Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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After The Gold Rush – Neil Young (Full Album)

I’ve been looking around recently for albums that I think would work as part of our recent series of ukulele album nights. That’s proved harder than I thought – a whole album of good songs that can be reduced to the ukulele and that a bunch of people (of a certain age!) will know well enough to stop it being a solo rendition by yours truly.

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And that search led me to this. Originally I was looking at Harvest, the archetypal Neil Young acoustic album, the “if you only own one Neil Young album this should be it” (my personal favourite would be On The Beach” fyi). But on listening to it I wasn’t convinced that it would really work. And then I thought about this, the immediate predecessor to Harvest, and listening to it afresh (I hadn’t played it for a good few years) I fell back in love with it. And have been playing it on repeat for the last few weeks.

At the risk of gross simplification, Young’s outputs has tended to operate at the loud, ragged rocking end of the spectrum (often with his band Crazy Horse), or at the more songwriter-y acoustic folk/country end. And throughout his career lurches one way or the other have often been a reaction to his previous lurch. And so the folk/country rock stylings of his 1969 eponymous debut album (Young had previously found a reasonable amount of success with Buffalo Springfield) were followed by the world’s introduction to Crazy Horse on the same years’ Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, all crunchy rockers and 10 minute epics. In that light, After The Gold Rush can be seen as another reaction, a move that combines the more simple, stripped down singer-songwriter fare with Crazy Horse rockers (and all this was also just a few months after Young enhanced Crosby, Stills and Nash with the Déjà Vu album).

From the opening Tell Me Why, a gentle country-ish guitar-strummed-and-picked tune, overlaid with some gorgeous harmonies (the CSN&Y influence in full evidence) the scene is set. Followed by the classic enigmatic eco-themed title track, and the gentle waltz-timed Only Love Can Break Your Heart (the St Etienne version was my introduction to this song!) the album offers a master class in concise, quality song-writing. Full of space, those aforementioned harmonies, and mostly restrained acoustic musicianship (songs like Southern Man and When You Dance, I Can Really Love intermittently turn up the electrics), After The Gold Rush is a thematically and musically consistent masterpiece that packs a lot into its 35 minute running time, but still leaves you wanting more. To these ears it always sounds fresh, a record that I never tire of.

The songbook contains all 11 songs from the album. The simplicity of these songs translates well – there’s nothing too tricksy in any of these, although the odd unusual chord is thrown in every now and then. With one exception these are all in the same key as the originals, so you can play along quite easily. Songs for singing around the campfire, for sure! Enjoy!

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Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn

I’ve written previously about how much I love the music of Bruce Cockburn, and what it has meant to me. Prompted by the announcement of some UK dates in the autumn, I’ve been going back to his music, and enjoying it afresh. One of the songs that stood out was this one.

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The version that particularly caught my ear was from his live solo album, Slice O’ Life. The original version of the song appeared on the 1984 album, Stealing Fire, recorded at a time where Cockburn was turning from the acoustic, folk-y sounds of his earlier, 1970s recordings towards a more contemporary, rock-inspired source, something that coincided for him with a move in his lyrical outlook from an inward, spiritual focus towards a more outward looking perspective that – whilst infused with the spiritual – was more focussed on the world he saw, and the many injustices that he encountered as he started to travel more widely.

Outside of his native Canada, where Cockburn is something of an institution and widely reward, for most of his career Cockburn has been something of a cult figure. However “Lovers…” was a song that, alongside the much darker “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, became radio hits in the US. And to this day it remains one of his more well-known songs (well-known being something of a relative term when applied to Cockburn), even being referenced by U2 in their song “God Part II” (“heard a singer on the radio late last night says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight”). The song itself has been interpreted in multiple ways – as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and as a commentary on the Central American experience that inspired “Rocket Launcher”, but whilst Cockburn is on record as saying that both of those interpretations are valid ones, his has said of the song:

“I was thinking of kids in a schoolyard. I was thinking of my daughter. Sitting there wanting to hold hands with some little boy and looking at a future, looking at the world around them. How different that was when I was a kid when, even though we had air-raid drills, nobody took that seriously that the world would end. You could have hope when I was a kid. And now I think that’s very difficult. I think a lot of that is evident from the actions and the ethos of a lot of kids. It was kind of an attempt to offer a hopeful message to them. You still have to live and you have to give it your best shot.”

The acoustic version of the song strips it back to its essence. A showcase for Bruce’s exemplary guitar technique (never flashy, but always rich and deep), it is further proof that the mark of a good song is if it works when reduced to one-person-and-their-instrument. And boys does this version work – arguably getting to the heart of the song in a way that the more produced original version *may* have clouded a little.

And so to the songsheet. This is based on the acoustic version, and definitely – to my ears – sounds better as a picked version. It is true that I could have made this a bit simpler, could have put it in an easier key. But (a) this version allows you to play along with the Cockburn version above, and (b) it just sounds much better this way. If you’re OK with barre chords then this shouldn’t be problematic. Playing the A chords in the chorus as barred chords on the 4th fret (see here) adds an additional texture to the song as well. Enjoy!


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You Do Something To Me – Paul Weller

Who’d have thought when The Jam burst onto the 1977 music scene – a mix of stark dappy mods and punk aggression – that the songwriter and guitarist at the heart of that sound would have become a national icon 40 years later.

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But Weller was clearly more than your average punk opportunist – the lyrics, sound and image were all sharp and biting, and here was clearly a young man (he was only 19 when The Jam had their first hits) who had a vision and the drive to realise it. The Jam were a phenomenon , blazing a trail through the late 70s and early 80s, growing and evolving over their 6 albums in 5 years before Weller broke up the band in 1982 at the height of their success.

Ever restless, Weller returned the next year with The Style Council, a more sophisticated soul-influenced sound that continued the success without compromising on his core values (if anything The Style Council were even more political than The Jam) before the band finally fell apart at the end of the 80s, having had their house-influenced album rejected by the record label.

Taking some time off, Weller slowly started out again, this time as a solo artist. Initially low-key, he started to make headway, with the more pastoral second solo album Wild Wood starting to spawn hits whilst garnering a Mercury nomination for itself. But it was that albums follow-up, 1995’s Stanley Road, that really re-established Weller in the public consciousness. Appearing at the same time as BritPop was turning into the scene that it became, Weller was almost seen as an honorary god-father for that scene, back at the top end of the charts with songs like The Changingman, Out Of The Sinking, and this gorgeous, soulful mid-tempo ballad, You Do Something To Me. Opening with circling piano chords, the song gradually layers warm organ sounds and guitar riffs under a wistful vocal expressing a yearning love. I’m sure this must have been “our song” for countless couples over the years.

And so to the songsheet. Looks like a lot of chords, but it’s not really. A basic four chord sequence throughout the verses, the timing may take a little getting used to if you don’t know the song, but play along (it’s in the same key) and you’ll get the hang of it. The Em / Em6 / Em7 sequence at the beginning and end is designed to emulate those piano chords, but you can get away with just Em if you want. And that C/D at the end of the bridge/chorus is just a passing, one beat chord. But whatever you do, enjoy!


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Innocence – Kirsty MacColl

If judged solely by commercial success, Kirsty MacColl doesn’t rank highly in the pantheon of singers or songwriters. But fortunately that isn’t the only way to measure these things, and when rated by the quality of her work, and the love felt for her and her songs, then Kirsty is right up there.

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Clearly she had something of a head start, being the daughter of the esteemed folk singer Ewan MacColl, who wrote “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But after being spotted singing backing vocals in a punk band by Stiff Records, she was signed and released her first single in 1979, They Don’t Know. From that point on it’s fair to say that her success was patchy. Whilst she scored a hit with an early single (There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis), and her appearance on the Christmas perennial Fairy Tale Of New York with The Pogues, her own songs seemed to struggle, although there was some success in the early 80s when comedienne Tracey Ullman had a hit with They Don’t know during her brief pop career. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the acclaim that she received as a songwriter, her biggest successes seemed to come with other people’s songs (Billy Bragg’s A New England, Ray Davies’ Days, and The Pogues).

MacColl released a number of albums over the years, somewhat sporadically, but every one was chock full of quality songs. 1989’s Kite probably came closest to being a big success, and its from that album that Innocence is taken. With a jangle guitar reminiscent of The Smiths (ironic in that whilst Johnny Marr was a big contributor to the album – both playing and writing – this is one song he *didn’t* play on), Innocence is classic Kirsty – sharp lyrics, melodic, gorgeous harmonies, perfectly packaged pop. The video (below) is also great fun, well worth a watch, including a cameo from Ed Tudor-Pole.

And here is the song sheet. It’s a fairly faithful translation, in the same key as the original. Nothing tricksy chord wise, or rhythmically for that matter. There are quite a lot of words to fit in, but they’re good ones, so worth pursuing.

Enjoy!


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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.