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Ukulele Crimes
Joel Mabus

fossil 2618

[click here to return to the Ukulele Crimes CD page]


My "Ukulele Bio" :

I was born into a musical family that played hillbilly and gospel music mostly. It was backwater bible belt Southern Illinois in the late 1950's and early 60's where I learned singing at home and in a small Pentecostal church. My first serious instrument was the family mandolin, handed to me at age 9 by my mother, because we were too poor to rent a band instrument in school music program. But, to be fair, there were always ukuleles around the house - in the role of musical toys, I suppose.

I vaguely remember an old uke made of rough wood with strings of coarsely twisted gut, surely a pawn shop find. And I had a shiny uke made of plastic with a certain cartoon mouse on it. I played with them, but made no real music on them. Mandolin, guitar, banjo & fiddle - in that order - became my path to a music career, first with bluegrass, then blues, folk and swing. Shortly after college, I started my career as a touring folk singer, brandishing a quick wit and quicker fingers on any number of stringed instruments. My music has taken me coast to coast, little folk clubs on scores of college campuses, and most of the major festivals from Philly to Vancouver. And in recent years I've been teaching guitar, banjo & songwriting at some of the great music camps from New England to California; from Augusta Heritage in Elkins, WV to Puget Sound Guitar Workshop near Seattle, WA.

Meanwhile, ukes (and banjo ukes) came and went in my life. In the late 70's that included a beautiful old handmade Koa Hawaiian soprano that occasionally made it into my coffeehouse sets. (Unfortunately that one was sold long ago to raise funds for a house payment!) Around 1990, my friend and guitar builder, John Colvin, offered me a lovely vintage Lyon & Healy Washburn - a simple but handsome mahogany soprano which has been my office companion for nearly half my life now. Something handy to strum while my computer stalls - and it's my cover girl here. But what I play on this album is a modern tenor uke made by the Lanikai company (SPTU-T) - not fancy, but solid spruce top with excellent intonation and a size fit for my big fingers. That little extra size makes all the difference for getting around the tight corners of certain songs.

The published liner notes of the album will tell you this project was begun during a particularly horrific time in my corner of the universe. You may be reading these words in years hence, but in 2017, home-grown Nazis openly paraded in the streets of the USA - and the leader of the free world equivocated. In Las Vegas, a wealthy man set up a deadly machine gun nest in his luxury hotel suite to spray bullets into a crowd of music lovers below - and congress shrugged. Coastal cities were drowning in hurricane floodwaters as the western states burned in unquenchable wildfire -and the president golfed. There was an unending video feed of violence in the media, while millions of citizens slumbered in a narcotic addiction, dying of it by the hundreds each week. And on world stage, the boorish bluster of childish "statesmen" re-awakened my own childhood nightmares of nuclear war.

As a songwriter of some 40 years, I have addressed many social issues within songs I have made. Racism, Poverty, Gun Violence, Wars -- Vietnam and forward, Global Warming, Corporate Layoffs and so on. Despite my best efforts I have preached to the choir, mostly.

But I also make music for its own sake and always have: bluegrass, swing, parlor guitar songs, contradance music, Christmas carols, clawhammer banjo tunes, the blues. Music whose purpose is to make you smile or nod, or set your toes to tapping, or legs to dancing - that is as vital to human existence as bread or ballots.

In 2017, year one of the Trump Anschluss, I found myself taking deeper refuge in musical diversions, rather than once again doing the heavy lifting of sledge-hammering out new musical Philippics to very little effect. My new little "tapping hammer" has been the ukulele.

This little uke has been a wonderful diversion from the binding suffocation of social media and the dreary drubbing of post-rational politics. Happy rhythms and cheery chords with welcoming songs of escape to places with palm trees take the place of broken dreams and lead pipe poisons. I was more than ready for that!

So is it a crime to play my ukulele? You tell me.

Extra comments on the songs:

1 Ukulele Crimes 3:06
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
This is the song that really started me on the path of this album. It literally began with the line that starts the chorus: "Is it a crime to play the ukulele?" The full chorus was quickly written and the verses came much later, thinking of Nero and his infamous "fiddle." Our current potentate in 2018 doesn't play a musical instrument, but does play an awful lot of golf.


2 Ukulele Scrabble 2:28
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
I dreamed this tune, one night in the early morning hours. I woke up, grabbed my uke and the first cascade of chords came out. The rest tumbled out shortly after. Coming up with a title was the hard part. After several discarded titles I thought of "Ukulele Scramble" which I sort of liked. I turned to a thesaurus for synonyms. It suggested "scrabble" for "scramble." That's when I found out that the word "scrabble" predates the famous word game.
Oxford Dictionary offers this as the first definition of scrabble as a verb: To "scratch or grope around with one's fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something."

Seemed the perfect title for this tune!


3 Goats Can Eat Anything 2:29
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
To be honest, my own mother taught me to sing "My dog has fleas" to tune a uke as a child. Remembering that little melody is very useful if you are tuning the instrument's strings relative to one another, and not to concert pitch. Just fine for playing solo, but not with other instruments. Given ukuleles of old, with their usually terrible cheap gut strings, this is smart strategy. Concert pitch as tight as GCEA might break a weak or worn-out string. I should add that in former times, some players with small soprano ukes preferred to tune a tone higher, to ADF#B. Maybe that is where D for Dog comes from? I don't know about that.

To remind myself of the standard concert pitch, I turned to Goats Can Eat Anything as a mnemonic device - not one I invented but a common one. I needed to be in tune with other instruments! Then one day I began fooling with the melody of those four open strings and came up with this little waltz tune. Then the lyrics followed, as they sometimes do.

The dog in mind is our dear Pepper, a cattle dog mix, and a rescue. She's as clean as a cat, and keeps herself quite tidy, thank you.


4 Georgia Grind 2:30
    Spencer Williams 1915 PD
The original "Dirty Dancing" song I guess. I stumbled upon this song title in a list of published works of 1915. Spencer Williams I was very familiar with - I play his famous "Tishomingo Blues" on guitar, and know of his fame as ragtime pianist and composer. Not to be confused with the "Amos and Andy" TV actor of the same name, this Spencer Williams was born in New Orleans in 1889, and wrote such jazz classics as "Royal Garden Blues," and "I Found a New Baby." He wrote numbers for dancer Josephine Baker in Paris in the 1920's, and returned to Europe in 1932 where he lived many years in London and Stockholm. As did Ms. Baker, he found Europe a friendlier place for an African-American to live a creative life in the 20th century.

Anyway, I searched online for this song and found that Louis Armstrong had performed it all his life, and recorded it several times over the course of his career. I found it charming, and completely absurd to play on the ukulele. That's enough for me!


5 I'll See You in C-U-B-A 3:23
    Irving Berlin 1920 PD
I had heard this song a few times before. My friends, The Chenille Sisters from Ann Arbor do a campy 3-part harmony version. And I remember a gray-headed Desi Arnaz singing it on an early episode of the David Letterman show in full-throated showbiz manner.

It is one of the earliest and most famous anti-Prohibition songs. And one that showcases Irving Berlin's renowned faculty with triple rhymes. From 1920, it seemed perfect for a roaring twenties uke song, though I have never myself heard it performed that way. With the island of Cuba being off limits to Americans nearly all my life - since before I had even seen it on a map in grade school during those "duck and cover" days - and now with the anti-Castro era waning, I was drawn to it, in all its boozy splendor.


6 My Melancholy Baby 2:33
    Ernie Burnett 1912 PD
I don't think I had ever heard this whole song before I learned it on the uke. I only knew the first line as a musical gag - the typical drunken nightclub request. For all the years I performed in bars, nobody -- drunk or sober -- ever requested it. When I looked at this melody closely, though, I really liked its construction, and it is a challenging little piece to play in throughout chord-melody style on the reentrant tuning of a uke.

But I didn't care for the outdated lyrics much. Interestingly, I learned that Ernie Burnett wrote the tune as an instrumental which he called simply, "Melancholy." As compositions of that era were much more likely to become published with lyrics, than without them, his own wife wrote words to it. He submitted those lyrics with the tune to his publisher under the new title, "My Melancholy Baby." But we don't know what his wife's lyrics were, as the publisher threw them out and hired a Tin Pan Alley veteran, George Norton, to write a new lyric.

Trivia notes: During WWI, Ernie Burnett was injured in battle, lost his dog tags and also his memory. While recuperating in hospital, a piano player came to entertain the wounded, and happened to play "My Melancholy Baby" which caused Burnett to stand up and say, "Hey, I wrote that song!" which began his recovery from amnesia. Also, Actor William Frawley (Fred Mertz of I Love Lucy) claimed to have been the first person to perform this song in public, in Denver in 1912.


7 Down Among the Sheltering Palms 3:38
    James Brockman & Abe Olman 1914 PD
Ah, the sheer romance of this song. When the crooner longs for "that old Golden Gate" remember that the song was written more than 20 years before they built the bridge! He meant Golden Gate Park.

If there is a verse that goes with this chorus I've never heard it. In case you play the uke, and are wondering: my arrangement here is to sing it once in the key of D, then modulate to the key of G for an instrumental chorus, then to key of C for another, and then to F for a third chorus, before returning to D to sing it one more time.


8 Way Down Yonder in New Orleans 2:46
    Henry Creamer & Turner Layton 1922 PD
Another old standard often played by Louis Armstrong. I had never considered learning it until I made this album. Such a cheery little song, with maybe a hint of double entendre? Creamer and Layton were one of the most popular African American acts on the mostly White vaudeville circuit in the 1920's. They wrote a lot of their own material, Creamer writing lyrics, and pianist Layton composing the music. They split up in the later 1920's but each continued to work with other people. Layton outlived Creamer by nearly 50 years! As a duo, their other best-remembered song is "After You've Gone."


9 How Do You Spell Ukulele 4:47
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
A bit of whimsy here and my own contribution to the body of "two chord ukulele songs" so often sought out by beginners. Though my two chords require dominant sevenths rather than simple triads: A7 and D7. One and Four chords.

Some clarifications:
"Used to be -- a Koa tree" - most early Hawaiian ukes were made from beautiful Koa wood, a readily available native hardwood in Hawaii. It is slow growing, though, and a Koa uke built today fetches a pretty penny.
"Poi" is the traditional starchy staple made from taro root. Served at a luau, it is traditionally eaten as finger food.
When I sing this song I try to channel my inner Randy Newman.


10 The Reentrant - Waltz 3:15
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
Just an innocuous little waltz. And I hope folks enjoy the sweetness of the tune. But this is an inside musical joke. I'll let you in.

The initial six note theme here re-enters over and over, relentlessly,  leading to various non-resolutions before relenting at the very end. So the motif itself is "the reentrant."

But "reentrant tuning" is a technical term in music, and a prominent feature of the traditional ukulele. The original soprano size, the slightly larger concert size, and the even-larger tenor size that I play -- all use the "high fourth"  GCEA tuning (see track 3 notes). The fourth string is the "high" G, the third is C, the second is E and the first (closest to the floor) is A. Now, most stringed instruments - guitar, bass, violin, cello, etc. - assume that string number 1, plucked open is the highest-pitched open string, the 2nd is lower than that, the 3rd lower than the 2nd, and the 4th the lower yet. (The guitar has 5th and 6th lower still, in descending order)
However, the uke has a 4th string an octave higher than you would expect. At G, it is only one note lower than the high first string at A. This scheme of tuning is known as "reentrant" tuning. Five-string banjos do the same thing with their fifth string.

Now, the larger baritone uke is not reentrant. It replicates the first four strings of a guitar. And there are some tenor and even concert uke players today who put on a low G instead of the high G for their fourth, and so eliminate the reentrant tuning. Again, that makes it play much more like a 4-string guitar that way, and while it does extend the overall range of the instrument on the low end, I just don't see the point of doing that. You sacrifice the unique quality of the ukulele when you abandon the reentrant tuning. Why don't you just play a guitar?

But the "really inside" joke with this little waltz tune of mine, is that without using the reentrant tuning, this composition would be nearly impossible to play. Oh, you could find all the notes on other strings, but I dare you to try!

So there! HA!


11 Ukulele Schmukulele 4:04
    Joel Mabus 2018, Fingerboard Music
So I have the song of how to tune the ukulele (track 3), and a song on how to spell the word (track 9). But how do you pronounce it? What some don't know is that there is a minor controversy over the that. Anglos pronounce the initial "U" as "yoo" whereas Hawaiians say "oo" - as do many would-be Hawaiians. (As I write this, I have a foot of snow outside my window and freezing temperatures, which makes me also want to be Hawaiian right now.)

This silly little song plays with the sound of "ookah" throughout. It starts out silly and then gets even more so.

You tell me you detect a note of hanky panky in some of these verses? Well, as the infamous Ukulele Dwight used to say, "Playing the ukulele is a lot like sex. With a little practice, anybody can learn to do it. It's just a little thing, and can bring a lot of pleasure. But when you take it out in public, you are asking for trouble!"

Note: "Ukulele Lady" is the fictitious title character of a famous 1920's song. Whereas "Ukulele Ike" was a real man -- the stage name of Cliff Edwards, a big star of stage and screen in his day, and the voice of Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket. He sang "When You Wish Upon A Star" in the film, Pinocchio. Please find out more about him if you don't know who he was. He introduced the world to many classic songs such as "Fascinating Rhythm," and "Singing In The Rain" - and did it all on a ukulele!

And I hope this song puts to rest another controversy - How do you spell SCHMUKULELE?


12 The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise 2:33
    Gene Lockhart & Ernest Seitz 1919 PD
This song has had a few lives. I first heard it in the iconic early multi-track hit record by Les Paul and Mary Ford, wherein Mary sang harmony to herself, and guitar wizard Les layered his guitar tracks many times with freight-train speed. But it was written as a slow ballad by these two Canadians, Lockhart & Seitz, right at the end of World War I, when indeed, the entire world was ready for a new sunrise. Although the war and it's end are never mentioned in the lyric, the gentle song spoke to that zeitgeist.

It was an immediate hit in its day. The melody was composed by Ernest Seitz, a classical composer and pianist who dabbled in popular music under a pseudonym, Raymond Roberts. The catchy tune was caught by any number of jazz players, among them Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and the aforementioned Les Paul.

The lyricist, Gene Lockhart, became better known as a Hollywood character actor. (He played the memorable role of courtroom judge in Miracle on 34th Street, where he had a pivotal scene with the above mentioned William Frawley concerning the political existence of Santa Claus.) He may be best remembered as the father of June Lockhart - TV's mom on Lassie & Lost in Space.

I have never heard this played on the ukulele, though I would be very surprised to learn I was the first to try it. It makes a great penultimate song for this album I think.


13 Bugle Call Rag 2:23
    Pettis, Meyers & Schoebel 1922 PD
To get back to the overall theme of this album, as I mentioned in the notes of track one - the uke is a wonderful musical diversion, and we all need diversions, romance and dreams. But we also need to wake up and go to work at some point.


Again, I might be the first to record this tune on the uke. I haven't heard it done on the "little flea" before, but the tune is almost 100 years old, so I cannot presume to be the first to perform it on ukulele.

When I was a kid, I assumed this was a banjo tune written by Earl Scruggs, since Earl played a sassy bluegrass version with open-G chimes on his five string banjo in his band, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Years later I heard the 1936 Benny Goodman big band record which is likely where Earl heard it too. But it was written by Jack Pettis, Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, who were members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. They recorded it in 1922 as "Bugle Call Blues", but published it as "Bugle Call Rag." It was and still remains a New Orleans style jazz standard.

A note on titles: there is another, earlier tune called "Bugle Call Rag" which was written by the great Eubie Blake. It is more of a true piano rag, and no relation to this tune, though the titles are often confused.

I learned this one on the banjo, ala Scruggs, when I was a kid, but have played it for years for my own amusement on the fingerstyle guitar in the key of E, in standard tuning. It was a minor translation to take it to the ukulele in the key of A.

I never was in boot camp, so I had to learn by research the different bugle calls by name - reveille and assembly for instance.  Different calls for different commands, but both are designed to get your attention. Ironically, the bugle and the ukulele are about the same size, though which one is more annoying when you are trying to sleep is up for debate.

So, Rise and Shine! Glory Be! And may all your crimes be misdemeanors.

JOEL MABUS -- January 2018



2018 Joel Mabus