Monday, 28 October 2019
The Good The Bad And The Ugly
I have one or two friends who are working their way through the song list of their respective groups with the intention of weeding out the dross. Ukulele bands have a passion for collecting a list of songs that they may want to play from time to time, and even inflict on a public audience. When they do that, you'll find the members of these groups are overcome by an urge to where hats and loud clothing. Why do they do this? And more to the point, why do they sing the songs they do?
I must admit to you that when I look at your regular ukulele band song list my soul aches for something new, something worthy, something that showcases talent and respects the audience all at the same time. We know ukulele bands who successfully achieve this, and I am grateful such bands exist, but in the interest of balance I have to remind you that for every Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, and for every Everley Pregnant Brothers there will be fifty or so bands who bash their way through the old ukulele faithfuls.
I could name some of the culprits; Ring Of Fire, Bring Me Sunshine, Jolene, Country Roads, Folsom Prison Blues. Need I really go on. Don't get me wrong some of these are fine songs in another context. It's just when they are played by a group of people with different abilities playing at a pace that does not leave the less experienced members of the group floundering, what happens is a simple strum pattern gets applied and the ensemble earnestly sets to the task in hand. Eyes firmly on the song sheets and in this manner the song gets beaten to death.
Having been party to weeding out exercises on a few occasions now, I'm not too sure it is a question of poor songs, although some are dire, it's about the way ukulele groups are led. With the selection of material, I would have thought it was self-evident that taste comes into it. If you play as a soloist, then you have complete control over your song list. You will choose songs that suit your personality, your mood, and your vocal range, and because you are singing your own choice you will sing with a song in your heart. I for instance would not be caught dead singing as a soloist the works of John Denver or Neil Diamond. This doesn't make them bad songs, they're just not my cup of tea, so to speak. However, if I am at a ukulele meeting where I am expected to participate in other people's choices, the only option I have to singing through some of this dross is to leave the meeting.
And this the nub of my thesis, this time. I suspect the average ukulele group song list represents the lowest common denominator for the group, the list that is accessible to the novices. The more experienced will condescend to play out of a misplaced sense of group loyalty.
Occasionally, you will be lucky to find a group who are blessed with a musical director, somebody with the personality, skill and flair to do what his or her title suggests, direct the group. You'll find when this rare event occurs, the performance takes precedence over cataloguing an extensive song list.
The alternative is to find a bunch of players who share a clear ethos that choice of material and performance values are crucial. I was lucky to find this with the Sheffield Ukulele Group, who are a collection of kindred spirits who want to do something different. They've only been together for a year, but already they are striving for something a bit different from banging out the old faithfuls.
16th November 2019
This is a nice little discussion starter, Andy. Like the great man said there are no good or bad songs, only badly written ones. I'm no great fan of John Denver myself, but I would offer that Country Roads is good or bad depending on who is playing it.
My own view is that ukulele groups are good bad or indifferent depending on the individuals who take part in them. To illustrate what I mean if the group has a therapeutic agenda, then the performance values are not really relevant. A group with a social purpose succeeds if the participants are having fun. If it has an educational purpose then you expect that performance would improve over a period of time, whilst a group setting out to perform need to respect their potential audience by upping their game.
I've attended a lot of groups, and what I've found with a lot of them is a confusion about what the group is about. I have found groups of mixed ability with the newbies obviously struggling, and the experienced frustrated by the quality of the material they work through.
My view it is not the songs that are at fault but a lack of consensus in the groups about what the group is about, and who it is for.
Love the blog. Pity you don't post more often. Keep up the good work.