Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Sunshine Superman – Donovan

SunshineSupermanDonovan emerged from the 1960s folk scene with a sound that was influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, but most noticably by Bob Dylan. That Dylan influence has proved something of an millstone around his neck, something amplified by the reactions of Dylan himself when he toured the UK in 1965, famously captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film “Don’t Look Back”.

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By 1966, however, Donovan was starting to move away from the limitations of the folk scene, and began immersing himself in the emerging counter-cultural hippie scene. Picking up particularly on the psychedelic sounds emerging from the US West Coast (bands such as Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane), but also on jazz, blues and eastern sounds, Sunshine Superman – the start of a collaboration with successful produced Mickie Most – proved to be a huge breakthrough for Donovan, topping the US charts, and becoming a massive hit almost everywhere else.

The song sheet is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original. I’ve included tab for both the intro riff, the riff that occurs during the verses, plus an approximation of a solo. At some point I’ll get around to recording the latter to give some indication of what its meant to sound like. Enjoy!

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Ode To Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry

OdeToBillyJoeSometimes a song arrives so perfectly formed that its difficult to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist.  And sometimes a song becomes so iconic that it overshadows the artist that created and performed it. I think both of those things apply to this classic.

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Ode To Billy Joe is a song, like You’re So Vain or American Pie, that has created a huge amount of debate, discussion and speculation. Originally the b-side to her debut single, Mississippi Delta, Ode… started picking up US airplay and eventually topped the charts there. It’s sparse sound was a contrast to the country rock sound of Mississippi Delta, but it is the enigmatic lyrics that have given the song its long-lasting mystique. Exactly what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Why did Billie Joe commit suicide? I’m not going to add to the debate that has ensued endlessly since the songs original release (see here and here for a flavour of that) – suffice to say it is one of those debates that will run and run.

Gentry never really eclipsed this performance (hard to see how that could be possible) despite a series of classy releases. She had continued success in the late 60s and early 70s, but effectively dropped off the public radar by 1972 to focus on television production work, and disappeared entirely from public life in the early 1980s, lending to her own life a degree of the mystery that surrounded this her most iconic song.

There’s not much to say about the song sheet. It’s a simple set of blues-flavoured chords. Just keep the rhythm simple and sparse, and it will sound great.

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P.S. I love this photo (below) of Bobbie Gentry crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge

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Walk On By

WalkOnBySongs don’t come more classic than this. If you judge the quality of a song by the number of times its been covered (and by the diversity of those covers) then this has to be up there with the best of them. Variously covered by as eclectic a collection as Isaac Hayes, The Stranglers, Average White Band and Diana Krall, it is still the peerless original version by Dionne Warwick that stands over them all.

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Warwick had a particularly strong relationship with the Bacharach and David songwriting team, much of whose work was written for her. Over a 20-year period Warwick charted 38 singles co-written or produced by Bacharach and David, including Don’t Make Me Over, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Alfie, I Say A Little Prayer, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, and many, many more. It’s hard, if not impossible, to pull any one song out from that list, but if there was one song that exemplifies that relationship, Walk On By has to be a strong contender.

So here’s the song sheet. As with many Bacharach / David songs, this is never as straightforward as it might at first appear. In this case, the rhythm and timing is what tends to require a bit of focus / attention (if my experience is anything to go by). Your best bet will tend to be listening to the original, and getting the feel from that. Of course, if you want a punk feel (The Stranglers) or a funky/disco feel (Average White Band) listen to those versions as well.

Enjoy!

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Feeling Good – Nina Simone

ninasimoneOur band, The Flukes, has been starting to find its feet, and have been gradually evolving towards a preference for jazzy, bluesy, country type material. So when we were looking for new material to add to our repetoire, it didn’t take long before this 1960s classic came to the surface.

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Amazingly, this song was never released as a single back in the day, only surfacing in that format in 1994 off the back of a TV advert. Yet this is as well known and loved as anything from the Nina Simone catalogue. Written in 1964 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, Simone recorded it a year later for her album. It is fair to say that it was Simone’s recording that really transformed the original and turned it into a standard that has subsequently been covered by artists as diverse as Muse, Michael Bublé and The Pussycat Dolls.

The songsheet is in the same key as the Nina Simone version. It is essentially made up of a continual loop based on G minor, with a C / D sequence thrown in during the chorus. The G minor sequence includes a G / F / Eb / D run-down on the bass – not easy to achieve on the little ukulele, but I think the chords shown here work. The Gm/D is a bit of a stretch (for me, at least) but is worth persevering with. Enjoy!

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Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind – Dolly Parton / Rhiannon Giddens

giddens-tomorrow-is-my-turnI only came across Rhiannon Giddens about a month ago, following one of those “customers who brought x also brought y” trails on Amazon. And she was something of a revelation. Rhiannon is better know – if she is known at all – as singer, violinist and banjo player in old-time American music revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops (and isn’t the world a better place knowing there is a band called Carolina Chocolate Drops in it!). Classically trained (she studied opera), she has just released her debut solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which acts as a show-case for a hugely versatile talent, mixing country, gospel, jazz, blues, chanson and more.

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One of those is this Dolly Parton song. The opener from Dolly’s 1969 album, In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),  this was recorded during the time she was partnering with Porter Wagoner, and before she had really established herself as a solo artist. One thing it does is affirm, again, the often over-looked song-writing ability of Dolly. In all the country show-biz caricature and cartoon quality that has grown up around Dolly, people often ignore what a great songwriter she is. The author of classics like Jolene, Love Is Like A Butterfly and I Will Always Love You (the original is a breath of fresh air of you’re only familiar with the Whitney Houston version). Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind is not as well known as any of those, in fact it is relatively obscure, and yet it bears all the hallmarks of a classic, whether in the original by Dolly, or in the excellent cover by Rhiannon.

So here’ the songsheet. As a country song, there’s nothing too complicated here, although the timing is sometimes a little unexpected. The song sheet includes the song in two keys – the first (C) a little easier to play and (for me) to sing, the second (Bb) consistent with the originals by both Dolly Parton and Rhiannon Giddens.

Enjoy!

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It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Them / Bob Dylan

It'sAllOverNowBabyBlue-ThemIt’s kind of surprising that a Dylan song has turned up this far into UkeTunes. Firstly because – clearly, and without any doubt – he has written some great songs, songs that have become part of the cannon of popular music. Secondly because due to their relative simplicity many of those songs translate well to the ukulele. [Afternote : I’ve just remembered I have already posted a Dylan song on here – I Shall Be Released! But the points still stand.]

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The uncontended proof that he has authored so many classic songs is evidenced by the many, many cover versions of these songs. That trend started early in Dylan’s career with the likes of The Byrds, Joan Baez and others picking up on, and having hits with, his songs, sometimes to the extent of recording whole albums of them. And this has continued until very recently – I’d be interested to know what proportion of the people that bought it knew that Adele’s Make You Feel My Love is a cover of Dylan’s 1997 original.

But as with many Dylan songs (although certainly not all) the original is not always the best, and certainly not always the definitive version. Sometimes that view can be clouded by the version that you first know, and that may well be the case for me with this song. But I would contend that Them’s version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue is, amongst all the myriad cover versions, the definitive, unbettered version.

Them, for those who aren’t aware, were a relatively short-lived, but over time significantly influential, band from Belfast that emerged in the mid-1960s, probably the first successful rock/pop band to emerge from Northern Ireland. And they gifted the world Van Morrison, lead singer and leader of Them. Having hits with Here Comes The Night and Baby Please Don’t Go, as well as writing and recording the original version of the classic garage anthem, Gloria, they also record covers, often of classic rhythm and blues standards, but also contemporary songs.

Them’s version of It’s All Over… is a brooding masterpiece. Introduced by a bass riff that pulses, and overlaid with an organ motif that circles throughout, these lay the foundation for a Morrison vocal that feels the song, full of power and depth, never breaking into histrionics, but on the point of breaking as the song reaches its conclusion. To my mind this fleshes out and gives additional depth that the Dylan original lacks, something that – of all the covers I’ve heard, only this Marianne Faithful version comes close to.

And so to the song sheet. Firstly, it contains two versions – one in the same key as the Them and Marianne Faithful versions (A), and one in F, a key that I can sing it in! Lyrically, I’ve kept with the Dylan original, which the Faithful version is (ahem) faithful to – Them’s version shortens, re-arranges and alters some of the lyrics. But I’ve also included the chords for the instrumental interlude from the Them version, which – I think – adds a nice break. You can strum along in a faily conventional sense as per Dylan, in a more laid-back, slightly off-beat Faithful way, or I’ve found that picking the chords in a vague approximation (you’ll have to experiment) of the organ in the Them version sounds good as well. 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;

“I’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.”

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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