Purchase a DVD with all of the scanned song books and song sheets in my collection - >8GB and 2,500 PDF files. Priced to cover my costs for scanning and mailing. Click here for the ordering page.
Popular & vintage ukulele music
In the two decades between the end of World War One and the start of World War Two, the ukulele was arguably the most popular musical instrument in the Western world. It was small, relatively inexpensive, and with only four strings it was relatively easy to play. It was charming and not intimidating. Men and women played it equally.
Tens of thousands of ukes were sold in that period. Maybe even millions - no one really knows. And to cater to that market, most song books and song sheets of the era had uke chord diagrams in them. The uke arrangements are sometimes clumsy and even wrong, but they're ubiquitous.
Although they had originated three decades earlier, ukuleles burst into the mainstream market in 1915 after they were featured at a display in an American west-coast exposition. But of course the rest of the world was at war and had to wait until after 1918 to join in the craze. Ukes didn't take long to capture the hearts of millions worldwide for the next two decades.
In 1936, the popular Gem series of music books changed from ukulele chords to guitar chords. Although uke chords would continue in some publications right into the 1960s, by the end of WWII, the number of publications featuring the uke was greatly reduced while guitar arrangements increased. For me, the change in the Gem folios marks the beginning of the end for the uke's popularity and the dominance of the guitar.
I've been trying to build a collection of that old ukulele music from the between-wars period. I've been buying song books and song sheets on eBay, as well as haunting every local yard sale, garage sale and shop that might have something for sale. And I've been scanning all of them so I could share them with modern uke aficionados Not that the young kids appreciate it it a lot, although we old codgers do. But that could change.
It's difficult to find any radio station that plays songs from this era. Even on the vaunted satellite stations they're rare, usually just the odd jazz piece, not the popular songs. Without airplay it's difficult to revive this music and get new players for it.
It's a complex attraction for me. In part it's seeking intimate connections with my parents and their world (especially after discovering my father used to play the banjo and my grandmother played the uke in that period). In part it's trying to understand and appreciate (as well as play) the music of that era for myself. And in part it's my desire to keep alive the past and the popular culture of that day, and share it with others.
I started playing the ukulele in early 2008 (after 45 years playing the guitar). I was immediately drawn to the older songs, although the vast majority of today's younger players want to perform the music they know - pop stuff that's on the FM airwaves now. Yet despite changes in rhythm and voicing over the years, the songs of both eras really express the same emotions. They're mostly about people, about love, about relationships, friends and sorrows. You might be surprised how modern a song from the 1920s will sound if phrased in modern rhythm and voicing.
I have also found, when reading over these scores, I recognize songs I heard my father sing when I was a child. I didn't know the songs then, not by name, and only realized I could still recall some of the lyrics or the tune when I was browsing the material I had collected. It's an odd, but welcome, recognition, an aural palimpsest, a tune that peaks out under my collected memories of my own pop age - that of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Donovan and so on.
I also had the pleasure of having a working 78 player and a collection of old 78s to listen to, in our family cottage, until I was about 12. We had no electricity at the cottage, so a wind-up Victorola provided the entertainment at night when we sat around and read to the light of a kerosene lantern. We listened to singers like Rudy Vallee, Stanley Holloway and Mario Lanza. I can still remember some of the lyrics to songs like The Donkey Song and Hernando's Hideaway, 50 years later.
Over the last two years of gathering these scores, I've collected more than 1,500 pieces, and scanned more than 4GB worth of PDF files, which I offer online (for a price aimed at recovering my costs). My goal has been to share and to resuscitate this music, opening new worlds for ukulele aficionados, share the joy I have in it, and not violate any copyright laws.
(I offered them online free for a while, but my current server, Hostpapa, revealed that the "unlimited" bandwidth I had purchased was really "very limited" and open to be be reduced in any arbitrary manner they chose. They choked my bandwidth so severely that it affected every other page on my site. And they did this without warning! I had to pull the links and stop providing the free files, while I look for a better, faster and customer-friendly server.)
The song sheets and books don't have a high intrinsic value as collectibles, despite the efforts of some eBay sellers to inflate their value (most seem to be sold for their cover art rather than their contents). For sellers, the biggest problem is that out of tens of thousands of songs produced in those two decades, today only a very small handful are commonly known. Most of the performers, the bands and the writers have been forgotten.
So it seems the age of the piece isn't as relevant to its value as its recognition factor or its artwork. Even some of the great performers and pop stars like Rudy Vallee, Ruth Etting, Jimmy Durante or Dick Powell are little more than a curious footnote in musical history to today's younger players (those few who even recognize the names). Yet they feature on many of the song sheets I've found.
A few sites online offer old 78 records converted into MP3, so with some diligence you can find a lot of these songs. I've downloaded several of the MP3s myself, trying to match the printed music in my collection with the songs to help me learn to play them (many arrangements are awkward or difficult, so need considerable tweaking). My contribution is in the collecting and scanning - in the hope some enterprising uke players will match up the two and revive some of that music.
But again, it's tough without any airplay unless a particular song grabs the attention of the uke community and it spreads through that group. Lance White and Ian Whitcomb have collections of vintage music, tabbed for ukulele, with a CD included so you can hear what the songs sound like. See my book page for details.
As an example of what treasures you can sometimes find, I recently visited Joe's Music, run by Joe Connolly, on Highway 26 east near Collingwood (a wonderfully old-fashioned, eclectic store, by the way). I found hundreds of old music sheets and books - unfortunately mostly for piano, but some going back to the 1890s. Great stuff (albeit some in sad shape and musty) and I wish I was a more diligent collector, but I have my focus on music chorded for ukulele. I managed to pull between 35 and 50 song sheets with ukulele chords from the boxes.
There were also faded and fragile newspaper sheets with news on one side and a ukulele tune on the other that I took. I went back again a week later, and found another 25-35 more in a box I had missed! I also check eBay almost daily for others.
I want to really build up the collection with some of these old, and often forgotten, tunes so I can share them with other uke players. I know there are a lot of these old scores in basements and attics, slowly falling apart, unused and ignored. I want them! I want to keep them an the music they contain alive.
If you have any you will part with, please let me know. I'd love to scan them and add them to the collection so they can be shared with others. I might be able to buy them from you, too, if you really don't want to keep them. Or if you're up to the effort, I can tell you how to scan them yourself at the right resolution and layout. Either way, I'd appreciate your help in keeping this music alive.
To obtain a copy of the collection on DVD, please use the PayPal link at the top of this page. Please note: as far as I have been able to ascertain, these are all Public Domain with no current copyright. I am not selling the works themselves; merely covering the cost of my work to scan, collate and mail the DVD, as well as host these pages.
CAVEAT: Some of the earlier songs and songbooks contain words and images that are not socially or politically appropriate today. There pieces that may be considered offensive today - particularly sexist and racist. I don't write these, nor do I approve them. I merely replicate them in interest of their historical value.
Here's my first song arrangement: When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along (PDF). Not an original song, but I made an arrangement that I liked. Here's an mp3 version of the song, performed by Al Jolson (public domain).
My latest arrangement is Hoagy Carmichael's great song, Georgia. I'm posting a PDF of my work on it to date - it's got a few unnamed chords as of yet, and needs some tweaking, but I think it's okay. I started with an existing arrangement in F and simply tweaked it to sound more like the song that was in my own head. Comments appreciated. /p>
Here's my version of Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue, based on an original arrangement by May Singhi Breen. I have also posted scans of a few old songbooks I found in yard sales and used-book stores. Here's my version of Marie. I'm working on versions of Jeepers Creepers, Sunny Side of the Street, Side by Side and some others. Feel free to download and use these, and link to them, but don't take them and put them on your own site.
I'll post more song arrangements when I work them through. Please feel free to share them, just not sell them. As you can see, I like to play many 'vintage' songs, but I'm also working on a version of the Beatles It's Only Love right now as well as several other more modern tunes.
And I also made a chord wheel that can be used for chord transposition, and has the circle of fifths/fourths for easy reference. Very handy for guitar players, too! Free, of course, for non-commercial use as are my other efforts.