Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Help Me Make It Through The Night – Kris Kristofferson

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One of the marks of a good song must surely be the number and variety of cover versions. If that is the case then Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” must by rights be judged a good, if not great, song. From it’s humble roots as a country ballad on his debut album in 1970 (an album that incidentally included at least another three classics – Me and Bobby McGee, For the Good Times and Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down) the song has established a life of its own and could rightly be considered a standard.

Popularised in the US by Sammi Smith, within months it was being covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, and soon was the subject of sultry soul interpretations (Gladys Knight), reggae (John Holt) and moody suaveness (who else but Bryan Ferry). And that’s before you include the countless country versions (Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash). Somewhat bizarrely (given the subject matter) it as also performed by child sensation Lena Zavaroni at the age of 10!

A song of yearning for sexual intimacy, needing comfort, succour and relief, it has been popular with both male and female singers alike, the latter being the source of some controversy in the somewhat conservative echelons of the early 1970s country music establishment (the past truly was a different country).

So here’s the songsheet. Nothing tricky, nothing clever. Just a good song sung straight. This is in the same key as the Kris Kristofferson version above, but feel free to adapt for your reggae / soul / thrash metal version, as you see fit. Enjoy!

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Wayfaring Stranger

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wayfaringstrangerThe origins of this song, like so many in the folk tradition, appear lost in the mists of time. What is clear is that it is an American spiritual / folk song that surfaced in the 19th century, and has been variously adapted since then. There is no definitive version, no definitive set of lyrics (that I can discover). It is clearly of a spiritual nature, a song of life’s journey, of hope and looking to a better future in the light of the the troubles and hardships of today. Whilst there are explicitly religious (Christian) versions of the song (and I would guess that is undoubtedly its roots) the rather less specific / dogmatic nature of the first couple of verses have ensured a universal appeal.

That universality, and the beautiful, haunting nature of the song have ensured myriad versions of the song have been recorded. I was originally aware of the song from versions by Emmylou Harris (probably still my favourite), Eva Cassidy, Johnny Cash and Jack White (from the film “Cold Mountain“), but somebody has also tried to document all the versions out there – good luck to them with that! Of more recent and contemporary note is a version by Ed Sheeran, proving that it is a song that continues to speak to generation after generation.

So why a new ukulele song sheet? Well there are certainly plenty of versions out there, but none really did it for me by themselves. So this is something of a hybrid, culled from a number of sources. It’s in the same key as the Johnny Cash version, but purely because I find it easier to sing in that key. Transpose (or use a capo) if it doesn’t work for you. I’ve included two versions – page 1 I guess you called call the more universalist version, whilst page 2 includes the more explicitly religious verses (I sourced these from here). Take your pick dependent on your predilections. And enjoy! (BTW – if you fancy finger-picking, here is a pattern you might want to try)

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Virginia Plain – Roxy Music

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roxymusicVirginia Plain was a bolt from the blue when Roxy Music first appeared on Top Of The Pops. The Great British public had never seen or heard its like before. Coming over like a hugely glamorous and alien cross between the 1950s and science fiction, this was a look and sound designed to blast away the dour mood of 1970s Britain. Structurally it was not your typical pop-fare either, a chorus free song (about who-knows-what!) awash with Brian Eno’s synthesisers, an improvised guitar solo from Phil Manzanera, the strains of Andy Mackay’s oboe and sax, and topped by the knowing, mannered vocals of Bryan Ferry. This was art-school pop at it’s finest. And this was a debut single, which reached number 4 in the UK charts.

In some ways Roxy never bettered this, although their career arc was never less than fascinating. An avant-garde first album, a sound consolidated and perfected on the second, a collection of three more solid (and more mainstream) albums following Eno‘s departure, a career break and then a return with an increasingly sophisticated sound that peaked with their final album, Avalon. Hugely influential, particularly on the post-punk / new-pop sounds the late 70s and early 80s, Roxy Music have carved out a very definite place in the history of popular music.  Oh, and did I mention those album covers?!

So a ukulele version? Really?! Well why not. The song sheet has been to a large part inspired by this version by The Re-Entrants, which I think is great. There are two song sheets, one with just chords (which should be reasonably self-explanatory), and one including tab for the opening and bridge riffs, and for the solos. I don’t vouch for the total accuracy of these (in particular the descending chords at the end of the solo) but they sound OK (note that I’ve taken the song up a key to make it easier to play). Anyway, have a bash and amend as you see fit. Enjoy!

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Lord Of The Starfields – Bruce Cockburn

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fallingdarkI first became aware of Canadian singer-songwriter in the late-80s via. a copy of the Greenbelt magazine Strait. And I first heard his music via. a bargain bin discovery of his 1987 compilation Waiting For A Miracle. Cockburn emerged in the early 1970s as a folk/jazz influenced singer-songwriter. As his career progressed both spiritual and political themes became increasingly prevalent in his music, which during the 1980s became more rock-oriented in terms of sound. The 1990s saw him pick up display more roots influences (particularly on a trio of great albums recorded with T-Bone Burnett) before displaying more jazzy-influences on albums such as The Charity Of Night. To be honest much of his recent material has been less than stellar in my mind (with the notable exception of the double live album Slice O’ Life), but that doesn’t detract from the quality of that older material.

The Christian world-view was always a big part of the attraction of Cockburn to me. I guess that as that world-view (or at least the practice of it) has faded in relevance and credibility to me, so I’ve listened to less of his music. But that is probably my loss. Prompted by I-don’t-know-what I listened to a few of his songs last weekend and it reminded me of what a great and underrated artist he is (not to mention a phenomenal guitarist – I always marvel at how this live version of After The Rain is just one man!).

Lord Of The Starfields, from the 1976 In The Falling Dark album, has been described by Cockburn as his attempt at “trying to write something like a psalm”. It is deeply spiritual song about the wonder of creation, written from an explicitly Christian viewpoint. Whilst that viewpoint may be one I have less sympathy with than I once did, nevertheless this is still a wonderful and beautiful song – a song of awe and wonder.

So a ukulele version?! Well, on the assumption that a good song will always shine through, then why not. The songsheet is just chords, but I tend to finger-pick this one. I feel like the song deserves it – it is delicate and lovely (not words always associated with the ukulele, certainly not with my singing), and picking is my attempt to reflect that . Don’t ask me what pattern I use – I couldn’t tell you, and it’s probably different every time I do it – but give it a go. Enjoy!

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Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell

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Fact : Jimmy Webb has produced some of the most sublime songs in pop history. By The Time I Get To Phoenix, GalvestonMacArthur ParkThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Up, Up and Away are all glorious songs. But one song stands above all the others in my book, and that is Wichita Lineman.

Webb’s collaborations with Glen Campbell have been kind to both men, and the Campbell version is so definitive it is one of those times when it just seems so pointless anybody else releasing a version. Campbell’s recording of the song cannot be bettered (another fact!). I’m not alone in feeling that either – apparently Stuart Maconie called it “the greatest pop song ever composed”, and somebody at the BBC referred to it as “one of those rare songs that seems somehow to exist in a world of its own – not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music”.

What makes the song so great is a little hard to pin down. It’s a wistful piece, dwelling on a long-distance absence from a lover. The line “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” is so evocative, it’s genius. The musical backing should be syrupy and full-on middle-of-the-road, drenched as it is in a sweet string arrangement. But somehow it rises above all of that – from the dramatic opening, the morse-code lines between the verses, the twanging guitar solo, the soaring strings, and the gorgeous fade-out, this is faultless.

So you’ll have guessed that I’m not expecting a ukulele version to improve on the original. But that said, it is a beautiful song to sing, even if me singing it isn’t exactly beautiful. I couldn’t find a ukulele song sheet that I liked, and so have adapted this from a number of guitar tab sites. I’m not claiming this is perfect, but it sounds OK to me (suggestions for improvements gratefully received).

There are two copies – one of which just contains the chords, the other of which contains the chords plus some tab as well – for the introduction, for the morse-code interludes, and for the instrumental half-verse (plus there’s an instrumental whole verse just for fun!).

Enjoy!

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