Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Kirsty MacColl – Galore (++)

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This songbook has been one that has been brewing for a while. Thinking about artists and songwriters who have amassed a body of quality songs that still work when pared down to their very basics, Kirsty was one of those artists that I kept coming back to. With Southampton Ukulele Jam we have regularly performed They Don’t Know and A New England (the Billy Bragg song that she made into a hit). But this was finally kicked into life by a suggestion in one of our small groups of doing In These Shoes, from her Cuban-inspired final album, Tropical Brainstorm. And so here it is.

As I write this, the twentieth anniversary of MacColl’s tragic, untimely death has just passed. Killed in a boating accident in 2000, at a time when – both personally and professionally – her life was on an up, the world lost a talented, witty and sadly underrated artist and songwriter. We’ll never know what gems might have surfaced had it not been for that incident, but what we are left with is a body of work that established a high-water mark for songwriters of any ilk.

The daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl (best know as the writer of the classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face) and theatre director Joan Littlewood, Kirsty was an exceptionally gifted child who was always destined to do something great. However she wasn’t to take the folk singer route that her father had been such a hard-lined exponent of, and instead – after a brief dalliance in a punk band – pursued the route of a classic English songwriter, whose songs offered warm and witty vignettes and mini soap operas. But from the beginning her career suffered from a stop-start pattern that ultimately meant that she never had the constant presence in people’s short memories that would have allowed her to establish herself more firmly. Coupled with a crippling stage-fright early on, a period spent bringing up family with husband Steve Lillywhite (uber-producer for the likes of U2 an Simple Minds), a habit of directing her energies towards supporting other artists rather than furthering her own career, and a I’ll-do-it-my-way attitude that wouldn’t play the record company game, Kirsty struggled to get consistent traction.

And yet, as an artist and songwriter in her own right, and as a collaborator and interpreter of others songs, the quality bar was kept high throughout her life. From early 50s/60s-inspired songs such as They Don’t Know (a huge hit for Tracey Ullman) and There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis, to her cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England (for which Bragg wrote an additional verse), she earned love and respect from all she worked with. Later collaborations with Johnny Marr (of The Smiths) and Mark E. Nevin (of Fairground Attraction) led to a raft of classic songs across the five studio albums she left the world. Not forgetting the Christmas classic that is Fairytale of New York with The Pogues. And that’s before you factor in all her performances adding vocals to other people’s records (that’s her on records from Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Robert Plant, Billy Bragg, The Smiths, Robert Plant and Anni-Frid Lyngstad).

Her final album, 2000s Tropical Brainstorm, saw her finally hook her song writing to the Cuban and Brazilian music that was a massive love of hers – Kirsty regularly travelled to Cuba and Brazil, and was besotted by the music and culture of those places. What would have followed is anybody’s guess, but she had finally found happiness with a new partner (divorce from Lillywhite was followed by some dark times) and was at a creative peak. We lost a good one on the 18th December 2000. But these songs – all of her 1995 great hits collection, Galore, plus three additional songs – remain to remind us of a great talent.

Songs in this songbook: They Don’t Know / A New England / There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis / He’s On The Beach / Fairytale of New York (with The Pogues) / Miss Otis Regrets (with The Pogues) / Free World / Innocence / You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby / Days / Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim / Walking Down Madison / My Affair / Angel / Titanic Days / Can’t Stop Killing You / Caroline / Perfect Day / Terry / Soho Square / In These Shoes

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It’s Christmas! Again.

After last year’s posting of a bunch of Christmas classics (in my head, anyway – I don’t think the world has caught up yet), it seemed about time to turn this into a tradition (if that’s what doing it twice is) and offer up another bunch of obscure-yet-great Christmas tunes.

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Exhibit Five. Christmas In Paradise, by Mary Gauthier. An American folk singer-songwriter, Gauthier’s songs often take the perspective of the ne’er do wells, poor and downtrodden of society, and none more so than this song reflecting the experience of the homeless in Florida at Christmas time. With a big heart for those who haven’t been so fortunate, this is a seasonal reminder that it’s not always a time of tinsel and good cheer. Best played finger-picked.

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Exhibit Six. Just Like Christmas, by Low. Not exactly what you’d expect from a slowcore band, two-thirds of whom are Mormons. This song, from 1999’s mini album “Christmas” is a sleigh-bell-tastic Christmas classic that regularly makes those alternative Christmas song lists. The album, a bone-fide triumph, is way, way slower, darker and bleaker than this lead song might suggest, although no worse for that. But this track deserves to be up there alongside your Maria’s, your Wham’s and your Slade’s as a Christmas perennial.

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Exhibit Seven. You Trashed My Christmas, by The Primitives. The Christmas break-up is a recurrent theme in Christmas pop songs. And here’s a great record from the makers of Crash that combines that with a fuzz-laden, over-before-its-begun indie tune that should be being played everywhere for the duration of the Christmas season. How this tune has bypassed the public consciousness I cannot fathom, but here I am doing my bit to big it up.

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And for good measure, here’s the links to last year’s Christmas toons:


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Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness – John Prine / Nanci Griffith

John Prine is songwriters songwriter. Somebody who amassed a substantial body of work that influenced a raft of far more commercially successful songwriters from across the musical spectrum, but particularly those operating in a country and folk vein.

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I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Prine. Nor necessarily a fan. I’ve come to him more via. those he has influenced, including contemporary singers such as Jason Isbell, Kasey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, as well as those legends that revere him such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. But Nanci Griffith would have been my initial introduction to him, via. her cover of this beautiful song on her 1993 covers album, Other Voices, Other Rooms. On that album Griffith, already established as a respected country folk (too country for folk, too folk for country) songwriter and performer, recorded a collection of songs by her favourite songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, and Tom Paxton. And this gem by John Prine.

Described by critic David Fricke as “a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall way clock”, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness become an instant classic, something acknowledged by Prine when he later reflected “Jesus, that’s beautiful. I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was just pouring out of me”. Griffith had already performed the song as a duet with Prine, and so it made a lot of sense to record it for this project, particularly when joined by Prine on harmony vocals for the recording.

I was reminded of this song, and Griffiths recording of it, by a cover version by Kurt Vile on his recently released EP “Speed, Sound, Lonely KV”. Proof, if proof were needed, that a classic song is timeless.

Like many a classic song from this genre, this is a very straightforward song that shouldn’t prove too taxing. 3 chords (or 4 if you include the optional 7ths, which aren’t strictly part of the song but do add something), I’ve included two version – one in G as per Prine’s original, and one in C as per Griffith’s cover. Enjoy!

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How Long – Iris DeMent

A long time ago, in the early days of this blog, I posted an Iris DeMent song. You can read about her, her music and her background in that post – I won’t repeat myself here. But Iris has recently released a song – one that she has had written for a while but I don’t think has recorded – that has been in part inspired by Black Lives Matter, and is raising funds for the Poor People’s Campaign, a US-based campaign focussed on addressing system racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism.

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How Long takes some words cited by Martin Luther King, Jr (let justice roll down like water), themselves a biblical quote (Amos 5:24 if you’re interested) as the basis of a cry for justice, against a background of “power, greed and profit”. With its call for compassion, understanding and living life for the benefit of all, How Long is part of a long tradition of folk music railing against injustice, standing up for the underdog and speaking truth to power.

Being as DeMent loosely comes from a country music background, she has taken some stick for this – and other songs – which probably don’t sit well with your more traditional country audience. But that has never stopped her shying away from what she believes and what she feels needs to be said. DeMent is fearless in that regard, and all power to her.

Here’s the song sheet. It’s a fairly simple, traditional gospel / country structured song. I’ve transcribed it in the original key, which I think works OK for ukulele – it’s not a beginner song, but it’s not a really tricksy one either. Sing it loud, and sing it proud. Enjoy!


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August / Betty – Taylor Swift

Much to everybody’s surprise, Taylor Swift released a new album a couple of weeks ago. And much to my surprise, I really like it!

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It’s fair to say that I’m not really in Taylor Swift’s demographic. Or at least I thought I wasn’t. But when her new album – Folklore – appeared with less than 24 hours notice, I noticed one or two reviews which were very positive, in terms that intrigued me. Probably influenced as much by the title and the misty, back-to-nature monochrome cover, I thought I’d give it a go. And you know what – I really enjoyed it.

At heart it’s still a pop album, but the textures are vibe are much more of an indie folk feel, something that the involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner, and Bon Iver, were clearly designed to bring to the project. Written and recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown, the album is a marked contrast from the shiny, polished and upbeat pop of Swift’s most recent releases, but harks back to the collaboration she did with The Civil Wars for “Safe & Sound” on The Hunger Games soundtrack.

August is one of those lost summer love songs, one of three songs that Swift says “explore a love triangle [alongside Cardigan and Betty] from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives”.

And so here’s the song sheets. August is mainly a simple cycle of chords all the way through, with a subtle variation between verse and chorus. A basic strumming pattern that I’ve used on this is something like (with occasional variations) DDD DU UD DUD for the verses, and D DUD DU UDUDUD for the chorus and bridge – if that makes any sense! Betty, on the other hand, has a strumming pattern that is a bit like D D D DU.

Nothing more really to say other to say give them a go. Even if you think you don’t like Taylor. Enjoy!

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