Tag Archives: banjo ukulele

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 4

So now you’ve got everything you need to enjoy Hanukkah with some “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”: a recording by the Paint Branch Ramblers, a cheat sheet for singing and playing along, and even the lead sheet if you want to play the melody. What’s next?

Well, for the fourth night of Hanukkah, I’m posting a scratch track that I made very simply (recorded straight into the computer’s built-in mic) for the Ramblers to be able to hear and practice with when we were learning it. This is a slightly older version of the melody with one phrase that turns a different direction in the 7th bar than we do it now (see yesterday’s post for the details).


The instrument you’re hearing is the skin-head banjo ukulele I picked up some years ago at an antique shop in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

In fact, the song was written not for the mandolin/violin tuning I use on the cümbüş, but for the basic D ukulele tuning (A – D – F# – B) of the 1927 Regal tiple that I used to have. A tiple – at least the early-20th-century American instrument that was called that – is a 10-string ukulele (four courses of 2 – 3 – 3- 2 strings each) that sounds like something halfway between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. I’d found the instrument on e-bay and arranged to meet the seller in person on his way through Effingham, Illinois, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (his idea). So, like the banjo ukulele, and like the vast majority of every instrument I’ve ever owned, I bought it without ever playing it first.

I’ve had pretty good luck with that, actually.

The melody of “Heyse Latke” falls very nicely into the ukulele tuning, and I’d written the song for the set I was going to play at my George Washington University Writing Program office holiday party, probably in 2005 or 2006. At that time, it was just an instrumental.

But while I was in another room socializing, I heard the the tiple, which I just had propped up against a wall, falling to the floor with a sickening sound. When I went in, I saw that the headstock – as heavy in relation to the body as you’d imagine a headstock on a 10-string ukulele-sized instrument would have to be – had very cleanly snapped off in just such a way that no one was ever going to be able to fix it.

So “Heyse Latke” had to wait for the Ramblers to come along to get a public hearing. (From the set list notes we keep on our band’s wiki, it looks like the first performance of it may have been on July 31, 2008 at the Riverdale Park farmers market. Nothing like Hanukkah in July.)

Set list and notes for April 19, 2008

April 19, 2008 — approximately 8:35-8:45

Solo performance as part of the Homegrown Coffeehouse’s 8th Annual Talent Night organized and hosted by Lynn Hollyfield. The Viper played the following songs on the following instruments.

  • Viper’s Blue Yodel no. 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd (jug, banjo ukulele, and baritone ukulele)
  • Good Morning Irene (baritone ukulele)*
  • I Left My Liver in Libertyville (banjo ukulele)

* This piece featured a guest appearance by Irene Jerving, singing on the chorus and playing a washboard solo. A consummate professional, as always.

Granny, Does Your Dog Bite?

Here’s a recording of the Paint Branch Blue Boys practicing “Soldier’s Joy” on March 3, 2008:

download here

The line-up is James Key, bass; Peter Jensen, violin; Michael Sevener, banjo; Ryan Jerving, banjo ukulele and most singing; Mike Paul and Bob Smith, guitar. We never played it all the way through at the practice we recorded, so this is pieced together with parts from three different passes (and the brain of one “Abbie Normal”) into what sounds like a pretty solid performance, with some especially nice improvised bodhran/guitar playing by Mike Paul in the banjo-uke and fiddle breakdown.

The lyrics are PG-13 and are pulled, more-or-less at random, from the following collection:

General Washington and Rochambeau
Drinking with the Hessians by the fireside glow
They’re spending up their money, they’re racking up their pay
They’re never going to win the war this-a-way

So Jimmy get your fiddle out and rosin up your bow
Johnny tune your banjer up we’re gonna have a show
Pass the jug around to Kirk and McCoy*
We’re gonna have a tune called Soldier’s Joy

I’m my mother’s angel child
I’m my mother’s random child
I’m my mother’s only child
I won’t get married for a while

Rock the cradle, Lucy
Rock the cradle, high
Rock the cradle, Lucy
Don’t Let the baby die

I’m gonna get a drink, don’t you want to go?
I’m gonna get a drink, don’t you want to go?
I’m gonna get a drink, don’t you want to go?
Oh! that soldier’s joy

15 cents for the morphine
15 cents for the beer
15 cents for the morphine
Gonna take me away from here

Rooster chews tobacco
And the hen dips snuff
Baby chicks they don’t do nothing
But they sure can strut their stuff

Grasshopper sitting on a sweet potato vine
Grasshopper sitting on a sweet potato vine
Grasshopper sitting on a sweet potato vine
Along come a rooster and he says he’s mine

Chicken in a bread pan scratching that dough
“Granny does your dog bite?” “No child no”
Daddy cut his balls off a long time ago
All for the soldier’s joy

To a butcher’s block or a cobbler’s last
With dedication bend ye,
But oy! From a soldier’s awful life
Good Providence defend thee!


*  I always thought the Holy Modal Rounders (from whom I take this verse) were singing “Kirk and McCoy,” which I thought was a pretty funny contemporary reference. However, since the Rounders sessions at which this was recorded were from 1964-65, and since Star Trek wasn’t on the air until 1966…well, now I’m thinking they were just singing “Coffer and McCoy” which is from the 1957 Jimmy Driftwood version of the song. But in the best Stampfelian surrealist tradition of purposefully singing lyrics as you mishear them, I’m going to continue imagine morphine being administered medically on the Starship Enterprise while Bones plays jug (and maybe Kirk plays bones).