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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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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Redemption Song – Bob Marley

Bob Marley was a huge part of bringing reggae music into a wider public consciousness. Whilst some may think that his was a somewhat watered down version that was deliberately aimed at crossing over to a white rock audience, there is no doubt that his music has had a profound affect around the world. And none more so than Redemption Song.

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Whilst clearly not a reggae song in itself, Redemption Song is the epitome of all that Marley sought to achieve in his music. The final track on the final album Marley released before his death from cancer in 1980 (Uprising), the song is in many ways Marley’s own eulogy, a song of hope despite the pain of the circumstances. But rather than focusing inwards on his own pain, the song turns that feeling into a universal call for the downtrodden, the oppressed, those who have lost so much, urging them to keep on, to keep singing these “songs of freedom”. The famous “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”, “none but ourselves can free our mind” lines were in fact inspired by a speech by Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black nationalism in Jamaica who was considered a religious prophet within Rastafarianism, a religion strongly linked to reggae and Marley.

Whilst the song was recorded and performed as a full band version (you can here it here), it is most famous in its most stripped back form – just Marley and an acoustic guitar. Which I think makes it a great candidate for playing on the uke.

The prompting for putting this song on UkeTunes came from hearing over Christmas a bit of the Radio 4 Soul Music documentary that focused on this song, and the impact it is had on a variety of people. It’s an informative and touching listen, and at the time of writing is still on the BBC IPlayer – you can listen to it here.

The song sheet is quite straightforward to play – no tricky chords or strumming patterns. That said, Marley’s phrasing is sometimes a little tricky to replicate, but don’t worry too much about that – this is a song to take and mould to your own experience. Also this is definitely a less-is-more song, so keeping the strumming sparse helps. I’ve also included tab for the opening guitar riff as well. Enjoy!


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Breathless – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

What, not *more* Nick Cave? Well yes, and what of it!

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I’ve actually had this one sat around for a while now, from when I did the previous batch of Cave songs, but just hadn’t got round to posting it. Like previous post O Children, this song comes from the 2004 double-album Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus. And again, like that song, this is from The Lyre of Orpheus – the more reflective side of the coin. In fact Breathless is positively bucolic, filled with wholly positive, arcadian observations on nature and the rural life, directing all of nature to worship his loved one. The lyrics, the phrasing, the instrumentation (those flutes!)  place this in a rural idyll hundreds of years ago.

For this is an out-and-out love song, almost spiritual in tone (many of Cave’s song walk that tightrope between the spiritual and the earthy), that unconditionally celebrates his loved one. Cave is often portrayed as a gloom-merchant, one who revels in perversity, misery, and the negative side of human nature. And whilst that is definitely a part of what he does, one of the great things about his artistry is that it isn’t limited to that – he embraces all of human life, and that includes the richness of the deepest love, alongside the darkness of great pain. Sometimes both are touched on in the same song, but Breathless is not that kind of song – it is a wholly positive, life-affirming exhortation to worship his beloved. There are no doubts, no chinks, no ifs or buts here – this is pure, unadulterated adulation.

So it’s just three chords. Just C, F and G. A gentle chugging rhythm all the way through. They don’t come much easier than this! The only tricky bit I found was the lyrical phrasing and fitting the lyrics into the tune – it’s can vary subtly through the verses, and Cave’s mannered delivery takes a little getting used to. But persevere – this is a lovely song.


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On My Way – Martyn Joseph

Sometimes I worry that the songs I post on here are too obvious. And sometimes I think the opposite. Today’s post definitely falls into the latter category. But this is *my* blog. So I’ll post what I want!

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Martyn Joseph’s music has been part of my life for nearly 30 years. I first came across him in 1989 when he played a stripped back set at the Greenbelt festival, a set that formed the basis the live album “An Aching and a Longing”. Since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen him in concert, often at The Brook in Southampton (a favourite venue for Martyn, to the extent that he released a live album and DVD recorded exclusively at that venue), but also in a variety of incarnations with Show of Hand’s Steve Knightley, and as a trio with Steve and Tom Robinson under the moniker of Faith, Folk and Anarchy.

For those who haven’t encountered Martyn Joseph, he is a Welsh singer-songwriter and guitarist, with shades of the Bruces Springsteen and Cockburn, whose songs have a strong social, community and spiritual conscience. A hard-working troubadour, almost constantly touring the UK, Europe and North America, releasing over 20 albums through his career, he is a performer who gives his all. His concerts are always full of passion, spirit and compassion, truly life-affirming and uplifting events despite what might seem to be gloomy themes and materials, something that he often references in a self-deprecating manner during those gigs.

On My Way is a song that was almost designed as a community sing-along, something reinforced by his starting to perform the song before it was even finished, and something which any audience will get drawn into whenever the song is performed. Taken from his 2010 album, Under Lemonade Skies, Martyn was quoted at the time of its release as saying that he was trying to write songs that are companions for people on the road, songs that make you feel that you are not alone. On My Way does that in spades, an encouragement to pick yourself up and carry on the journey despite what life my thrown at you, doing so in the knowledge that you are not alone, that there are others “running, loving, stumbling” along similar paths.

So here’s the songsheet. I’ve included two versions – one in the same key as the original (E), and one in F, which makes it easier to play. It’s designed for strumming rather than picking as on the originals, and so may lose a little in the translation. But only a little, as it’s a great song whose spirit shines through. Note that the video above is a live version with Steve Knightley – if you want to here the original studio recording it’s here. Enjoy!