Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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This Old Town – Nanci Griffith

othervoicesNanci Griffith has one of those voices that some people find hard to love. I get that. No matter. For me she is a fine writer of songs, and when she performs them they are very obviously Nanci Griffth songs. Sitting in a place somewhere between folk and country, she’s never really been part of either scene – too country for the folk crowd, too folk for the country crowd. But since her debut in 1978 she has ploughed her own furrow, and in the process built up an impressive body of work. The songwriting craft and tradition is one that Nanci is clearly part of – economical with language, painting vignettes that tell the stories of “ordinary” lives – little slices of life as it is lived, of the loves, hopes and fears of people.

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So as an artist for whom songwritting is such a big part of who she is, it is somewhat surprising (and possibly dissappointing) that her most successful venture has been an album of other people’s songs. In actual fact it’s not that surprising, as she has always sung the virtue of the great (if unacclaimed) song writers, and has regularly included the songs of others on her albums. But 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms album (and it’s 1998 follow-up Other Voices, Too) was a focussed and deliberate project to highlight songs that had been influential on Nanci’s songwriting and her career. With it’s title lifted from a Truman Capote novel, and featuring songs by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph MacTell, Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot and many others, Nanci proved that she is not just a great songwriter, but also a great interpreter of other’s songs, making many of the songs her own, and creating a wonderfully cohesive collection in the process.

One of those songs was this one, This Old Town, which was written by Janis Ian. At the time it was unreleased by Janis, not appearing until 1999 on a collection of previously unreleased songs. So whilst this was a cover of somebody else’s song, Nanci’s version was essentially it’s first outing, and as a result she claimed it. The song is very clearly one set in a small dust bowl town (Nanci grew up in Texas, an area much impacted by the dust bowl) and paints brief sketches of that town from the 1920s, highlighting all the things that could have destroyed it, yet rejoicing in the fact that the town and its people have weathered those storms, and that it is the people at the heart of that town which make it the community it is.

So here’s the songsheet. Nothing too complicated here, although the timing is sometimes a little tricky. Best to listen and play along to the original to get the feel for it. Play with a sprightly feel – ideal for strumming, or some fancy picking (but that’s beyond me!). Enjoy!

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Rhythm Of The Rain

rhythmoftherainsylviesimmonsDespite being an enthusiastic discoverer of the joys of playing the ukulele over the last 18 months, that joy of playing hasn’t really translated itself into a joy of listening to uke-based music. I’m not too sure why that is, and to be fair I don’t think that I’ve really given a lot of the artists out there much of a try, but I haven’t developed a huge urge to seek out and listen to ukulele artists. I guess that is in part because for me it is an instrument to make music with first, and a ukulele second, and so I don’t get hung up with the whole “4 strings good, 6 strings bad” philosophy, nor with the evangelistic promotion of the ukulele above all others. For me it is an instrument that I can play reasonably OK, that I can play together with others, and which allows an outlet for musical expression that I haven’t really had for a long while.

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I’ve also never been a huge fan (in any instrumentation or genre) of technique or style for their own sake. For me, technique, technical competence and capability should always be subservient to the song, the emotions, the feeling that is being communicated through the music. So whilst there is nothing wrong with technique per se, I sometimes find (and the few ukulele artists I’ve come across suffer from this, at least from my perception) that the emotional heart of the music is lost in a triumph of technique over heart, and that is not what I look for in music. At it’s core music for me is something that is more than just the sum of it’s superficial parts, it is something that connects, often at an almost sub-conscious level, with what is deep within us, and which takes us out of that ourselves and opens us up to broader vistas, that hurts and heals in a magical way.

So what has all this philosophising got to do with what might seem a slightly shallow, obvious early 60s throwback of a song? Well earlier this week I stumbled across a new album by an artist I had never heard of before, and it captured my heart. Sylvie Simmons is a renowned music journalist who has interviewed many of the major stars of rock over the years, and who has most recently made her name as a biographer of Leonard Cohen. However, she has just released her debut album of (mostly original) songs, and it is a beauty. And this is an album that is almost exclusively ukulele-based. Although it is not a ukulele album (if that, and my previous philosophising, make sense). Largely just herself and her simply strummed ukulele, Sylvie sings a haunting selection of literate and emotionally engaging songs that lend a lie to the myth of the ukulele being the happy instrument that must always make you smile. As Sylvie says;

ā€œIā€™d always thought of the ukulele as a toy, a little handful of happiness, but it has a sad, fractured sweetness, like a broken harp, and a modesty; it almost apologizes for being there. And yet these songs kept coming through this tiny instrument with all their heartbreak and truth intact.ā€

It’s probably not for everybody, and her voice may be an acquired taste (it reminds me of Rickie Lee Jones circa “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard”, and some of Jewel’s more fragile moments), but for me it is a balm for the soul. And whilst the original songs on the album are great (check out “You Are In My Arms” as an example) one song that stood out for me was her cover of Rhythm of The Rain (you knew we’d get to the song eventually, didn’t you!). The sole hit (in the UK, at least) for 1960s group The Cascades, Sylvie’s version is an altogether more fragile and bitter rendition. Taking the not-at-all-unusual-for-a-sixties-(or-any-other-decade)-pop-song theme of an unrequited love who has left town, never to return, Sylvie swaps the gender but then adds some slight lyrical tweaks (“the motherfucker took my heart”) and performs the song in a quitely world-weary, heartbroken tone that lets you know in a gently self-mocking tone that her world has fallen apart and, oh, why has she been so stupid.

There’s no version of this on YouTube yet (go buy the album instead!), but here’s a Spotify link to Sylvie’s version:

And here’s the original:

And so to the songsheet. Well, as with much of the pop songs from this era the song is a very simple and straightforward one. It’s in the same key (G) as the Sylvie Simmons version (the original is in E). Sylvie’s version is played with a very simple picking pattern, which is constant all the way through, and is basically just a steady picking of the C-E-A-E strings, repeated throughout. Lyrically the songsheet reflects the original version, but for completeness, I’ve also included a “gender reassigned” version for those of the opposite persuasion. Enjoy!

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