BY JIM BELOFF | From the Winter 2020 Issue of Ukulele
“Blues on a Ukulele” was written in 2003, born from the idea that many people think of the ukulele as a “happy instrument,” incapable of channeling a sad song. Here’s the story of how it came to be, plus some tips on how to play it along with the music notation.
Soon after my wife, Liz, and I began publishing our Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Songbooks in 1992, we started to visit Hawaii regularly. The flight from Los Angeles was easy and deplaning into the Honolulu airport was a delight for the senses. The combination of blue skies, perfumed leis, balmy breezes, and lilting music coming from every direction always made us grateful that the instrument we found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market came from such a magical place.
In those early years of our company, Flea Market Music, we would visit the Aloha State at least once a year, often in July around the time of Roy Sakuma’s Annual Ukulele Festival. During one of those early trips we met Herb Ohta, Sr., who was regularly featured at the festival. Herb was already well established as one of the legends of the ukulele, with dozens of solo albums and CDs to his credit and a huge following in Japan, where he was reverently known as “Ohta-San.” Over time we got to know Herb well enough that in 2001 he arranged a songbook for our Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Masters series titled Herb Ohta: Sophisticated Ukulele. I also became a fan of his recorded work, which would often feature his trademark playing style on pop standards along with one or two originals. I began to notice that Herb’s own instrumentals more than held their own with the more famous material.
As a longtime songwriter, I have usually written both music and lyrics, but, on a whim, I asked Herb if he was interested in a song collaboration. At the time, I was especially under the spell of the great Johnny Mercer, who wrote lyrics for dozens of classic songs, such as “Skylark” and “Moon River,” and I was open to writing lyrics for another person’s tunes. Herb agreed to give it a try and shortly after that he began to regularly send tapes of new tunes, sometimes three, four, or five to a cassette. Thus began a still-flourishing partnership that has led to over 50 songs, many recorded by Herb or myself, as well as cover versions by Lyle Ritz, Victoria Vox, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, William H. Macy, Cali Rose, Fred Sokolow, and others. The better-known songs include “The Hawaiian Turnaround,” “The French Café,” “Closer to the Light,” and the song featured here: “Blues on a Ukulele.”
Like almost all of our songs, Herb wrote the tune first and then my job was to determine the feeling it evoked and set words to the melody. The tune that became “Blues on a Ukulele” was not a traditional blues at all, but after listening to it many times, I began to hear that title in the opening line, and from there the song pretty much wrote itself.
The accompanying arrangement works well with a loose shuffle strum or an ad lib combination of down strums and up-down strums. When I perform it, I start by picking the opening melody (see TAB) as an intro and then vamp on the Bb6 for two bars. Typically, I play the entire song through once and then repeat the bridge and final verse. Also, I repeat the last line—“Oh, from that day, I can only play, the strings of my broken heart”—and then close with an extended ending of Eb to Ebm to Bb. If you decide to add the song to your repertoire, find an acoustic bassist and a chromatic harmonica player to accompany you. There won’t be a dry eye in the house!
“Blues on a Ukulele”
Music by Herb Ohta; words by Jim Beloff
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