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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People Have The Power – Patti Smith

Artists don’t come more iconic than true original Patti Smith. Deserving of the “high priestess of punk” banner that often gets thrown her way, that label also does her a disservice, as she as something of a renaissance woman, with her talents variously pursued in music, poetry, writing, visual arts and activism.

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But it is definitely for her music that she is best know. Starting with the fusion of punk and spoken word that was her debut album “Horses” (introducing herself to the world with the infamous line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”), Smith’s musical vision was always her own, and even when she achieved a level of mainstream success (with Bruce Springsteen’s Because The Night) it’s parent album (Easter) was hardly easy going.

After 1979’s Wave, Smith was largely quiet for the rest of the 1980s. But in 1988 she emerged with Dream of Life, an album that – whilst musically less ground-breaking – still waved the Patti Smith flag. It’s not a record whose reputation has grown over time. But this song – open track, lead single – definitely has. Used by Bruce Springsteen as a theme song for the 2004 Vote For Change campaign, it’s lyrical themes and anthemic chorus have given it a life of it’s own.

I was reminded of this when watching the recent Stewart Copeland fronted series on BBC, Adventures in Music, which included an excerpt of the song being performed by New Your community choir Choir! Choir! Choir, led on that instance by Patti Smith.

So here we have the songsheet. It’s a somewhat wordy song, but I managed to squeeze it all onto a single page. Nothing particularly tricky chord or timing wise, this is a song to play along to (it’s the same key as the original) and sing out loud. Enjoy.


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Nobody’s Hero – Stiff Little Fingers

Sometimes you just went a gentle strum, a lullaby that lulls you into believing that everything is alright. And other times you just want some full-on punk rock aggression that lets you shout and holler. Yes, even on a ukulele. This one definitely falls in the latter category.

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Stiff Little Fingers are from Belfast, and whilst initially a fairly standard rock covers band, their discovery of punk, plus prompting from journalist Gordon Ogilvie, prompted a change of direction that saw them fully embracing the energy and spirit of punk, married to a lyrical outlook that was very centred on their own experiences of Northern Ireland at the time – one where The (somewhat euphemistically titled) Troubles were at it’s height. A series of classic punk singles followed, spearheaded by their first two releases (Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster) and a classic debut album in the form of Inflammable Material.

SLF were always a band who were not afraid – in fact, actively sought – to embrace the political in both their songs and their actions (the inspiration for this post came from their inclusion in Daniel Rachel’s excellent oral history of the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, “Walls Come Tumbling Down” – n.b. I have a feeling there might be a few other posts inspired by said book!). But as the band matured that political viewpoint was often balanced with more personal songs as well, although very often even those would be short through with a political perspective.

Nobody’s Hero is one such song. Essentially a song sung back to the fans by lead singer Jake Burns, urging them not to put him on a pedestal, and pushing back on the expectations that such obsessive fans had of him,  encouraging those fans to “get up, get out, be what you are” – to do their own thing and make something of themselves. In that way it was truly in the spirit of punk, and what emerged after it – that whole anybody can do it, do it yourself mindset. Jake barks the lyrics with a passion that the band were renowned from, and whilst slightly slower than those early songs, the spirit, energy and aggression of punk is still there.

And so to the song sheet. As with most SLF songs, there’s quite a lot of words. But fortunately the chords are relatively straightforward (just the odd F# thrown in). The only challenge might be the speed, and particularly the speed of the chord changes during the chorus. But with a little practice (start slowly, and then speed up) all should be fine. Enjoy!


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Roy’s Tune – Fontaines D.C.

If anybody is band of the moment it has to be Fontaines D.C. The hype for this group of Dublin post-punk-ers has been building and building over the last few months, and with the release of their debut album Dogrel yesterday that is likely to amplify. And deservedly so, in my book.

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Fontaines D.C. are not for the feint-hearted. There music is a full-on assault – clattering drums, punching bass and take-no-prisoners guitars, topped with the full-on Irish brogue of lead man Grian Chatten. That voice is truly Grian’s own – it’s not going to win any competitions, but in the context of this band it is just what is needed. Drawing on Ireland’s long literary heritage, this is serious music that doesn’t shirk from the gritty reality of life as it is now – as one of their other songs taunts, “Is it too real for ya?”.

But for all their reputation as pummelling, aggressive noiseniks, Dogrel show’s there is more to the band than that. Roy’s Tune is a case in point – a poignant reflection on how the behaviour of giant corporations can impact on the lives of ordinary people. Guitarist and writer of the song, Conor Curley, had this to say about the song:

It’s sung to Ireland – from a mindset of frustration, depression, and a loss of innocence… A couple years back the EU awarded Ireland €14 billion in back taxes from Apple, but the government here refuses to do anything with the money out of fear Apple will move their headquarters. They care more about a giant corporation than the people of our country, and all we can do is sit there and take it. We wanted this to be a moment of reflection on the album. We included this song with the purpose of showing our intent as a band and as songwriters. We intend to explore whatever emotions or ideas we see, not just make ‘another post-punk album’.

Oh, and do watch the video (below). It’s great, and really enhances the song.

As with many of the band’s songs, their is simplicity at the heart. The song is – at surface level – very basic, really only two chords. But there is a power and focus at the heart of the song that gives it its strength. Essentially it’s the same pattern repeated throughout the song, so once you get that (spelled out in the intro in the song sheet) you’ll have it. I’ve included two versions – one in the original key, and one transposed down to make it easier to play (removing those horrible E’s and B’s!). This is a song that deserves to be sung. Enjoy!


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Pete Shelley

In memory of Pete Shelley. Founder member, lead singer, key songwriter and singer with the Buzzcocks. Subsequent solo artist and electronic music pioneer.

Here are two songs reflecting those two periods of Shelley’s creativity. From Buzzcocks comes the 1979 single, You Say You Don’t Love Me – a classic Buzzcocks 3 minute song of unrequited love. And from his solo career, the debut solo single Homosapien, banned by the BBC but a classic combination of acoustics and electronics.

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