin’ Round the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Alas, most of his non-holiday songs were pretty forgettable.  Not so jolly! 

In another interesting turn, our song was recorded in 1949 by—of all people—the Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry!  It hit number one on the charts that Christmas.  Autry’s recording sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season, eventually selling a total of 12.5 million. Cover versions included, sales exceed 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” another song by a Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin.  Again, go figure! 

Gene Autry:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVewSzpa44g

We won’t say anything here about the way-too-many movies and TV specials featuring “Rudolph” and the fact that Montgomery Ward and Gene Autry made a LOT of money from all this.  Sadly, not so much went to May and Marks.  They, however, will also “go down in history!”

So, just to leave us with an earworm, here are a few interpretations—from the simple to the . . .—of our little red-nosed Christmas tale:

Kindergarten Class:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c81df_u-XOk

Ella Fitzgerald/Bing Crosby:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0Ac6-zrhp4

John Denver:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ3nsBag5pU

Ray Charles:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-3INb4E26k

Jackson 5:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_p1YFKVNL4

Destiny’s Child:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS097wGdVp4

The Supremes:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0acyD5iEaPU

Punk Rock:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUjf78p92WI

A La Hamilton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7sm49fHlyI

And, of course, Banjo Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl9JfRGMdcI

To avoid your own red nose, stay away from too much eggnog this Christmas and STAY TUNED!

On another note, a disclaimer:  

It seems that there are a lot of political ads popping up on YouTube these days and some may nudge their way into my musings.  Needless to say, I DO NOT approve or endorse any of these.  My intent has always been to share with friends some facts and have some fun musing on songs and ukuleles.  Alas, we are going to have to live with all this folderol for the next year or so.  SAD.

NOHO BANJO AND UKULELE MUSING–“LULU’S BACK IN TOWN”

UKULELE MUSING 47, 7 DECEMBER 2019: “LULU’S BACK IN TOWN.” No regrets about this Hollywood, rather than Tin Pan Alley, tune!

Every once in a while, I run across an old favorite hidden in our Blue and Yellow Books that we’ve never chosen for any of our strum sessions—probably because the theme might be a bit too . . . well.    Anyway, it is 2019, and, after all, it even has been performed (sort of) by The Muppets! So, here goes another musing!

The Muppets:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2zq9APDeZM

The song is “Lulu’s Back in Town” written in 1935 by lyricist Alexander Dubin (1891-1945) and composer Harry Warren (1893-1981). 

The song was written for the movie musical “Broadway Gondolier” and sung by Dick Powell.  In simple phrases a man sings about getting ready for a date with “Lulu,” focusing all his attention on this awesome-in-his-eyes woman revisiting his home town—most likely Harlem.  We don’t know exactly who this Lulu is that has captured the gentleman—an old flame, a vaudeville queen, a burlesque star?  We don’t know, but our man is smitten. 

Dick Powell:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9lildd0DDI

The song was popularized by “Fats” Waller who’s 1935 recording topped the charts. It’s a standard today, and—like so many catchy tunes of the age—was recorded by dozens of performers in dozens of genres. 

It’s a true classic often performed as what some critics and reviewers in its day called a “rooster strut.”  Your guess is as good as mine.

Fats Waller:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2htyg_Hedc

Leon Redbone:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brjGl3sp7co

Nat King Cole:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypz94ACGwCY

Dubin collaborated with many composers on many, many songs—particularly in Hollywood—including that ukulele gem (?) “Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me.” 

Dubin and Warren also wrote songs for the musicals “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of Broadway.”

They won the Academy Award for their song “Lullaby of Broadway;” Warren also won an Academy Award for “Chattanooga Choo Choo”—the first “gold record” in history!  So much musical history in our little song books.

Chattanooga:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTwy8ruyY40

Anyway, back to our song.  Once, again, our Blue book only gives us the chorus, so here are the verses that Dick Powell and a few others sang: 

Verse:

Where’s that careless chambermaid?  Where’d she put my razor blade?
She mislaid it, I’m afraid.  It’s gotta be foun’!
Ask her when she cleaned my room, what she did with my perfume;
I just can’t lose it, I’ve gotta use it.  ‘Cause Lulu’s back in town

Chorus:

Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed . . .  Lulu’s back in town!

Verse:

You can bet I’ve got it bad.  Best complaint I’ve ever had.
We’ll be stepping out tonight, an’ struttin’, an’ how.
We’re in for the swellest time.  Finish up without a dime;
Look here, you fellers, I’ll make you jealous.  My Lulu, she’s a wow!
Chorus:

Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed . . .  Lulu’s back in town!

As a bit of a digression, an interesting musical quotation in the chorus of our “Lulu” references the songwriter Cole Porter: “You can tell all my pets, all my Harlem coquettes; Mister Otis regrets, that he won’t be around.”  This refers to the macabre Porter song of 1934, “Miss Otis Regrets.” 

After hearing a maudlin “cowboy’s lament” song, Porter and his cocktail party pals were inspired to improvise a bluesy, Manhattany parody along similar musical lines about a butler who explains why “Madam” can’t keep her regular lunch appointment.  In their boozy tale, “Miss Otis” was jilted and abandoned, located and killed her seducer, was arrested, jailed, and about to be hanged.  (Whew!)  Her butler made a final, polite apology to her visitors at the door saying “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” 

Various forms of “Miss or Mister Otis regrets” entered the lexicon of American pop culture and became a punchline for sophisticates throughout the 1930s.  The song, needless to say, became a blues/jazz standard when sung by the likes of Ethyl Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, and–in a more modern version–Bette Midler.

Ethyl Waters, 1934:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP2UypjZbMo

Bette Midler, 1990:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe26btsHHMs

So, whether or not we choose to strum (strut?) and sing “Lulu” in our Saturday sessions, it is still worth taking a look at if only to see what folks enjoyed and embraced eighty or so years ago. 

Cole Porter and friends enjoying and embracing . . .

What will folks think of 2019’s popular music eighty years from now?  We’ll just have to wait for our Purple (?) Book to come out!

Justice League:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjrA8B1Pd-Y

And, of course, Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWG8xCW3NPw

So, sew that button on your vest and STAY TUNED!

NOHO BANJO AND UKULELE MUSING–“AIN’T MISBEHAVIN'”

UKULELE MUSING 46, 30 NOVEMBER 2019: “Ain’t Misbehavin'” with lyrics by Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo, no less!

We associate this song from our Yellow Book with the stride and jazz pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943) but forget that the lyrics were by one Andy Razaf (1895-1973) who gives us a much more interesting back-story.

Razaf was born in Washington, D.C.  His birth name was Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo.  His father, part of the royal family of Madagascar was killed during the French invasion of that country and his pregnant mother, the 15-year old daughter of a black American diplomat, was forced to escape to the United States.   

He and his mother moved to Harlem, and at the age of 16 he quit school and took a job as an elevator operator at a Tin Pan Alley office building.  

A year later he penned his first song text, embarking on his career as a lyricist.  Swept up by the Harlem Renaissance, Razaf published poems in the emerging black press and soon was working with several Harlem composers. 

Collaborating with Waller, they wrote—along with “Ain’t Misbehavin’”—many now-classic songs including “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumpin’,” and ”Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”   In 1972, Razaf was recognized by his Tin Pan Alley peers in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“Fats” Waller was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comedic entertainer. His innovations in the Harlem “stride” style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano.

“Fats” Waller:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSNPpssruFY

His best-known composition is our song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and it was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984.   Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, many of them co-written with his closest collaborator, Razaf,

who described his partner as “the soul of melody… a man who made the piano sing… both big in body and in mind… known for his generosity… a bubbling bundle of joy.” It’s possible he composed many more popular songs and sold or gave them to other performers when times were tough.  Who knows?  How about some jazz organ?

“Fats “ Waller Organ Jazz:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmQbuTPF3lA&list=PLCB87A233341DCE22

Meanwhile, back to our song!

Ain’t Misbehavin’” was written in 1929 for the Harlem and Broadway musical comedy “Connie’s Hot Chocolates”—a revue featuring black artists that, because of its popularity, was one of the earliest Harlem musicals to move to Broadway and play for predominantly white audiences. 

Girls from the 1929 show:

It is said that Waller had the idea for the song while “lodging” in prison (for an alimony violation), and that is why he was not “misbehaving.”  Razaf picked up the theme and ran with it!

As usual, our Yellow and Blue Books seldom offer more than the chorus of a song.  So, here are the two verses used in the musical that make the song-story a bit more fun.

Ain’t Misbehavin’


 Verse 1: Tho’ it’s a fickle age, With flirting all the rage,
Here is one bird with self-control, Happy inside my cage.
I know who I love best, Thumbs down for all the rest,
My love was given, heart and soul, So it can stand the test.

Chorus: No one to talk with  . . .

Verse 2 : Your type of man is rare, I know you really care,
That’s why my conscience never sleeps, When you’re away somewhere.
Sure was a lucky day, When fate sent you my way,
And made you mine alone for keeps, Ditto to all you say.

Chorus:  No one to talk with  . . .

Ruth Etting, With Verses:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF4ZCmZT0j8

Another back-story has to do with, of all folks, Louis Armstrong. 

He made his Broadway debut as part of the pit band for the show and his cornet solo on opening night was such a hit with the audience that he was asked to perform it on stage for the rest of the show’s run.  Another musical tidbit! 

Louis Armstrong:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec0Es-Hdpn0

Our song has been around a long, long time and has been covered by nearly everyone in nearly every genre.  It was the theme of a movie (with an all-white cast)

and a popular Broadway Musical (with an all-black cast) was based on the works of Waller. 

From the Musical:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xg1DjwkxThc

Here are a few other interpretations—choose your earworm of the day!

Barbershop:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAMHEKTVAEA

Bill Hayley and His Comets:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSJrcXpBg_s

Willie Nelson:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv6N93klOZc

Django:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGmAkFWD3PA

And, of course, Ukulele:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrxSJIHoIIk

Stay Tuned!