Ukulele Song [yoo-kuh-lay-lee song; Hawaiian. oo-koo-lay-lay song] –noun
1. A song primarily associated with the ukulele.
2. A song everyone tells you to play when they find out you’re a ukelelist.
There are certain songs that will be forever associated with the ukulele. Occasionally, these were written for the ukulele. But, more often than not, they are songs that have been taken and performed so memorably on the uke that it will be thought of as a ukulele song from that day on. This is a list of those ukulele songs that no uker can get away from.
Tonight You Belong to Me
Written by: Billy Rose and Lee David in 1926.
Essential version: Lyle Ritz, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Watch the video.
Tonight You Belong to Me was written in the heyday of the ukulele, but it wasn’t until the song was used in the film The Jerk that it became almost exclusively associated with the ukulele. Although Steve Martin does a good job with the miming, the uke is provided by jazz ukulele legend Lyle Ritz.
You’ll find endless ukulele covers of this song on ukulele including versions from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder with Sleater Kinney’s Janet Weiss and Cathy and Sarah Lee Guthrie (Cathy Guthrie also recorded a version as part of Folk Uke).
You can learn the chords to Tonight You Belong to Me from ukulele chanteuse Janet Klein and find a solo version in Jumpin Jim’s Ukulele Masters : Lyle Ritz. And here’s my transcription of the Jerk version Tonight You Belong to Me Ukulele Chords.
Written by: Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting in 1925.
In the 1910’s and 20’s, Hawaii was all the rage. Songwriters, never being slow to let a bandwagon passed un-jumped-upon, aped the Hawaiian sound and filled songs with references to an idealised Hawaii (this came to be known as Hapa Haole). Obviously, this included many ukuleles with songs like Ukulele Moon and Ukulele Island. But, moons and islands couldn’t match the appeal of ukulele ladies.
An early version of Ukulele Lady was recorded by Vaughn De Leath. Since then it has become a favourite of people wanting to conjure up a bit of Hawaiian exotica and has been covered by Bette Midler and Kermit the Frog. Of course, it’s become a must-play for ukesters and you can watch top-notch versions by Howlin’ Hobbit and Victoria Vox. But, somehow, Petty Booka’s kitsch version of the song seems be stuck in my head permanently (you can listen to a clip via their website).
Tip-Toe Through the Tulips
Written by: Joe Burke and Al Dubin in 1929.
Essential version: Tiny Tim Watch the video
Tiny Tim, I think it’s fair to say, is not universally popular amongst ukulele players. His warbling, falsetto voice and camp, novelty act pretty much killed off the popularity of the ukulele for the best part of a quarter of a century. Even so, he is one of the first players people think of when considering the ukulele. To his credit, he was responsible for rescuing a number of fantastic old songs and claiming them for the uke. None more so than Tiptoe Through the Tulips.
I’ll See You In My Dreams
Written by: Gus Kahn and Isham Jones in 1924.
Essential version: Joe Brown at the George Harrison Memorial Concert. Watch the Video.
This song was first claimed for the ukulele by Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards. You can listen to his version here. When Joe Brown performed it at the George Harrison Memorial Concert, he stole the show and the song. George himself was a big-time ukelelist and member of the George Formby Society and also prompted a ukulele tribute from Paul McCartney. Ingrid Michealson also did a fine ukulele version on her album Slow the Rain which you can hear on Last.fm.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Written by: Harold Arlen and Yip Harbury in 1939
Essential version: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Watch the video.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow is the latest song to enter the ukulele canon. As far as I’m aware, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is the first person to release a ukulele version of the song. But since he did, the song has become a ukulele staple.
It has come to greater public attention thanks to its regular use in film and TV (including 50 First Dates and Meet Joe Black). It has also been covered on ukulele by Jason Castro on American Idol and Ted’s group The Blanks on Scrubs.
You can find the chords to Jason Castro’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Dominator has tab of Britt Paiva’s solo version.
When I’m Cleaning Windows
Written by: George Formby, Harry Gifford and Frederick E. Cliffe in 1936.
Essential version: George Formby. Watch the video.
In the UK, the ukulele is almost synonymous with George Formby. It’s very rare that the ukulele gets a mention in the mainstream media without someone dropping the F-bomb. However, he wasn’t a traditional uke player, but a banjolele player.
Like many Formby songs, it has some light innuendo. Unbelievably by today’s standards, this song was banned by the BBC until Formby’s immense popularity during the Second World War forced a climbdown.
Formby acolytes are a particular subset of ukulele players, but those that like him love him. You’ll find many note for note recreations of his solos on YouTube. You’ll also find version of this song by Peter Sellers and Patrick Stewart on Family Guy.
Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl?)
Written by: Joe Young, Sam Lewis, Ray Henderson
Five Foot Two might be the perfect ukulele song. It rips along at a rocking tempo, the chords flow perfectly (you can find them on Dr Uke) and the words are ripe for parody. There are at least two Eight Foot Twos: Allan Sherman’s ode to an alien (as covered by Craig Robertson) and Mary Anne McTrowe’s Bigfoot love song.
Ain’t She Sweet
Written by: Milton Ager and Jack Yellen in 1927
There are plenty of great ukulele versions of this on YouTube including GUGUG, Tommy Mattiniero and Winin’ Boys. A uke version of the song even got a perfect score on the Gong Show. But watching The Beatles play it on the lawn can’t be beaten.
Ain’t She Sweet is another song that fits perfectly on the uke. Not surprising since it’s very similar to Five Foot Two. In fact, the two songs are often mashed up as Dan ‘Cool Hand Uke’ Scanlan does in his instructional video. (Suggested by Nina Coquina).
Written by: Queen Lili’uokalani in 1877.
Certainly the best known Hawaiian song and a ukulele staple which has reached a new generation after its use by Lilo and Stitch.
You can read notes on the song and the song sheet on Nalu Music.
Written by: Jason Mraz
No matter what people tell you, there’s no ukulele in Jason Mraz’s original version (although there is one in the video) but the laid-back island vibes appealed to many ukulele players and the tune became on of the most covered on YouTube. So much so it created a rash of parodies such as this one by Mary-Anne McTrowe.
But, with a view count comfortably into eight figures, this version by an itchy-faced little boy is the most well known.
Hey, Soul Sister
Written by: Train
Train’s Hey, Soul Sister was a massive hit single and has caused huge amounts of people to rush out and buy a ukulele (and subsequently put their version up on YouTube).
Of course, as well as songs, the ukulele is associated with plenty of solo, instrumental pieces. You can read about those here: ukulele music.
You can do likewise with these chords for Hey, Soul Sister.
Let me know if you think I’ve missed out one of the essential ukulele songs.