One of the most popular songs for beginning ukulele and guitar players is “You Are My Sunshine” which was first recorded in 1939 and has become the official state song of Louisiana. At the minimum, you need three chords to accompany yourself singing. To spice up the harmony accompaniment, you can add minor, sevenths, major sevenths and even a diminished chord. To spice up the rhythm, apply accent (emphasis) and syncopation in your strumming. Watch different versions of videos of this popular song to get ideas for what you can do.
Reading about the legendary London Yiddish Ukulele Group (LYUG) at the Open Mic in the Jewish Museum in London reminded me to write about the way I learned to sing in Yiddish. I learned those Yiddish songs by listening and singing to an audio recording, in the days leading up to the live performance.
Leading a group of ukulele players to play and sing together in front of an audience is quite different from 1) leading a group with whom you’ve been rehearsing for awhile, 2) leading a group without a separate audience listening, and 3) playing in the group as a member and not as a leader of the group. This morning I had the first time experience of leading my West London ukulele group in an outdoor performance at a charity event in Southall. It was a last minute invitation to lead, confirmed only this morning. I didn’t have time to think but made plenty of assumptions.
What did I learn?
On my first day of taking the intermediate ukulele course in Hawaii, I was surprised to witness the entire class playing and singing along. We were sight reading and sight singing, skills that take years to master for musicians.
That morning at Maui College in January 2016, all we had in front of us was a single sheet of paper that contained the lyrics, chord names, and chord diagrams. No music notation. No Italian words about tempo and dynamics in italic. No tablature. No abbreviations. No other music symbols. How could a single sheet of paper with minimal information guide music making?
How do you make a song last longer and sound more interesting? I call it the three-minute rule. A song needs to last at least three minutes for it to register in the listener’s ears. That’s my rule, after testing my audiences in a variety of settings. A short piece simply doesn’t register. How to you prolong and add variety to a song? This happens often in our ukulele jam sessions, in which we prepare for our gigs. Here are some ideas for all songs, whether you accompany with ukulele, guitar, or piano.
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?
There seems to be an inverse correlation between construction and longevity. The longer lasting the song, the simpler you can expect the harmonic and melodic structures to be.
A song I sang as a teenager on long and winding road trips was a riddle in counting backwards from 99 to one. The idea is that the more you drink, the harder it is to count backwards in a group. [Note: Back then, there was no such thing as drinking age, especially on the island of Okinawa!] Add another dimension of modulating it through the major triads based on the twelve notes in a chromatic scale and you will be sure to stay sober!