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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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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Review: How to Play Ukulele, a complete guide for beginners

Hot off the press, Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan’s new book, lightweight paperback and nicely designed, is full of tips and advice gleaned from the author’s sixty years of playing and teaching the ukulele. In that time period, the author has undoubtedly encountered all sorts of questions, for playing an instrument isn’t just about playing. Adults like to ask questions. It takes an experienced teacher to explain the answers without taxing the brain and intimidating the beginner.

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Summer Solstice Sunset Singalong at Standish Village

It’s a mouthful, but every single word is significant. Today is the official summer solstice in 2018, otherwise known as the longest day of the year. Yesterday, being the Wednesday that my ukulele group meets each week, we gave our first public performance for the senior residents and staff members of a nearby building. Sunset is that magical time when you know the deadline of darkness is approaching, and everything must get done by then. To make it participative, we called our gig a singalong so the audience would be encouraged to join us in the singing. Standish Village is an award-winning assisted senior living residence, housed in a historic landmark building (no. 24 in this document), in Historic Lower Mills, just a short walk from Walter Baker Artists Lofts where we regularly meet to jam (or rehearse).

What’s noteworthy? One person had just learned how to play the ukulele three weeks ago in my crash course, four others had never performed on the ukulele before, and it was our first performance as a group.

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Ukulele Melee 2018

The first time I saw the name of the festival “Ukulele Melee” I thought there was a typo or misspelling. I knew that “mele” was the word for music in Hawaiian. What then was “melee”?

“Melee” means a confused fight or mass of people, a word that originated from 1640 French mêlée and Old French meslee meaning “brawl, confused fight; mixture, blend.” It wasn’t until the one-hour drive to the festival in Hamilton, Massachusetts that morning of Friday 27th April that I learned the origins of the festival name.

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Earth Day ukulele workshop and jam

If we celebrate birthdays, why not one for Mother Earth? Every April 22nd, people all over the world celebrate Earth Day in different ways. While I was living on Maui, I started using music to gather community and raise awareness for sustainability through concerts and jam sessions. It’s a combination of entertainment and education. The last one was my piano class joining forces with the ukulele class (video below). This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday 22nd April 2018, and I’m determined to do something special.

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