Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Billy Bragg Songbook

In certain quarters, Billy Bragg must surely have obtained that most highly coveted status of National Treasure. But it’s probably fair to say that Bragg’s political activism and agitation will always mean that title is one that will never be fully bestowed. And that’s just the way Stephen William Bragg would want it.

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Over a career spanning nearly 40 years, Bragg has certainly forged his own unique path. Following failed attempts in a punk/pub rock band in the late 70s, followed by a fleeting period in the British Army, Bragg started playing solo concerts and busking with just his electric guitar for accompaniment, eventually securing a contract that saw the release of his debut solo mini-LP, Life’s A Riot with Spy vs. Spy (pay no more than £2.99!). With support from John Peel, and something of a music press favourite, Bragg emerged on to the public stage as a breath of fresh air – in a music scene that was becoming increasingly electronic and over-produced, the simplicity of Bragg’s format, and the direct nature of his songs, cut through. Musically harking back to punk, lyrically reflecting the reality of early 80’s Britain, the Bard of Barking caught the spirit of the times for a particular section of the country.

Political activism, of a decidedly left-wing nature, has always been a part of Bragg’s music from the beginning. And that has spilled over into various other initiatives, including the Red Wedge movement of the mid-80s and involvement in multiple campaigns and causes. That is a full-on part of the Bragg package. But what is often overlooked is that whilst Bragg’s songs do indeed reflect his political world-view, there are just as many – if not more – which reflect on the personal. Not just relationship songs (although those are there for certain) but songs that cover the wide spectrum of human experience. It is probably the combination of these two perspectives – the political and the personal – combined with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, which makes Bragg the interesting and much-loved character that he is.

As his career has developed, so have the avenues that Bragg has chosen to pursue. Musically he has branched out by recording a series of records with Wilco where they put unused lyrics of Woody Guthrie to new tunes and arrangements, performing with The Imagined Village (a constantly morphing folk music project), and an album of train-themed songs with Joe Henry that were recorded in various locations on a train journey across America. And he has recently been prevalent as an author, with both a musical (Skiffle) and political focus.

But it is for the music that you are here, right? And so here is a Billy Bragg ukulele song book. 30 songs spanning his career. Similar to the Johnny Cash songs, Bragg songs are – by and large – not complicated beasts. And obviously by-and-large they have been written for – and certainly performed in – a stripped down, solo context. So I think these songs translate well to a ukulele context, and are (mostly) designed to be sung loud and proud.

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Also, see below for a list of the songs included in the book, along with links to individual song sheets:


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The Johnny Cash Songbook

The words “legendary” and “iconic” tend to get thrown around very liberally when it comes to musicians. But in a small number of cases, the terms are warranted. And Johnny Cash is one of those artists.

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Over a career that spanned 50 years, Johnny Cash built up a body of work that will last for the ages. From the rip-roaring early singles that he recorded for the legendary Sun records, through the live albums that he recorded in prisons in the 1960s, all the way through to the “American Recording” albums that he did with Rick Rubin towards the end of his life which rejuvenated both his career and his reputation, Johnny Cash casts a monumental shadow over not just country music, but popular music in general.

The country artist that non-country fans love, the proud standard-bearer of the disposseed and underclasses, Johnny Cash was certainly not flawless (listen to The Chicken In Black for evidence of that!). And yet he was a man and an artist of true integrity and humility who bestrode country music like the colossus he was. Born and raised in the dirt-poor recession-torn Arkansas of the 1930s, like his close friend Dolly Parton he knew real poverty and deprivation, and never forgot those roots throughout a hugely successful career.

Both a songwriter in his own right, and a proud interpreter of others songs, Cash certainly had his own style (that Boom-Chicka-Boom rhythm that his early recordings in particular). The self-declared Man in Black, even his sartorial style was a statement of solidarity with the poor and hungry, the “prisoner who has long paid for his crime”, something that he explained in the song of the same name. And he was also a man of deep faith, something that is often over-looked by those who are uncomfortable with such things, but something which is key to understanding the complex person that was Johnny Cash.

And so here is a collection of ukulele song sheets for 28 classic Johnny Cash songs. By-and-large Cash songs are not complicated beasts – there is a small number of chords, regular rhythms (mostly – Ghost Riders In The Sky and Ring Of Fire might be a little challenging on that front) and standard structures – so these should be good for beginners and experienced players alike. The songs are mostly in the original keys, but a few I have transposed for ease of playing – Cash often played with a Capo on the first fret, so no shame there. Enjoy!

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List of songs included in the book (with links to individual song sheets):


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You Get What You Give – New Radicals

I’ve written a number of times before about what a great band New Radicals, and in particular frontman and songwriter Gregg Alexander, were. Both Ronan Keating (Life Is A Rollercoaster) and the soundtrack to the film Begin Again (Lost Stars) have been beneficiaries of his songwriting genius. But if anyone knows about Gregg, or New Radicals, it is because of this song.

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You Get What You Give was, at the time of it’s release, huge. It wasn’t a mega hit, but did pretty well. But it did feel like it was everywhere. And it is one of those songs that have lasted, in a way that a lot of what were potentially much bigger songs at the time haven’t. This song, and it’s parent album (Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too) are enduring favourites of mine, and I really can’t fathom out why the rest of the songs from them haven’t been more widely appreciated – either at the time or since.

Alexander broke up the band the year after the success of You Get What You Give, citing his unhappiness with the demands of touring and promotion. And so the twelve songs that make up Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too remain the lasting legacy of a band that are – by the definition of the term – one-hit wonders, but whose title belies the collection of perfectly formed gems that sit behind that (admittedly wonderful) song.

And so to the songsheet. There’s a lot of words on this one, so unfortunately it stretches to two pages – I couldn’t really find a way of putting it on page that worked and was readable. Relatively simple chord-wise (that G5 is the only challenge, I think), it’s probably more the timing of it, and fitting the words in to the chords, that are the trickiest bits. But if you know the song as well as I do, that should be second nature. Enjoy!


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The Cure – Songbook

I’ve been searching around for something a bit different for our album nights. Whilst we’ve done had some great evenings and covered some great records, we somehow seem to have got ourselves stuck in the 1970s. I guess that’s in part to do with the demographic of our group, and where that era was such a formative time musically for many of us. It’s also something to do with the undeniable fact that there were some really classic records that came out during that time, records that have survived and thrived over the years.

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But I felt that I was maybe playing it a little bit safe, and so felt that it would be good to branch out a little bit. One of the things that Southampton Ukulele Jam prides itself on is singing songs that no other ukulele group would try. I think some of the songs we’ve done at the album evenings definitely fall into that category, and I wanted to honour that objective. So this is a result of that. Admittedly it’s not Crass, Cocteau Twins or Kraftwerk (to name a few), and the bulk of these songs are relatively well-known and well-loved. Songs like In Between Days and Friday I’m In Love have fairly regular outings at Southampton Ukulele Jam, and are relatively uke friendly. Others here such as Just Like Heaven I’ve published previously, and Boys Don’t Cry was wheeled out for one of our 1979 nights. And I’ve definitely gone for the more accessible end of Robert Smith’s oeuvre. But songs like A Forest (from the band’s earlier, dark and gloom phase), the whispered, under-the-breath vocals of Lullaby (which, lyrically at least, is definitely not designed to lull you to sleep), the electronic-based attempt to break away from the captive Goth fans and find a pop audience that is Let’s Go To Bed, and the manic intensity of Why Can’t I Be You are songs that certainly aren’t your average ukulele fare. Add to that a selection of hypnotic, introspective, mid-tempo classics from the high-water mark that is Disintegration (Lovesong and Pictures of You) and I think this little collection hits the mark that I was aiming for. That said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – we will do this as an evening, and I’ll report back on how they work.

I don’t think I need to say much more about The Cure. They’ve now been going for over forty years, in various guises, and have built up an impressive body of work that has established themselves as the elder statesman of alternative rock (whatever that means). Variously gothic and gloomy, poppy and perky, but at all times original and not willing to plough the same tried and tested furrow, the band’s recent closing headline set at Glastonbury re-affirmed the credentials of a band that shouldn’t really have lasted this far.

Here’s the list of songs included in the songbook:

  • A Forest
  • Boy’s Don’t Cry
  • Close To Me
  • Friday I’m In Love
  • In Between Days
  • Just Like Heaven
  • Let’s Go To Bed
  • The Lovecats
  • Lovesong
  • Lullaby
  • Pictures Of You
  • Why Can’t I Be You?

The songs are mostly true to the originals. I’ve transposed one or two, and where there is a choice they adhere to the single versions. I’ve also included a selection of tab for the various riffs that crop up in some of the songs – many of which are such an integral part of the songs that it felt only right to add them. Enjoy!

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Come As You Are – Nirvana

I must admit that by the early 90s my interest in popular and alternative music had somewhat dissipated. This probably had something to do with the advent of a family of my own, as well as the rise to dominance of the rave scene (which I just never connected with), but by that time my musical interests were headed off in a more rootsy, country, folky direction (Bruce Cockburn, Van Morrison, Nanci Griffth and others), and as a result I really lost touch with what was happening in mainstream music.

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So whilst Nirvana were definitely on my radar (it would be hard for them not to be, so ubiquitous were they at the time), they weren’t somebody that I really paid that much attention to. And I’m not going to stand here and say that I had a subsequent life-changing revelation and realised everything that I’d missed. But without you even trying certain songs just ooze into your consciousness, and become part of the background of your life. Come As You Are is one such song.

Released as the second single from the bands huge, iconic album Nevermind, Come As You Are was a more obviously commercial song than the surprise initial hit from the album, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Whilst still obviously retaining the sounds and template of grunge, this was clearly a song that would build on that success and establish Nirvana as more than just a one-hit wonder. That it did, but that success was – to a certain extent – part of what ultimately resulted in Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.

And so to the songsheet. There are other versions of this out there, not much different from this. This is the same key as the original recording (but  not the MTV Unplugged version), and I’ve tabbed both the main riff (which plays throughout the song) and the solo. Enjoy!