Category Archives: ukulele

Amazing Grace

My Dad’s family is ginormous. Really, he’s one of like 13 siblings! Recently, his brother, my uncle, Len died.

Although lots of my Dad’s siblings had moved to various other parts of the country, my Uncle Len chose to remain in northern Maine (up until the last few years, anyway). As such, I got to know him growing up. He was quiet, but funny. He never had kids, but he clearly cared about his nephews (my brothers and I are the only ones I am qualified to talk about). I would work summer jobs of carpentry with him and my Dad. We cut, split, and stacked our share of wood together for my grandmother, his mom, Marie.

He was as active as his injuries would allow him to be. He was a US Marine in Vietnam. When I was deciding where to enlist, his quiet dignity and pride in his time of service helped convince me to also become a Marine.

So, he was my uncle, but also my brother… a brother in service to our nation, a brother in the Marine Corps.

He died down in Tennessee, but was eventually brought up to northern Maine to be buried near his own parents. I drove up for the service, and was able to perform some music during the Mass (everyone is Catholic in northern Maine, just about). A Marine Corps color guard had driven up from Boston to give him his military honors and present the US Flag to my eldest surviving aunt and uncle, and my Dad.

In the days preceding the service, I put together this arrangement of Amazing Grace. I mean, it’s a great song, but it’s also done at military funerals, so it all just seemed to fit. I like bagpipe versions of the song, so I added a “drone” in the first few chords: I keep on the low-G string through the C, C7, Fadd9, and back to C. (The chart is on the Ukulele Page).

No one knew that I was trying to mimic a bagpipe with my ukulele… that wasn’t the point. It was just a little something extra, a little something special for my uncle… just a little something to say “thank you” and “goodbye” and “I love you” and “Semper Fi” all at the same time. Because he deserved it.


Semper Fight

Although it was the very first song I learned to play on the ukulele (in 2011), I only recorded The Marines’ Hymn this last summer (on Memorial Day, 2013), and have delayed posting it until now. It’s not for lack of pride in my time in the Corps… it is that a former student of mine, inspired to enlist as a Marine partly from my encouragement, was KIA in Iraq. No, I don’t blame myself – many factors led him to service, and many factors led to his being killed. But he was my student – I saw the best and worst of him in math class, and on the football field, and I don’t want to dishonor his memory by botching up the job.

Where Dan really shined, though, was on the wrestling mat. It’s where he was meant to be – strong, nimble, smart – everything you want in a wrestler. Everything you want in a US Marine. Everything you want in a friend.

Cheers, Dan. Where ever you’re hanging out these days, save a spot for me at the bar.

I layered up the vocals as the verses go on, imagining walking along gathering more grunts who join in the singing. Also played around with a vocal filter to make the first verse sound “far away” -ish, but not sure if it worked as well as I thought it might.

These songs do sort of belong together…

My deepest musical influences are Bach, Beethoven, and The Ramones. But, along with other weird stuff in my head, is a fascination with Vangelis. Although almost everyone knows his music from Chariots of Fire, I first heard his electronic brand of awesome in the music of the Carl Sagan series Cosmos. I started collecting his work for the next decade or so.

One of my favorites was Opera Sauvage, which I think was actually written for some kind of animal documentary… but whenever I see cool natural events, this tune would play in my head: Hymne. Of course, Vangelis was all about synthesizers and whatnot, but I think my little arrangement for ukulele and melodica gives it a woodsy cabin sort of feel.

One of our fun pastimes out at our little homestead is to rewrite the lyrics for songs. We turn them into our own little version, generally poking fun at something we’ve done, or something one of the animals has done. I was watching some old video clips of The Muppet Show, and saw this awesome one where Rowlf and Fozzie sing the classic Country Gardens tune. It’s hilarious, and a piece of brilliant puppeteering! “Can you play hatless?” “I don’t know, who wrote it?”

So I looked up the actual folk song, and found out it was a way to teach British children about flowers and insects and stuff. I thought, “well, we’ve got stuff around the homestead… we should write a song about them, too!” Everyone pitched in on figuring out the words, and it’s been a frequently played song around the house. We have four verses: one for the lack of flowers (my superpower is killing all useful plants, apparently), one for our three dogs, one for our three ponies, and a final one for the chickens. It’s a fun tune.

Both of these tunes are also available on the Ukulele Page, and although one started as a piece of synthesizer music, and the other as an English folk song, they both have connections to animals, and in my version Hymne sounds sort of like a country folk song… Well, who cares if the connection is tenuous at best… they’re simple, fun tunes! Cheers!

Wayfaring Stranger

I first heard the tune A Wayfaring Stranger sung by Charlie Haden and his Quartet West on their album, The Art of the Song. Haunting. Excellent. I would never, ever, compare myself to this fantastic musician. But, when you enjoy a tune, you sing that tune! So, although you should seek out and listen to Mr. Haden’s version to see how it’s really done, that version did inspire an ukulele version which I recorded.

It’s available on the Ukulele page, or you can listen here.

An original tune…

So, I had this sequence of chords I was messing around with on the ukulele… 2 bars of C, a bar of G7, and then two bars of A minor and F. It was just a little fun, and those basic chords are really nothing spectacular; they’re the basis of just about every tune ever.

But then I messed around some more, and started whistling a little melody. Before you know it, I had worked out an actual tune. I wanted some lyrics, so I turned to my wife and asked, “Okay, what should this song be about?” She listened to the tune and whistled melody… and said, “Something happy. Either goats running around on rocks, or you taking a motorcycle ride.”

FrankWell, not all my goat memories are fond, so I went with the motorcycle idea. I have a KLR 650, named Frank (for Frankenstein, since he’s had so many new parts added to him over the years!). Frank is an Enduro, meaning I can ride trails or roads. I mostly use Frank to commute to work, but I argue that even the worst motorcycle ride is better than any ride in a car.

I’ve ridden bikes since I was a kid on a JC Penny 5hp mini-bike. I love them. They are freeing. I’m also a Sci-Fi geek, so I figured I’d combine those two passions in this fun little tune. It’s on the Ukulele page, or you can listen to it here.

The chart (chords, lyrics, strumming patterns) is also available.

Yesterday was Boxing Day

Well, no, yesterday wasn’t actually Boxing Day… it was last week. But I thought that was a fun title for the newest two entries on the Ukulele page… Yesterday (Paul McCartney) and The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel).

Back when I was a teenager, we had these things called cassettes… and cassette decks. I had an old office cassette deck, about the size of a big paperback. It was grey and black, and had a bright red “record” button so that you knew if you were supposed to speak cautiously. I loved it. I listened to my tapes on that stupid cassette deck’s tinny, single speaker for hours and hours and hours.

Mostly, my tape collection consisted of the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Simon & Garfunkel. Oh, and Supertramp, but I don’t discuss that in … um … well, in public. Damn. Anyway, it would be a couple of years before I discovered that classical music and Broadway tunes also came on tape, so I was stuck with what I had.

In homage, I’ve always wanted to record these two songs. Getting a melodica for Christmas seemed like the perfect excuse to lay down some tracks and give two of my most favoritest tunes a shot with the ukulele. You can listen to them here:

The Boxer:

Adding a little color

A couple of “colorful” songs are the recent additions on the Ukulele page: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (Joe Raposo) and “Edelweiss” (Rodgers & Hammerstein).

Like a lot of people, I never realized that at the end of Being Green, Kermit has actually come to terms with his green-ness, and is no longer sad about being the color of the leaves. Well, I say “a lot of people” because I really hope I’m not alone in this… But it’s such a beautiful song, and my first attempt at Jazz chords with the uke. Minor 6ths and Major 7ths, ho!

Edelweiss is one of my all-time favorite musical songs. The poor Captain, coerced into playing for the children, chooses a simple, but powerful, patriotic ballad. The song is a symbol of his resolve to resist his government’s cooperation with Nazi Germany, as much as the flower is a symbol of the peaceful Austrian countryside he wishes to protect.

Oh, colors. Right, well Being Green is obvious. And Edelweiss is a white (weiss) flower.

Listen to them here:

It’s Not Easy Being Green:


Rainbow connections

Well, one of the few TV shows, musical styles, etc., that my daughter and I have in common is Glee. Yes, I’m a Gleek. They do really interesting arrangements of songs that I probably would never have listened to otherwise, as well as great standards.

So, through Glee I got to hear this crazy fun arrangement of Over the Rainbow, which, I later learned (while inter-tubing to find the chords and lyrics so I could learn to play it) was originally done this way by a fellow named Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (aka, Brudda Iz), an amazing ukulele player and singer whom I had never, ever heard before.

Apparently, you can find about a trillion versions of this song out there… but I wanted to record it anyway! So, it’s on the ukulele page, or you can listen here.

Whistlin’ Beethoven

Beethoven. On the ukulele. Don’t hate, now… I remember hearing the 9th Symphony for the first time and thinking to myself, “Holy crap, what just happened?” In a good way, in a good way! I was blown away, all the intricate vocal lines going in and out of the finale… the Ode to Joy. Whatever troubles Beethoven created for his loved ones, by being so cantankerous, perhaps they forgave him after they heard the 9th!

So, I put the basic theme of the Ode to Joy to the ukulele, and some whistling (with harmony!), and the “well known” lyrical verse, all on the ukulele page. Or, give it a listen here.

Elvis on the uke… Ukelelvis!

It’s not my fault… I actually like me a little Elvis now and again.

I’ve always found the chord progressions of Can’t Help Falling in Love just so simple and beautiful… I couldn’t help but record it with the ukulele (with a few modifications). Parts of the song just seemed to be asking for vocal harmonies, as well, so what the hey, once you start modifying a classic, you may as well go all the way.

The chart and MP3 are on the ukulele page, or you can give a listen here, too: