Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness – John Prine / Nanci Griffith

John Prine is songwriters songwriter. Somebody who amassed a substantial body of work that influenced a raft of far more commercially successful songwriters from across the musical spectrum, but particularly those operating in a country and folk vein.

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I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Prine. Nor necessarily a fan. I’ve come to him more via. those he has influenced, including contemporary singers such as Jason Isbell, Kasey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson, as well as those legends that revere him such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. But Nanci Griffith would have been my initial introduction to him, via. her cover of this beautiful song on her 1993 covers album, Other Voices, Other Rooms. On that album Griffith, already established as a respected country folk (too country for folk, too folk for country) songwriter and performer, recorded a collection of songs by her favourite songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, and Tom Paxton. And this gem by John Prine.

Described by critic David Fricke as “a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall way clock”, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness become an instant classic, something acknowledged by Prine when he later reflected “Jesus, that’s beautiful. I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was just pouring out of me”. Griffith had already performed the song as a duet with Prine, and so it made a lot of sense to record it for this project, particularly when joined by Prine on harmony vocals for the recording.

I was reminded of this song, and Griffiths recording of it, by a cover version by Kurt Vile on his recently released EP “Speed, Sound, Lonely KV”. Proof, if proof were needed, that a classic song is timeless.

Like many a classic song from this genre, this is a very straightforward song that shouldn’t prove too taxing. 3 chords (or 4 if you include the optional 7ths, which aren’t strictly part of the song but do add something), I’ve included two version – one in G as per Prine’s original, and one in C as per Griffith’s cover. Enjoy!

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1981

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Well it’s been nearly two years since I did the 1979 songbook, and so it seemed about time to bring things bank up-to-date … with a 1981 equivalent. As mentioned previously, this is kind-of my era, and so I’m not one to be particularly balanced in an assessment of the musical qualities of the year.

As with last time, this is *my* selection, and takes a somewhat biased view on the musical output of the year. So sorry, but you won’t find any Shakin’ Stevens here. Nor will you find any Bucks Fizz, Joe Dolce, Julio Igelsias, Stars on 45 or The Birdie Song (all of whom were in the top 20 selling singles of the year). But what you will find is a selection that showcases some of the wide variety of music that was being made and – in most cases – being lapped up by the British music-buying public.

1981 was the year in which the New Romantics, and electronic music more generally, established itself in the charts. I’ve covered those genres off in more depth here, but included in this book are the likes of Soft Cell (whose cover of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love was everywhere), The Human League (who came from also-ran has-beens following the earlier split in the band to be triumphant pop conquerors with their classic album Dare, and the omnipresent Christmas Number 1, Don’t You Want Me), the studio-based Visage, OMD (with their songs of dead French saints – x2), the upcoming scream-sensation that was/is Duran Duran, and Basildon’s finest, Depeche Mode. With their strong emphasis on visuals and style, these new artists were truly of the video age, a fortuitous timing that – with the launch of MTV in the US in this year – saw their music being eagerly gobbled up by young Americans, leading to the second “British invasion” which really got under way the following year.

The US were not to be outdone, though. And whilst classic American rock bands have often had a hard-time making a lasting presence in the UK (at least from a singles perspective) the year did see the likes of REO Speedwagon and Journey have some success. But even then, the more “new wave” artists from stateside, such as The Go-Go’s and Kim Carnes (a kind of new wave / classic rock hybrid) had success, alongside the reinvigorated rock-and-roll stylings of Stray Cats.

But these were somewhat of an exception. British Pop was in rude health, as evidenced in more classic ways by the fresh face of Kim Wilde, the songwriting powerhouse that was Kirsty MacColl, and the singles-juggernaut that was Madness. But there were some particularly skewed versions of pop appearing during the year. Most significantly (and if it was anybody’s year, it was probably his) Adam and his Ants took a bizarre amalgam of tribal drumming, punk attitudes, twangy guitars, and almost-pantomime dressing up, married with a constantly evolving but somehow consistent visual style, and won Britain’s playground over big style. This even gave an opportunity for posh punk has-been Eddie Tudorpole to have a hit with the medieval-themed Swords of a Thousand Men.

The graduates of the punk and new wave scenes were still around, albeit in matured ways. The Police were still massive, The Stranglers had a big hit with the relatively laid-back and un-punk Golden Brown (odd time signatures included), XTC continued to plough their own furrow, The Undertones started to grow up, and both Squeeze and Elvis Costello took an unexpected country by-road. In addition the vibrant and varied post-punk scene started to go overground, with the likes of The Teardrop Explodes, Altered Images, Toyah and Scritti Politti establishing themselves.

But the old guard wasn’t to be outdone. Phil Collins took time out from Genesis to begin a parallel (and hugely successful) solo career, Dire Straits were further laying claim to their position as grown-up rock superstars, 10cc’s Godley and Creme broke away with their own brand of quirky pop, and even The Who returned from a few years away as if nothing much had changed (although clearly it had). And not to forget Olivia Newton-John having another gym-based makeover.

Anyway, here’s the book. I’m sure you’ll disagree with the selection of what is or should have been in the book. I’m in no way claiming this to be a definitive record of the year. But it is *my* selection. And I love every song here.

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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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August / Betty – Taylor Swift

Much to everybody’s surprise, Taylor Swift released a new album a couple of weeks ago. And much to my surprise, I really like it!

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It’s fair to say that I’m not really in Taylor Swift’s demographic. Or at least I thought I wasn’t. But when her new album – Folklore – appeared with less than 24 hours notice, I noticed one or two reviews which were very positive, in terms that intrigued me. Probably influenced as much by the title and the misty, back-to-nature monochrome cover, I thought I’d give it a go. And you know what – I really enjoyed it.

At heart it’s still a pop album, but the textures are vibe are much more of an indie folk feel, something that the involvement of The National’s Aaron Dessner, and Bon Iver, were clearly designed to bring to the project. Written and recorded during the Covid-19 lockdown, the album is a marked contrast from the shiny, polished and upbeat pop of Swift’s most recent releases, but harks back to the collaboration she did with The Civil Wars for “Safe & Sound” on The Hunger Games soundtrack.

August is one of those lost summer love songs, one of three songs that Swift says “explore a love triangle [alongside Cardigan and Betty] from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives”.

And so here’s the song sheets. August is mainly a simple cycle of chords all the way through, with a subtle variation between verse and chorus. A basic strumming pattern that I’ve used on this is something like (with occasional variations) DDD DU UD DUD for the verses, and D DUD DU UDUDUD for the chorus and bridge – if that makes any sense! Betty, on the other hand, has a strumming pattern that is a bit like D D D DU.

Nothing more really to say other to say give them a go. Even if you think you don’t like Taylor. Enjoy!

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Lua – Bright Eyes

In something of a contrast to the last post, today’s is a simple, fragile acoustic song. In fact, when I first heard this I thought it was being played on ukulele.

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My first introduction to this song was via a duet version with Gillian Welch , more specifically this version where Gillian and partner Dave Rawlings joined Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes for an encore in Austin, Texas. That led me back to the original, which is even more sparse – just Conor and an acoustic guitar, capo-ed up high (which might explain why I thought it was a ukulele).

Such treatment clearly suits a song which is not going to make it onto the list of “jolly” and uplifting ukulele songs that seem to form the repertoire of most ukulele groups. Instead this is a song that deals with struggles of depression and addiction. I’ve written before on here of my inclination towards less cheery songs (a quick scan through the list of songsheets I’ve published will confirm that!), and this is just further evidence of that. But for me, a single strummed ukulele is the perfect setting for a song like this.

The song is a relatively simple one – mostly standard chords (with the exception of that Bm9 thrown in towards the end), and benefits from a fairly constant strumming all the way through. Probably best played solo (I think a mass group rendition would somehow lose the sparse fragility of the song), this is one to dig out for those quiet, introspective moments. But enjoy!


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The Who Songbook

Ever fancied the chance to practice your Pete Townshend windmill actions on your uke? Well here are 16 golden opportunities to have a go with.

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At first glance, I guess The Who aren’t the obvious choice for ukulele. All that male aggression, testosterone, riffing and power chords isn’t going to translate well to a tiny pseudo acoustic guitar. Certainly if you take your uke-ing seriously you could end up looking very foolish with this one. But the genesis of this book was the post I made over a year ago of Won’t Get Fooled Again, prompted by a superb video performance with The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And so if a song like that – a true classic that is everything an overblown, overamped, and yes, probably over-sexed, rock band and song should be – can translate to the humble ukulele, then why shouldn’t the rest of their oeuvre.

And so began a journey into The Who’s back-catalogue. To be honest, I didn’t dig too far – everything in this book should be relatively well known to anybody (myself included) with little more than a passing awareness of the repertoire that Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon contributed to the rock cannon over the last 50 years. From their first single (I Can’t Explain), through a golden run of 1960s classics (My Generation, I Can See For Miles, Pinball Wizard), on into the 1970s rock gods (Won’t Get Fooled Again, Baba O’Reily, Who Are You) and even into the 1980s (You Better You Bet), these are songs that have become ingrained into the consciousness of generations of rock fans.

And now they can become ukulele classics as well! Well, maybe not, but you can certainly have a lot of fun with these. I’ve tried to keep these as close to the originals as I can, although some of the extended instrumental sections I’ve cut down a bit. Obviously, if you’re a virtuoso and can manage the solos then extended them and give them a go – they’ll probably add something to these.

One thing that struck me working through these sheets was how well-structured – and sometimes quite complex – these songs are. I’ve definitely got a new-found admiration for the songwriting of the band – Pete Townshend, in particular.

Anyway, here’s the book.

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Also, see below for a list of the songs included in the book, along with links to individual song sheets: