Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Ellis Island – Mary Black

Sometimes you want a good old thrash. And sometimes you just need something a bit more gentle. This morning is a more gentle time.

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Mary Black first caught my attention back in the early 1990s. I think it was probably via. the “A Woman’s Heart” compilation album, a collection of songs by Irish singers Eleanor McEvoy, Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon, Frances Black, and Maura O’Connell that became something of a phenomenon, selling over 750,000 copies, prompting a couple of follow-up albums and introducing a collection of contemporary folk-influenced female singers to a wider audience. I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of the emerald isle, in its many guises, from the rock sounds of U2, The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, through the soulful sounds of Van Morrison, the cathartic waywardness of Sinead O’Connor, the new-age vibe of Clannad, singer-songwriters like Juliet Turner, Duke Special and Luka Bloom, through to the folkier sounds of Sharon Shannon and Cara Dillon. And whilst the “A Woman’s Heart” collections were hardly cutting edge, there is an honesty and soulfulness in these singers and their recordings which I find very appealing.

Mary Black came from a typically Irish musical family (her father a fiddler, her mother a singer, and all her siblings involved in a band – sister Frances even had her own recordings on the Woman’s Heart album.  Black isn’t primarily a songwriter, but does know a good song when she hears it. Noel Brazil was one of her go-to songwriters, the author of some of her best such as Columbus, Vanities, Babes in the Woods, and this one – Ellis Island. Ellis Island is an island in New York (within sight of the Statue of Liberty) that for over sixty years, between 1892 and 1954,was the gateway to the US for 12 million immigrants, handling at its peak 5,000 immigrants a day. 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Obviously the route from Ireland to America is a hugely well-trodden one, inspiring a multitude of books, films and music, and so for an Irish singer like Black this tale of a pair of lovers who are being separated by emigration is a natural one that resonates deeply.

And so to the songsheet. A simple shuffle in the verses, alternating between Fmaj7 and Am7, leads into a chorus that chucks in a few additional chords (nothing tricky, although getting the rhythm right requires a little listening to the original), before dropping into a middle eight, back to the verse and choruses. Lots of gorgeous major7 and minor7 chords makes it obvious – to me at least – why this is such a beautiful song. Enjoy!

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Forest Fire – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions

More back to the 80s, I’m afraid. But no excuses for this one, for this song is just pure class.

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Taken from their debut album, Rattlesnakes, Forest Fire is a gem amongst an album of ridiculous riches. Lloyd Cole and his Commotions may have had a reputation for pretentiousness (to be fair, a not undeserved criticism, given it contains lyrical references to Renata Adler, Simone de Beauvoir and Norman Mailer) and a somewhat affected vocal style, but this was an album that crammed more ideas and tunes into its 35 minutes than many bands manage in their whole career.

Forest Fire was a little different to the rest of the album, being something of a brooding slow-burner, replete with an almost rock-ist guitar solo. But what a track! Time and again, when I come back to this song, I’m reminded of what a gorgeous experience it is. Not a minute of its 5 minutes and 15 seconds (always go for the album version, anything else and you’re just being short-changed) is wasted, gradually turning up the emotional heat until it bursts with a guitar solo of both grace and grit.

And so to the song sheet. It’s basically just verses, a repeated chord sequence that isn’t too stretching. I haven’t included the solo – you can work that out if you like, but I think it still holds up without. Rhythm might be a little tricky, but check out this solo acoustic version by Lloyd here for some ideas on that front. Enjoy!


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Sweet Baby James / How Sweet It Is – James Taylor

james-taylorWhilst we’re on that early 70s singer songwriter vibe with the recent Carole King post, it seemed an opportune time to get a couple of James Taylor songs out there as well.

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The paths of King and Taylor have been linked ones throughout their careers, in large part because of those songs and recordings of the early 70s. Playing regularly at The Troubadour club in West Hollywood, Taylor played guitar on King’s Tapestry, and King returned the compliment by playing on Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, his breakout album. Taylor’s first US number one single was a cover of King’s You’ve Got A Friend from Tapestry. IN 2010 the pair reunited for a tour together, using the same band they had used back in The Troubadour in 1970.

Taylor is renowned as an incredibly talented guitarist, not necessarily in a flashy way, but dazzling in the sounds that he coaxes from his acoustic guitars. Sweet Baby James is taken from the sophomore album of the same name, and is a song that Taylor has cited personally as one of his best. Set in a 3/4 waltz time, the apparent simplicity of the lilting lullaby-like tune deceptively hides a more complex structure and rhyming pattern that, whilst feeling totally natural, can take a little work when trying to play it. How Sweet It Is is a cover of a Motown song by the legendary writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. Taylor’s version, from his 1975 album Gorilla, took a more relaxed, soft-rock feel to that song, and was a huge hit.

So two song sheets. Sweet Baby James, as previously mentioned, is a quite straightforward 3/4 time song, although you do need to watch the timing of lyrics and chords throughout the verses. How Sweet It Is is a little more complex chord wise. There’s a few little run downs in there that add flavour to the song, but you can make a very passable version of the song without these (I’ve shown these optional chords as subscript in the song sheet – the E11 can be replaced with a straightforward E). The song does need to swing, though!

Enjoy!

<How Sweet It Is> <Sweet Baby James>


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Lightning Bolt – Jake Bugg

LightningBoltIf his first album, and this song in particular, are anything to go by, Jake Bugg has (a) an old head on young shoulders, and (b) was born 50 years too late.

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Not that his sound is out of place. In fact, for me this song and that first album were a huge breath of air, a sound that – through its rawness, simplicity and back-to-basics approach – cut through so much machine-driven modern music. Obviously it’s not a radically new sound, it’s not going to win any awards for originality. But those qualities are highly over-rated in my book. What you get instead is the sound of young man (he was only 18 when this was released) reflecting on his own life growing up on a council estate in Nottingham, with an acoustic-based sound that takes in rock and roll, skiffle, folk and country influences, not a million miles from a young Bob Dylan at times.

Lightning Bolt is a classic example of that sound. A raw skiffle sound – strummed acoustic guitars, straight down-the-line drums and a cutting electric guitar solo – this will blow the cobwebs away.

All of which seems to make for a perfect ukulele strumming song. And it does (in my opinion at any rate). There’s only three chords here, and nothing tricky. I’ve transposed it up a semi-tone to F which (a) I find easier to sing, and (b) I think is easier to play. Try the Bb and C as barre chords, and it works really well. Note that I haven’t tried to fit all the chords in with the lyrics – I don’t think it helps and just clutters up the sheet. Just get that rhythym going, and it will all fall into place. Enjoy!

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P.S. If you want to have a listen to us playing this, here’a recording that The Flukes made of this last year.

 


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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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I Shall Be Released – Bob Dylan

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So here’s a clasic example of one of the reasons I started putting this blog together in the first place. This is hardly an obscure song. In fact I think the word “classic” is not really open to debate on this one. And yet could I find a decent, clear, consistent set of chords for it? No, I couldn’t. Probably there is one lurking out there, and probably I’m being a bit fussy, but here’s my take anyway.

Wikipedia starts its entry for this by saying that “I Shall Be Released” is a 1967 song written by Bob Dylan. Well, that’s factually correct, I’ll give them that, but it all seems a bit terse for what is such a sublime song. The song has a real gospel influence to it, both in the musical structure of the song and in its lyrics, which combine themes of religious redemption with that of a man unjustly prisoned, looking forward to his release. There’s some heavy existential stuff going on in this song, yet as with much of Dylan’s material it’s not quite as simple and explicit as it might be in lesser hands, and leaves itself open to all manner of interpretations.

The song was originally released in a version by The Band, who had acted as Dylan’s backing band on those infamous folk-goes-electric gigs. The keening, falsetto harmonies of that version give it an otherwordly feel that are echoed on the original Dylan version, later released on The Bootleg tape series. The song has since been extensively covered, with notable versions being made by the likes of Nina Simone and reggae band The Heptones, who lent it a lovely chugging rhythm, something repeated on one of my favourite versions by Beth Rowley.

I couldn’t find a Youtube clip of the original Dylan version (try the Beth Rowley version for one in the same key as Dylan and the songsheet, or this Spotify link), but meanwhile here’s the classic version from The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. Featuring the massed ranks of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins and Van Morrison – my what a concert that must have been!

And so here’s the song sheet. Nothing much to say about it, it’s a very simple song (three chords) with endless room for variation and improvisation. This is in the same key as the Dylan original. Enjoy!

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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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