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Thursday, 12 May 2016


Bring Me Sunshine, Sloop John B, and Ring Of Fire



Teenagers hang around in groups outside the One Stop Shop and at bus stops, and pensioners hang around in ukulele groups. If we're honest with each other, they do so for very much the same sort of reasons. They like the camaraderie, the sense of identity, but perhaps more than anything else they've nothing better to do.



Now I don't mean to be harsh, and I have to confess that I have not only taken part in such a group, but I also run a website for one. I have to admit that my heart sinks with some of the songs we often play. It's very much the same old thing, and when I look around the Web it seems to be the same old thing with other groups too. There are exceptions, but you would more likely to recognise the exceptions as proper bands, rather than activity groups as such.

The most obvious one is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and they are a good example of the difference between a band an a group. It's not just the choice of material, but it is also about the arrangements they work out in order to give a performance. Not everybody plays the same instrument. They have a bass as well as the full range of ukuleles. Each player has their part within the overall arrangement and they stick to it. Usually they sing as accompanied soloists and on choruses they work out harmonies. In other words, they plan a performance, agree an arrangement and then stick to it.


In contrast most of the groups I've played with play together, just that. They slavishly stick to a strum pattern as though a set strum pattern was a life preserver and all that was preventing them from sinking completely. They all sang the same songs the same way and strummed the same chords the same way. There's no variety, no light and shade and no interpretation.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that there is no value in people coming together to perform, but I do say that if you're going to do it you want to leave the audience wanting more rather than feeling they could have done with less.

In the video clip let's have a look at some of the ways all of these acts could have been improved. They could have worked out who would be singing the verses. They didn't all have to play the same accompaniment. They could have started with one or two and gradually brought in the rest, and they could have finished with people dropping out before the end. There were one or two people playing other instruments. I noted a competent bass and a harmonica. It's a shame that all the harmonica did was follow the tune. It would have been more effective if he had kept his powder dry for a solo.

There were one or two technical matters all these performances should have paid attention to. One was the presence of scripts on stage. Everybody had their eyes down reading the lyric. That's not a performance, it's a recitation. How can you give your all to a piece you don't know well enough to sing without a song sheet? Yes there are certain forms of the musical arts when the music is read, orchestral music and choral music, but these examples are neither of these. When you go to see a play you don't expect the actors to wander around reading their lines. Likewise you don't pay to see a band and have them sing off a song sheet.

You cannot give a compelling performance which the punters will want to watch if you don't know your songs. In fact it would be far better to do a set of three songs you know by heart, than a set of a dozen songs with your eyes glued to the song sheets.

The other main performance value is about the choice of material. I've certainly found myself in a group setting asking myself, "Why, oh why am I playing this drivel?" It seems as though we play to the lowest common denominator on these outings, the song that everybody can play because everybody has heard of it and everybody feels comfortable about playing it. It turns out that a lot of the songs we end up playing seem to form part of a universal ukulele catalogue of dreary middle of the road ukulele songs. They are all songs you normal wouldn't sing in the bath, but we end up playing them whilst wearing loud shirts and silly hats because that's what's expected.


There are noble exceptions to this, and one can be found at moselele.co.uk. Moselele boast to being the "second best ukulele group in Birmingham" and they have clearly put a lot of thought into breaking away from the usual diet. They include in their repertoire songs by David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Kool and the Gang and Jefferson Airplane, among others. It can be done. It just requires a little bit of imagination and a lot of cheek.

... and finally, here's a spoof on precisely the sort of song I was talking about earlier. The tune is by Johnny Cash, but the lyric is by Mike Krappers. It's one of those songs which is well worth learning word perfect, so that if you ever find yourself trapped in a ukulele group that is terminally committed to such dross, then you can offer to do the following as a solo:-

SPOOF FOLSAM PRISON BLUES
Mike Krabbers /Johnny Cash

[C]I hear that train song comin', they're playing it again
Seems I've been playing it since [C7]I don't know when
I'm [F]bored with Folsom prison, and it's getting on my [C]nerves
If [G7]I play it one more time I may just go [C]beserk!

When [C]I was just a baby my mama told me. Son
Don't play [C]Folsom Prison or I'll [C7]have to get my gun
Well she [F]shot a man in Blackpool before the second [C]verse
It may [G7]be an easy 12 Bar but there is nothing [C]worse

I [C]bet there's people playing in some Ukulele bar
Along with [C]Bring me Sunshine, Sloop John B [C7]and Ring of Fire
Well I [F]know it's fun for strumming it's in an easy [C]key
But that [G7]train song keeps on coming, and that's what tortures [C]me | / / / / | / / / / |

KEY CHANGE INTO A
[A7] | / / / / | / / / / |
Well [D]if I tore it from my songbook,
If I threw it in the trash
I'd still remember word for word [D7]the songs of Johnny Cash
[G]They've scarred my brain forever They're in there till I [D]die
Oh that's why [A7]when I hear that train song,
I hang my head and [D]cry
Oh that's why [A7]when I hear that train song,
I hang my head and [D]cry



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