Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who

Sometimes ideas for these song sheets are hanging around for ages. And sometimes they just come from nowhere and have to be acted on. Today’s song definitely falls into the latter category.

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This morning Alex, a friend and stalwart of Southampton Ukulele Jam, posted this song on Facebook. But not the regular, 8+ minutes rock epic that we’ve all grown to know and love (we do all love it, don’t we? please don’t tell me any different). No, it was a version of the song performed by The Who (well, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend) together with The Roots, a hip-hop band who currently are the house band on the US TV show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

But this isn’t just any old cover version, oh no. Because the song – which appears to be part of a regular feature on the show – is performed with schoolroom instruments. And yes, that includes ukuleles. Along with a whole host of other, mainly percussion, instruments. And it works. It is *such* fun. [Turn away at the end, though, if you are averse to ukulele abuse – Pete Townshend performs one of his trademark stage moves on the poor little instrument]

So in this instance I haven’t gone for following the original arrangement, but instead have gone for the Jimmy Fallon show version. So this song sheet should work for playing along to the above video. It’s actually the same key as the original, so you could use it for that, although clearly I haven’t written out all the synth parts, solo parts, and there is a verse and chorus missing. But I do think that the conciseness of this joyous version is part of what makes it so special. So there (or here) it is. Enjoy!

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River – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell recently turned 75, something that was celebrated with the help of an all-star concert. Mitchell herself wasn’t present, and has been something of a recluse of late, in no small part due to a number of health scares. She is unlikely to perform or record again, but my goodness what a legacy she has left us.

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Emerging from a Canadian coffee-house scene in the mid-1960s, she moved to the US where she was eventually spotted by David Crosby, and started releasing a series of intimate, confessional acoustic albums. Songs like Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock became anthems for a generation (the latter notable because she never actually made it the festival!), and in 1971 she turned in the album which really defined the term singer-songwriter, and which has become the litnus against which all subsequent albums in that genre, particularly female-fronted, will be compared. Described by the New York Times as one of the “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”, the album is a no-holds barred portrayal of Joni’s relationships (she had relationships with both Graham Nash and James Taylor prior to this record) that is startling in its honesty.

River, taken from Blue, has become one of Mitchell’s most recorded songs. Whether you class it as a Christmas song or not (it is set around that period, but isn’t really about Christmas, although the piano accompaniment does reference Jingle Bells), it has become something of a discerningly alternative Christmas standard (listen to this fabulous BBC Radio 4 documentary of personal stories related to the song). Somewhat surprising given that the song is a rueful song about a broken romance, the singer reflecting on what was, desperately wanting to escape the heartbreak.

So here is the songsheet. Joni Mitchell is famous for her alternative tunings and complex song structures. Fortunately this song is *relatively* straightforward (for a Joni song!), albeit it was originally written and performed on piano. I’ve added a few additional chords into the sheet to try and imitate aspects of the original piano accompaniment, and tried to replicate the ‘Jingle Bells’ references (including an optional, more complex intro). I’ve also done two versions of the song – one simplified version, and one that fleshes the song out with a few more complex chords and rhythms, The choice is yours, but enjoy either!

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It’s Too Late / You’ve Got A Friend – Carole King

tapestryRecords don’t come much more iconic that Carole King’s 1971 sophomore solo album, Tapestry.

<It’s Too Late>  <You’ve Got A Friend>

It’s a recording for which the records and superlatives are almost never ending. The winner of 4 Grammy awards in 1972 (including, album, record and song of the year), seller of 25 million copies, second only to Dark Side Of The Moon for number of weeks on the Billboard album chart (313 weeks), ranked the 36th best album ever by Rolling Stone in 2003, all of these statistics and critical acclaim are surprising when you consider that Tapestry is really such a humble and relatively unassuming record.

During the 1960s King had established herself – alongside then-husband Gerry Goffin – as one of the leading songwriters in the Brill building in New York, penning hits for others such as The Loco-motion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, and Up On The Roof. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s, following a divorce from Goffin and a move to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, that King focused more on recording her own songs, in the process becoming the archetypal singer-songwriter.

Tapestry is chock full of bone fide classics. Even if you’ve never heard it before it will be immediately familiar, the songs having become part of the DNA of popular music. It’s Too Late was the lead single (coupled with I Feel The Earth Move) and was number one on the US singles charts for 5 weeks, and won that Grammy for best record. You’ve Got A Friend won the best song Grammy, and was a US number one for 4 weeks when covered by James Taylor.

I thought there would be plenty of songsheets for these songs, but none of them worked for me. So here’s my versions. There’s nothing particularly to say about these, other than they have quite a lot of chords (You’ve Got A Friend in particular). But those chords are the things that add the colour, so stick with them (You’ve Got A Friend has a few “optional” chords – in subscript – that can be easily omitted if you want). A bit of feel in the strumming is in order as well, adopting the standard ukulele strumming patterns kind-of kills these songs, so listen well to the originals to get that feel. You’ve Got A Friend (G) is a semi-tone down from the original (Ab) so you’ll need a capo on fret one if you want to play along (but it does make it a whole lot easier to play). It’s Too Late is in the same key as the original.

Enjoy!

<It’s Too Late>  <You’ve Got A Friend>


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Just Now – John Martyn

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John Martyn may be renowned for his incredibly intracate, innovative and accomplished guitar playing. But he is also the writer of some simple, beautiful songs, and this is one of them (see also Over The Hill). Taken from his 1971 album “Bless The Weather“, Just Now seems to be a song about growing  up, about the friendships that shift, change and dissolve as we do so, but looking optimistically to a special friendship that he longs to return to. With a delicate balance of strummed guitar and piano chords, this song closed the first side of the album on a gorgeous, pensive note.

The songsheet is a similarly simple affair. I’ve taken the key down from Eb to D just to make it (a) easier to play and (b) more comfortable for me to sing. Nothing much to add, really. This is just beautiful. Enjoy!

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Let Your Yeah Be Yeah – The Pioneers

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So reggae took me a long time to get. Yes, I’ve had a copy of Bob Marley’s Legend for ever, and occassionaly the odd reggae song broke through as a pop hit. But that’s as far as it went. Then a few years ago, having got a little bored with a whole host of my usual musical tastes, I made a concerted effort to “get” into reggae. Spotify, and a bunch of days spent working alone at home, was my saviour. And with a bit of effort it all finally clicked.

One thing I like about reggae is the rawness of sound and attitude, something that – for all it’s wonderfulness – was a little lost in the music of Bob Marley. There’s a real punk spirit to a lot of reggae, that pre-dates the punk revolution of 1976/7, born in part from an outsider attitude and an anti-establishment mind-set. Interestingly, though, there was a real affinity for those original punks with reggae. DJs like Don Letts often played reggae between sets at punk gigs, and that cross-fertalisation spread into the music of some of the punk bands (The Clash’s cover of Police and Thieves being an obvious example). And then there was the whole Two-Tone movement, a blissful amalgam of punk and ska (a more up-beat version of reggae). There’s a good article here on the links between the punk and reggae.

The Pioneers were a vocal trio from Jamaica, formed in the early 60s, and were amongst the first wave of reggae bands to score international (i.e. UK!) success in the late 60s and early 70s. Their first hit was with Long Shot Kick De Bucket (later covered by The Specials), but Let Your Yeah Be Yeah, a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song, was their biggest hit, peaking at #5 in the UK singles charts in 1971.

[As an aside, I can highly recommend the following compilations if you want to move beyond the obvious into the treasures of reggae; Scratchy Sounds (Ska, Dub, Roots & Reggae nuggets), and Tighten Up! Trojan Reggae Classics (although admitidily not at the prices Amazon seem to be selling them for!).]

And so to the song sheet. A few words of explanation I think are required for this one. Firstly the chords. I originally did a version of the song in an easier key (G). But I subsequently realised that playing it in the original key works much better. Putting aside that I find it easier to sing in that key (Bb), having to use barre chords really helps to get the reggae feel for the song – it means that you can get the choppy rhythms much better because you can dampen all the strings when you need to. So the chord diagrams in the sheet represent the barre-chords that I think work best with this.

Secondly, there is the rhythm. I’m not going to give a lesson on how to play reggae here. Suffice to say that your best bet is to listen to the song, and get the feel from that. Basically I play it as a d-u-d-u rhythm all the way through, BUT with the first of those beats (the first down beat) dampened – i.e. with the fingers forming the chord shape on the strings, but not actually pressing down on the fret, AND the last down beat being clipped (i.e. the fingers lifting off the frets – but staying on the strings – almost as soon as the stroke has been completed). Listen to the song and have a play around and you’ll get the hang it.

Enjoy!

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