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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The Town I Loved So Well – The Dubliners

DublinersI was listening to the new Dexys album yesterday. “Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul” is a covers album with a loose Irish theme (loose in that it includes Rod Stewart and Joni Mitchell songs!). But it also includes a wonderful version of this gem, a song I loved but had almost forgotten about.

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The Town I Loved So Well comes from an unlikely source. Songwriter Phil Coulter was a professional musician, songwriter and arranger, responsible (amongst other things) for two Eurovision smashes (Puppet On A String, and Congratulations) as well as the England 1970 football squad’s Back Home, and the Bay City Rollers Shang-A-Lang. But away from the commercial focus of thos 60s and 70s pop hits, Coulter also indulged his love of Irish folk music, working with the likes of Planxty and The Dubliners. It was for the latter that he wrote this beautiful song.

Based on Coulter’s upbringing in Derry, Northern Ireland, the first three verses reflect on childhood memories of the two that he grew up in. But it is the juxtaposition of those verses with the final two which really gives the song it’s power. For in those verses he reflects on how all of that has been destroyed by the unrest and violence that gripped Northern Ireland during the last 60s and early 70s. Derry was the scene of the Bloody Sunday massacres, and much more deadly sectarian violence beside. And so the song is a lament for a lost innocence, and a forlorn reflection on what that violence has done to the place he loved.

And so the songsheet. Nothing tricky here, just four chords, for the most part straightforward timing. You can thrown a few Gsus4 chords in at the end of some of the lines, but it’s best kept simple. Sounds lovely when picked as well. Enjoy!
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