I wrote not long ago about my stupid notion that I might learn to play the acoustic guitar. Listen, if teenage rockers can do it, why not an old fart like me? But upon consideration, I had an even better idea. Why not the ukulele instead?



  • Ukuleles are smaller than acoustic guitars.
  • Ukuleles are cheaper than acoustic guitars.
  • Ukuleles have only four strings compared to six on an acoustic guitar, which ought to make them 33% easier to play.
  • Ukuleles are cuter than acoustic guitars.
  • The sound of a ukulele has far less carrying power than that of an acoustic guitar, which means you irritate less people if you play it badly.



And so forth.
So I shopped around online. Being a cheapskate, I bought one from Amazon for thirty-five dollars. It’s adorable. Everyone online warned me that cheap ukuleles go out of tune easily, which has turned out to be true, but it’s shiny and playable, and tuning it is good practice.




In a few days I learned half-a-dozen chords. I am relieved that the instrument has a soft voice; I can go in my room and close the door and strum away – out of tune or not – and not bother a soul, not even Partner in the next room. My arthritic old fingers still refuse to dance up and down the strings, but – with time – who knows?

(Now – would anyone like to hear a nice spirited rendition of ‘Hawaiian War Chant’?)



(No one?)


Domenico Scarlatti

domenico scarlatti

I love complete sets of the music of my favorite composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.  A clever little company, appropriately called Brilliant, has discovered a formula for marketing these: license low-cost but serviceable performers (mostly European), pull everything together, put it all in low-cost but serviceable packaging. It’s hard for a natural collector like me to resist these. Sometimes I browse their website and find myself drawn to seventeen-CD sets of the music of people I never heard of.


Most recently I bought the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Mister Scarlatti was the son of a prolific Italian opera composer; Scarlatti Junior moved to Spain where he concentrated on keyboards, writing nearly six hundred tiny sonatas. (I fondly remember Peter Schickele’s comment about giving someone the complete Scarlatti sonatas “recorded on convenient 45RPM records and sent out one a week over a period of thirty-five years.”)


These sonatas, if you don’t know them, are lovely. Each one is a perfect little jeu d’esprit, turning perfectly ordinary scales and arpeggii into something different and new. Some of the sonatas are jumping-bean sprightly; others are grave thoughtful little quasi-marches. Some die away into series of melancholy chords, and others tromp all over the place.


Keyboard players (even sub-amateurs like me) know the pleasures and perils of these sonatas; they run up and down the keyboard, often forcing the player to cross hands so that the left hand is playing on the right-hand keys and vice versa. Scarlatti famously said that he had ten fingers and saw no reason not to keep all of them busy.


Five hundred fifty-five sonatas is a lot, as Schickele reminded us. If you listen to more than half a dozen of these sonatas in succession, your ear will get a wee bit numb. But taken a few at a time, they are wonderful.




This is the soulful B minor sonata, K. 27, played by the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It’s one of the slow ballad-like ones; Gilels plays it on a modern piano rather than the more traditional harpsichord, which makes it even richer and more mournful.







I was pillaging through my stacks of books at home when I found a neat little collection of folk songs edited by Tom Glazer. It’s got all the classics – “Crawdad” (which I know as “Froggy Went a-Courting” and also (because of a 1940s MGM cartoon) as “Crambone,” as well as “Barbara Allen,” and “Shenandoah” – as well as some I’d never heard of, like “The Dodger” (with lyrics like “The lover is a dodger / he’ll hug you and he’ll kiss you / but look out girls, he’s a-telling you a lie”).

These are great tunes, simple and straightforward. Some are no doubt European (as “I Know Where I’m Going,” which I only knew before as the Scottish-flavored theme song of a movie of the same name starring Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey); others are more Americanish (is that a word? If not, it is now), as in “The Midnight Special.” And there are some others, weirdly cheerful, that might have come from anywhere, like “The Sow’s Got The Measles (And She Died Last Spring).”

But, best of all, this book has an appendix called “The Beginner Folk-Guitarist.”

If you are as old as me, you will remember that there was a time in the late 1950s / early 1960s during which folk songs and folk singing were Hot Stuff. Groups like the Kingston Trio were all over the radio, singing sweet harmony to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars. Everyone played and sang in those days. A lot of early rock-and-roll singers and guitarists came out of that era. (Donovan, anyone?)

But I never learned to play the guitar.

Tom Glazer, in fifteen short pages, makes it look easy. He gives you the fingering for sixteen chords, and describes three ways to strum. And that’s it.

Me for that!

I just saw a commercial for the Guitar Center in which they show a $29 ukulele, and similarly low-priced acoustic guitars. Can you imagine how very irritating I might become if I could strum a few silly chords?

Let’s go for it.

All together now:



Oh, Froggy went a-courtin’, and he did ride, crambone . . . .


For Christmas: Fairuz sings “Jingle Bells” in Arabic

I wasn’t going to put out a Christmas special this year until I happened upon this: Fairuz, one of the most popular Arabic singers, doing “Jingle Bells.” This version has very sweet subtitles which are mainly pretty good, but are charmingly goofy when they go off the rails.

Who is it, do you suppose, who’s delivering all those dates? And what’s with the bracelet?

Happy Christmas to all.

For Sunday: the Steve Miller Band sings “The Joker”

steve miller joker

My friend Cathleen and I talked about this song the other day. Then I listened to it again, and man, it’s too much. I need to admit also that Cathleen remembered the lyrics more accurately than I did.



But we were so young in those days!



“I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker . . . “




For Sunday: “O Fortuna,” from Karl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”

o fortuna

If you have a reasonable knowledge of serious music, or movie music, this will make you laugh (and even if you’ve seen this video before; it makes me laugh every time I see it).

The lyrics are in medieval Latin. But people have been puzzling over them ever since Karl Orff set them to music sixty years ago.

Well, now you know what they’re really saying.

Gopher tuna!

Bring more tuna!

Statue of big dog with fleas!

For Sunday: Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin

ginger rogers were in the money

As a movie buff, I always stand and salute whenever any of the “Gold Diggers” movies of the 1930s come on the air. I DVR them and play them over and over again.



This is from the first (and best) of them: “Gold Diggers of 1933.”  It opens with a cheerful song – “We’re In The Money,” a renunciation of the Depression – and ends with a very downbeat musical number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” very sad indeed.



Not your usual movie.



Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, and Joan Blondell are featured, as well as some names that aren’t so well remembered: Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Ned Sparks.


For me, one of the most astonishing things in this excellent movie is in the first sequence: Ginger Rogers singing “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin.


Watch and be amazed.





For Sunday: “Dear, If You Change” by John Dowland (1597)

john dowland

This song, first published in 1597, is (I think) one of the most beautiful ever written: John Dowland’s “Dear, If You Change.”







For Sunday: John Cale sings “Paris 1919”

john cale paris 1919

I bought this John Cale album in 1978 or 1979. I didn’t love the entire album, except for this song, and the song “Graham Greene.”



This song has everything: strings, harpsichord, harp, bizarre elliptical lyrics:



Efficiency efficiency they say
Get to know the date and tell the time of day
As the crowds begin complaining
How the Beaujolais is raining
Down on darkened meetings on the Champs Elysee

You’re a ghost la la la la la la la la la la
You’re a ghost la la la la la la la la la la
I’m in the church and I’ve come
To claim you with my iron drum

La la la la la la la la la.







For Sunday: Buck Owens sings “Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild Wild Women”

cigarettes and whiskey

There was a television show called “Hee Haw” back when I was a kid. It was a real breakthrough: the country/western world went prime-time / nationwide with a variety program, with stupid sketches and lots of music.

The hosts were Buck Owens and Roy Clark.

Buck Owens, bless his steely Republican heart, was a classic C&W performer. This song of his still goes through my head sometimes. Don’t ask me why.

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