Songs of location and history: Charlie on the MTA

Songs about location and history evoke nostalgia to those who have travelled or lived in these places. Long-time Boston residents know the song “Charlie on the MTA” but newcomers are curious:

  • Who was Charlie?
  • What does MTA stand for?
  • Why couldn’t Charlie get off the train?
  • Why didn’t his wife give him the money to get off the train rather than throw him a sandwich?
  • Is that why the subway card is known as a Charlie Card? Unlike the Oyster Card in London and the OV Chip Card in the Netherlands, you only need to swipe the Charlie Card when you enter the bus, trolley (tram), metro, or commuter rail (i.e. not needed when you exit).
  • Is Charlie related to the River Charles that divides Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts?

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Obladi Oblada chords

At well past our 9:30 pm ending time, we wanted to end our Beatles Carpool Karaoke on a high note rather than a depressing “Hey Jude.”

How about “Obladi Oblada” ? The song in C major is a tad too high for my voice. The original is in Bb major. No wonder.

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Hey Jude on ukulele

As usual in our jam sessions, we get bolder and bolder the later it gets. By 9 pm, the ten chords in “Hey Jude” don’t look formidable anymore. How can we sing “Let It Be” and exclude “Hey Jude” the last number in the Beatles Carpool Karaoke? Besides, Paul McCarney sings it in the same key as the song sheet from San Jose Ukulele Club.

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Love Me Do, another three chord song

After spending over an hour working on “Let It Be” and half an hour on “When I’m Sixty-Four” we spent comparatively less time on the remaining three from the 15 songs on the Beatles Carpool Karaoke. While we were familiar with most songs, playing them on the ukulele was another matter.

Our coach showed us how to make an illusively simple three-chord song like “Love Me Do” interesting. It’s sometimes the case that three-chord songs are not necessarily easy to sing or rhythmically easy to play. So far, I’ve compiled more than 60 songs that require only the three chords of C, F, and G. It will be another exercise to play them well.

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When I’m Sixty-Four or 64

What next, after “Let It Be”?

Can we squeeze in another song from the Beatles Carpool Karaoke before our usual break at half-time?

Jim, the bassist from Jamaica Plain, scrolled through the song list on my iPad with me and spotted something that’s a bit more upbeat.

I said, “How about ‘When I’m Thirty-Four” ?”

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Let it be real good

As usual, I began our 7 o’clock ukulele jam session with an easy song, one that everyone knows with few easy chords. This being the Beatles Carpool Karaoke, I chose “Let It Be,” using  San Jose Ukulele Club’s version in the original key of C major, with just four chords, rather than the G-major transposition with nine chords in the version in Richard G’s Songbook.

What can you do with “Let It Be” if you already know it very well?

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From ukulele jam to gig

Also known as “from participation to presentation

Getting together to play music together is akin to everyone chatting musically at the same time. In my ukulele jam sessions, we accompany ourselves on our ukuleles to songs we pretty much know how to sing already. It may seem like sight reading, for we don’t usually practice or know what we will be doing beforehand. In one two-hour jam session, we could go through as many as thirty songs without a break.

There is a subtle difference between a jam and a gig. While there may be onlookers watching and hearing us from the sidelines, we aren’t playing to an audience other than ourselves. A jam session is participatory music making, where everyone is participating by singing and or playing. A gig, on the other hand, is presentational where we play to an audience.

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