Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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One Little Song – Gillian Welch

souljourneyLooking back it’s been over 18 months since I posted a Gillian Welch song on here. So it seemed time to rectify that.

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So this morning this little ditty popped up whilst the iPod was playing on shuffle. And I thought, “that’s nice” and “that would work on the ukulele”. So this evening I gave it a try. And I was right – it does work.

This is the third song from 2003’s Soul Journey album that I’ve posted on here (see also Look At Miss Ohio and No One Knows My Name). Which is odd, because as I said previously that album is probably my least favourite of her albums (which doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that Gillian sets the bar *so* high). But in contrast to the fuller band sound of a number of the tracks, One Little Song is stripped back to the very basics – just haunting vocals and picked guitar. It is a brief but not inconsequential tune that is seemingly born of a struggle to write a new tune (Welch sets herself high standards, and has commented that songwriting can be a struggle, something that contributed to the 8 year gap between Soul Journey and it’s follow-up, The Harrow and the Harvest).

And here’s the songsheet. Nothing too complicated as far as the chords are concerned, although there are a number of barre chords in there. I’ve added in an Asus4 for the intro, and you can throw a few of those into the first couple of lines of the verses if you wish, to give it a bit more colour. Oh, and this is definitely one to try picking if you can – its not really a strummer. Enjoy!

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Rainbow Connection

KermitDon’t ever let it be said that there’s no variety on this site. From 80s synthpop and soulful grooves, we now move on to a song made famous by a singing frog playing the banjo!

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Rainbow Connection, however, is not your average glove-puppet inspired tune. The work of two highly respected composers and arrangers, Paul Williams (“We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)”) and Kenneth Ascher, the song first came to the consciousness of the world via. The Muppet Movie, where it was performed by Kermit the Frog. Performing a similar role in that film to the similarly-themed “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard Of Oz, the song is a surprisingly wistful song that looks yearns and dreams for, and holds out the hope for, a better life. Nominated for an Academy Award (it lost out to “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae – no, me neither!) it has over the years turned into a true standard.

Subsequently reprised in The Muppet Show in 1980 as a duet with Debbie Harry, it has since gone on to be covered by a whole host of artists including The Carpenters, Sarah McLachlan, Willie Nelson, Ed Sheerhan, and my personal favourite version by The Dixie Chicks.

There are quite a few Rainbow Connection song sheets out there, so why another one? Well this was put together for when our band, The Flukes wanted to perform it (you can see/hear it below – excuse the slightly fluffed intro and solo from yours truly!), and none of the versions out there quite worked for us. So firstly this version does away with the key change, thereby avoiding a host of horrible chords! Secondly, I’ve also include (a) the opening riff, and (b) a solo for the middle, which started off based on The Dixie Chicks version, and then morphed into some kind of amalgam of a number of versions. Anyway, I think the whole thing is better picked than strummed, but that’s my opinion, and you’re free to ignore it. 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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Lyin’ Eyes – Eagles

lyineyes(It’s been a bit quiet here lately, hasn’t it? Sorry about that, but holidays, festivals and other things have been getting in the way of things.Hopefully normal, semi-regular will be resumed as soon as possible)

Eagles were never a band that were high on my sightlines. Having been persuaded early on by the orthodoxies of punk / post-punk / new wave, they were a band that seemed to be everything that those scenes were kicking against. Even when, much later on, I started getting into country music, Eagles still felt too slick, too corporate, too watered down to be interesting. But over time I must have mellowed. Whilst I certainly wouldn’t go as far as considering myself a fan, I’ve grown to really enjoy some of the songs. There’s some great songwriting going on, that general country/rock vibe is something I’m a sucker for, and those harmonies help seal the deal.

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Lyin’ Eyes is a classic example. More country than rock (although it’s Grammy nomination was in the pop song category), it does one of the things I particularly like about many country music songs – it tells a story. Not a happy one, and not one that resolves itself in any satisfactory way. But it’s a story that takes you on a journey, one that’s undoubtedly human and which you can identify with, even if you haven’t been in the self-same situation. The song was a huge hit in the US, but only a relatively minor one in the UK, where the band never really established themselves as a singles band.

So here’s the song sheet. It’s quite straightforward, with a relatively simple rhythm and pattern, and a relatively straightfoward set of chords. Apart from that G9! It definitely sounds better with it, but if you struggle with it then you can get away with a G7. 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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Backhanded Compliment – Sunny Sweeney

sunnysweeneyI’ve been going through something of a country phase lately. Things tend to go like that for me, but certainly for the last 6 months or so there’s definitely been a country bias to my listening. Albums from Sturgill Simpson (Metamodern Sounds In Country Music), Suzy Bogguss (Lucky) and Willie Watson (Folk Singer Volume 1) have all been highly enjoyed, alongside older albums from Laura Cantrell and Rodney Crowell. But most recently it’s been Provoked by Texas singer/songwriter Sunny Sweeney that I’ve been really getting into.

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I hadn’t even heard of Sunny until very recently, but through one of those “if-you-liked-such-and-such-you-might-like-this” recommendations I gave her a go. And what a great little record it is. Provoked is fairly straight down the line country, and appears to be her first album since being dropped by her previous record company (home to Taylor Swift) and a divorce. Those events clearly had a strong influence on the songs on this album, but not in a woe-is-me kind of way, rather in a sassy, fighter / survivor kind of way. This is clearly not a woman to be messed with!

Backhanded Compliment is from that album, and is a very funny response to those kind of double-edged comments which we’ve probably all been subject to – which say one thing but clearly, intentionally or not, mean another. Set to a bouncing rhythm, it’s clearly written from a woman’s perspective, and she’s not shy with the comeback!

And so to the song sheet. Nothing particularly complicated in here, other than the fact that it’s in Bb, which results in some slightly unusual chords (if you want it in an easier key – to play – try this version in G). A nice chugga-chugga rhythm is all that’s needed (listen to the video to get an idea). And enjoy!

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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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