A ukulele player's look at jazz and popular songs of the early 20th Century



One of the joys of learning the ukulele is discovering the wonderful songs of long ago--the beautiful melodies and lyrics that deserve to be remembered and revived. Thankfully, vintage sheet music abounds on the internet, and so I've had a great time tracking down lots of the old songs, transcribing them to chord/lyric sheets--in a good key for my voice--and then learning them on the uke. If you would like to receive my chord/lyric sheet for any of the songs featured here, email me and I will be happy to share them.


Have a listen to Van and Schenk, a popular Vaudeville duo:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Smiley Face and Uke

Today on a whim I created a uke-friendly smiley-face "favicon" to use as my display image on Yahoo IM. Feel free to download it and put it to use if you wish.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Just Like a Melody From Out of the Sky"

The prolific Walter Donaldson wrote this sentimental but achingly beautiful ballad in 1934. The high tenor voice of Cliff Edwards is a perfect vehicle for it, and he can be heard singing it in a video on YouTube. Access the video by clicking on the title of this blog.
Donaldson wrote more than 600 songs, including the hits "Makin' Whoopee", "My Baby Just Cares for Me", "Little White Lies", "Love Me or Leave Me" and "You're Driving Me Crazy". His film scores include movies from 1927 (LOVE) up until 1965 (A THOUSAND CLOWNS), even though he died in 1947. Most notable are FOOTLIGHT PARADE, THE GREAT ZEIGFELD, and DUBARRY WAS A LADY.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"I See Your Face Before Me"

The largely forgotten musical comedy Between the Devil opened on Broadway on December 22, 1937, running for only 93 performances before it closed on March 12, 1938. As with many musicals, a few of the songs have gone on to enjoy very healthy lives, with this torch song there among them. The other two standouts, also by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, are "By Myself" and "Triplets", both of which surfaced in the 1953 film The Bandwagon.
Traditionally, the song is performed as a ballad, complete with a slow, morose tempo. Adapting it to the upbeat tone of a ukulele, however, does not damage the song, in this uke player's opinion. In fact, I prefer the brisker tempo as it seems to tone down the "woe is me" vibe that can burden some performances.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"I'm Gonna Wash My Hands of You"

One of the joys of the internet is finding little video treasures to download. Such is the case with this curious musical short from about 1934 featuring a girl trio credited as "The Radio Three". I have done some web research on the trio and the song, but have found nothing of note. I am posting it to introduce you to the site from which I acquired it, British Pathe, which you can reach by clicking on the song title above. The site contains "3500 hours of video, 12 million stills, 75 years of British Pathe". If you can offer any insight into these girls or the number, let me know.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Don't Let Your Love Go Wrong"

This upbeat 1934 tune features lyrics by George Whiting and Nat Schwartz, with music by J.C. Johnson. It is one of my favorite songs recorded by The Boswell Sisters, also in 1934. Whiting was one of the creators of the standard "My Blue Heaven". Other songs by these songwriters include "Believe it, Beloved", "Love and Kisses", and "You Stayed Away Too Long". Martha, Connee and Vet Boswell began recording in 1925, but they did not gain national attention until they began to appear on radio in 1930. They were extremely popular, and influenced performers that came along soon after, such as Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The Boswells' career as a trio only lasted until 1936 when Martha and Vet left in favor of married life. Connee continued as a solo performer well into the 1950s. CDs of their recordings are easily available.

In my recording I used the sheet music as my primary guide rather than attempting to imitate the Boswells' innovative arrangement. Like the Boswells, I did omit the introductory verse, which includes these explanatory lyrics:

"In old Madrid I met a sweetie not very long ago,

And all we did was sign a treaty to love each other wherever we go.

It wasn't just a scrap of paper, and when I'm all alone

I call up Spain and sing again this sweet refrain over the telephone..."

For the second bridge, I did take the liberty of adding my own lyrics, inspired by a common practice of the Boswells. It can get boring returning to the bridge and keeping the same lyrics, or just whistling the melody, so for variety I sing:

"Remember how you love me now,

no matter who you find;

If you're wise, you'll close your eyes;

love is blind, but it can slip your mind..."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Crazy Words - Crazy Tune"

My inaugural post must be devoted to the novelty tune from which I took the name for this blog. It was written by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager, and published in 1927.
Throughout his career, Jack Yellen (1892-1991) wrote scores for many Broadway shows including What's in a Name, Rain or Shine, You Said It, George White's Scandals of 1935 and 1939, Boys and Girls Together, Sons o' Fun and Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. Yellen also worked as a screenwriter and lyricist for 20th Century Fox. His score credits include the films Road Show, King of Jazz, George White's Scandals (1934 and 1935), Happy Landing and Sing, Baby, Sing. Among Yellen's hit songs co-written with Milton Ager are "Ain't She Sweet", "Happy Days are Here Again" and "Hard-Hearted Hannah".
Milton Ager (1893-1979) had his first success in 1921 with "Nobody's Baby". By 1930 he had written songs such as "Who Cares?", "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas", and "I Wonder What's Become of Sally". In 1930, Ager moved to Hollywood and contributed to the film scores of Honky Tonk, King of Jazz, and Chasing Rainbows. Songs in these pictures include "Happy Feet", "A Bench in the Park" and "If I Didn't Care".

Ukulele Vaudevillian Johnny Marvin sings
"Crazy Words - Crazy Tune" in this recording on YouTube:
"There's a guy I'd like to kill;
If he doesn't stop I will.
Got a ukulele and a voice that's loud and shrill..."