Friday, December 16, 2011

Ken Middleton & The Lost Art of Playing Fiddle-Tunes on the Ukulele

In the fall of 2004, The Old Time Herald (Vol.9 #5) ran a feature article of mine titled: Ukuleles In Old Time Music The purpose of this article (researched by Deb Porter and I), was first and foremost to shed some light on the role of the ukulele in the string band era. We explained in great detail, that the Ukulele was prominently featured in both the black Jug Bands as well as the white dance bands of the 20’s and 30’s. There were groups like The Fiddle Powers Family, The Hillbillies, Jimmie Rodgers, Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters and the Memphis Jug Band; all of whom sat alongside of the Vaudeville Crooners, who inspired the masses. Thus, the ukulele was at the forefront of both progressive pop music as well as keeping the old tunes from home alive.

It has been almost 8 years since that article came out and a lot has changed in the ukulele world. We have witnessed an explosion, the likes of which only comes around every 30-40 years. From, The Mighty Uke to You Tube phenomenon Jake Shimabukuro, the global Uke craze has given birth to Ukulele clubs, festivals, dealers, builders, instructors, performers, authors, bloggers, and every other ilk. With this craze, has come a fine array of pickers and grinners, many of whom love old time music and its thriving repertoire of instrumental dance melodies. 

One of those players is Ken Middleton of the U.K. I first discovered Ken, via You Tube when I was searching for renditions of Arkansas Traveler. Ken is firmly entrenched in the lost art of arranging Fiddle Tunes for the Ukulele. Players of old like Roy Smeck and King Benny also played melodic tunes, rags, marches and reels, but it was often done in more of a chord-melody style or occasional campanella style. Today’s crop of Ukulele Wizards (Ken included), have built their approach on the chops of those gone down before as well as an arsenal of progressive banjo rolls, contemporary finger-style picking patterns, chord melody like phrasing and anything old, new, borrowed or blue. In Ken’s playing one will hear many approaches to arranging a fiddle tune; from single string lead style, to finger-style and even campanella (check out the late John King for more on this approach). Ken has a smooth delicate touch, and while he makes no qualms about how his guitar work has influenced his ukulele playing, no one would argue, Ken has a genuine love for the Appalachian, Celtic, Scotch-Irish and English dance music of old. He takes on reels like Soldiers Joy, Airs, Waltzes and even Bluegrass barnstormers like Blackberry Blossom. One could learn a lot from the free tabs he offers on his website:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The National Jukebox & Record Hunting

The National Jukebox & Record Hunting:

The National Jukebox is an online treasure trove of historical recordings, prints and sheet music from the Library of Congress and other major collections. The concept, not unlike that of a number of other digital archives, allows us to peer into the wellspring of our collective riches. If you are keen on fishing for the true vine or blasting into the bedrock of American sound and entertainment, than consider this (and others like it), the mother-lode and start digging via

Being a musicologist of sorts, I have always felt that good musicians and true audiophiles should take the time to follow our roots trail back to its respective source, which in this case turns out to be rag-time, brass-band, ethnic, blues, gospel, early jazz, Hawaiian, hillbilly and tin-pan alley to name a few. All of these genres are available en masse on the National Jukebox so I encourage everyone to listen to the works of The Duncan Sisters singing Aunt Susies Picnic Day, or Wendell Hall’s Ain’t Gonna Rain No More circa 1923 for an amazing glimpse at yesterday’s elegant simplicity.

If for instance you search for the word Ukulele and then begin to peruse the list of almost 60 related tunes, you’ll soon discover Frank Crumit, Frank Richardson, The Duncan Sisters, Wright & Dietrich, The Victor Band, Irving Kaufman, Nora Bayes, Irene West’s Royal Hawaiian’s, Elliot Shaw & Charles Hart, The Hawaiian Quintet and a slew of other lost American musical brawlers. I say ukulele, only because I am an ethno-music nerd and all tributaries begin with that singular word, while the streams, brooks and rivers of our nations musical conscious flows fast, furious and free for any and all who believe that standing at the crossroads might yield a mojo-hand. This is the creative juncture where liberty, justice and the pursuit happiness

form a prism for our unadulterated musical ears to hear, see and feel the deepest parts of our American soul. If you break away from the ukulele you’ll discover a panorama of America’s deepest roots like Vess L. Ossman’s Ragtime Banjo Solos, The Van Epps Trio, John McCormack, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Roy Smeck or Louie Armstrong. The data base is immense, but, well worth the perusing. One can only describe these tunes as otherworldly; thus, the nature of these historic recordings can lead you down a rabbit hole that has no true end. When I first started digging for gold around Milwaukee, WI in the late 80’s, the music industry was a very different bird, the internet had not quite taken over yet and a young fellow in search of the holy-grail could mine for hours at local record stores. Even if you had something specific in mind, your search could often be akin to a right-of-passage for aspiring young musicians. If you found a good record shop, rummage sale, flea market or auction, you could pass the hours away. There was no telling what kind of a haul you might come away with. If you went out looking for polkas played on the harmonica, then you came home with some early country, rockabilly 45’s or and old blues records; ultimately, there was no real way to tell if you’d ever find what you were looking for amongst a quickly vanishing world of 33’s, 78’s, cylinders, 8 tracks, cassettes, 45’s and piano rolls; but the journey always made it worthwhile.

This is how I grew as a musician, spinning old records round and round, night after night, trying to emulate what I heard…a time honored tradition I am told. Today, the record huts of old, have all but vanished from the city landscape. Presently, there are still a few shops that dot the American Landscape like Amoeba Records of Los Angeles or Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Chicago, but these are few and far between and most of these shops have all but disappeared. The digital era ushered in an era of piracy and record label conglomeration as record labels could no longer afford to manage artist careers or sink major bucks into anyone who didn’t already come with a huge buzz and fan capitol to boot.

Today, record collectors sell their wares out of their homes via Ebay and Amazon. The Goliath of my teen angst years, MTV effectively turned the music industry into a bunch of pretty faced posers and fashion flakes, making music more about appearance than sound, just look at country music today, you’d never see a real face like George Jones or Willie Nelson come out of Nashville anymore. It is all too easy now that we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes to Get it Now. The hunt for old records ala Joe Bussard a legendary collector of early recorded jazz, country and blues has become the stuff of fiction for all of us en-pixellated paupers, who’ve traded the real for the surreal; even while there are some digital bright spots.

The chase, hunt, journey, pilgrimage, whatever you want to call it, has disappeared with the people and the places that really made our cities glow with eccentricity and character, those ghosts today, sweep the streets of our crumbled towns bemoaning gentrification and a world hell bent on packaging every experience into an MP3 or video game format, all while the real stories remain untold.

They are gone now. The record stores, owners and its’ dying breed of big ears! The real loss is not our collective groove, but the foundation upon which rests our humanity…the human contact that we encountered, which forever shaped our musical and cultural lives. My hometown of Milwaukee, isn’t unlike others, there isn’t even a bone yard where an occasional time traveler or intuitive audiophile might stop to honor the record stores of Christmas past with a wreath or bouquet of flowers… like that of the fallen solider. Not a trace, just the song that whispers to our communal hearts. Remember.

Life is full of contradictions. I am asking you to gather the remnants of our mono chrome lives, once so proud to be orbiting our galaxy at 78 rotations per minute, but now digital light years away. I am asking you to take a few minutes out of your busy lives to turn off the lights, put your feet up and close your eyes, but not before you dial in our National Jukebox. Sit back and listen man! Once we held these records in our hands, once we had power without the plug, once we gathered around the old Radio to imagine what possibilities life could bring and there amidst the snap, crackle and pop, perhaps you’ll find what I found inside my first Victrola, that the past didn’t go anywhere, we just stopped looking for it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lil' Rev sez, "Check This New Play-Along Tool Out"

Here's a tool that ukulele players can use to play along with songs. It has various tunings available but is set up for Soprano as ADF#B, Concert and Tenor as GCEA, and Baritone as DGBE. Be sure to check out UKULELE PLAY-ALONG and explore its powers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lil Rev makes the NY TIMES!

That's right Lil Rev was featured in an article back in December of 2010 in The NY Times Chicago Section.
The story was about House Concerts and showed a picture of Lil Rev doing a house concert in IL.

If this interests you, click on the link below to read the story!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Philosophical Music Tips for the Aspiring Musician by Lil' Rev

Lil' Rev sez,

1) Look like you are having a good time. Otherwise, blacken a tooth or two.

2) Let the mistakes roll right off you! Don’t call attention to them, we all do, including me, but it is best to let them go by, often folks don’t even know half the time when you screwed up, for the sake of professionalism, just keep going!

3) Good eye contact is the key to playing well with others.

4) For BIG concerts, know your tunes well.

5) Talk to your audience, they love to be engaged!

7) Be in the moment! Not somewhere else.

8) Smile! Even if you are terrified! Or make sure you are wearing a dry pair Depends.

9) Think confidently and positively and you’ll play well.

10) In leading a song, be confident enough to pretend that your cheat sheet isn’t there.

11) Sing into the Microphone, not the air

12) Music comes from the deepest part of the soul, if you are tired, stressed, overworked or unhappy, it will show.

13) It never hurts to know a few Jokes!

14) Be a character….on stage, all possibilities exist! Release your inner clown!

15) Stay Positive…this bears repeating!

16) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

17) Self confidence is the key…I think I can, I think can, I think ….

18) Never be critical of others, even if you are perfect. We all biff it once in a while.

19) Music is about the heart & soul, not perfection.

20) Surround yourself with people who are better than you, and soon, you too will rise!

21) Playing with your-self is important, but playing with others is divine.

22) There is no substitute for lack of practice.

23) Music should be joyful! If you aren’t having fun…maybe curling would be better.

24) Be open to learning something musical from everyone.

25) Beethoven was almost totally deaf, that never stopped him. Don’t let handicaps stop you from enriching your life with music, cause man, the beat goes with or without us.

26) On the one hand the old blues guys played cheap guitars and the jug bands played homemade instruments, yet, they made the most beautiful music. Ultimately, a good instrument can inspire you to be a better player, but the caliber of the musician shall never be determined by the quality of the instrument you play. For soul knows no substitute.

27) Back when I first started playing music (age 11), it was magical and mysterious. Since those early days, I have never stopped searching for the lost chord. If life isn’t an adventure, whatever are we doing here?

28) Style and ability are not synonymous, but man! It sure helps to look good!

Monday, January 31, 2011

101 Licks for Ukulele & Other News

Dear Friends,

This is a post to let all of you know that my new book: 101 Licks For Ukulele is now available thru Hal Leonard Publishing.

Please spread the word to your ukulele groups and local music stores

This book is a unique collection of blues, country, old time, bluegrass and jazzy-blues intros, endings, fills, hooks and cool little riffs to add to your grab bag of ukulele tools for all levels. The music is written in tab and standard notation and there is an audio CD for every track as well as a backing track for each chapter to try these licks out. The book sells for about $15.00

Soon it will be available on Amazon. Good sources for ordering would include:

Elderly Instruments


Hal Leonard's Website:

Currently, i am on tour on the West Coast and won't return to the Mid West until April.

I have a new CD
with my good buddy (Wisconsin Folk Legend) Larry Penn now available called: Around The Campfire available thru Elderly Instruments of Lansing, MI:

I also have a new collection of poetry titled: Lil Rev's Lil Rev Gold Poem Book available from: $5.00 plus shipping.

Lastly, catch me and many other stellar players in the new International Documentary: The Mighty Uke:


Lil Rev
January 30th Los Angeles, CA

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A look back at the 2010 Milwaukee Ukulele Festival (and ahead to 2011)

Calling All Ukulele Festival Goers: (From The Directors Perch)

A look back at the 2010 Milwaukee Ukulele Festival (and ahead to 2011)

The 2nd annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival was held in downtown Milwaukee on September 25th 2010, and by all accounts was a huge success. After a year of planning and organizing, things came together masterfully in large part due to our highly efficient planning committee and a large legion of Ukulele Club volunteers!

As a performer, I am always looking at Ukulele Clubs and Camps,
asking myself, in what ways could this experience be improved upon?
Sometimes, there are minor tweaks, and other times it is highly obvious what didn’t work. (I have watched many uke fests die a hard death for oh so many reasons, with the most obvious being pure exhaustion, but that’s another story!)

For example, the first annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival ran workshops back to back all day and there was little time for jamming, socializing or shopping and the vendors travel a long ways to showoff and share their wares, so I could understand their frustration around this issue. Anyhow, this was an obvious blunder on my behalf the first year and we easily corrected this on our 2nd attempt by making a schedule that was porous and open throughout the day. It is awesome as a director to see a whole year of hard work unfold before your eyes and run smoothly…it is even greater when everyone expresses to you that they couldn’t believe how well organized it all was.

Our committee met once a month to plan the festival and as the festival drew closer we met a little more. As director, I logged 636 hours (take note all you future Uke festival planners). Some of our featured performers included: Victoria Vox (a favorite and a repeat from our 1st annual), Ralph Shaw and Joel Eckhaus, Aaron Keim (teacher), The Milwaukee Ukulele Club, Lil Rev (MC), The 4 Strings of Swing, The Ditchlillies and Curt Sheller (teacher) to name a few. Everyone played well and the workshops were a huge hit with attendance running a good balance between the two classes we ran off and on throughout the day.

The headliners, Joel Eckhaus and Ralph Shaw definitely stole the show. Ralph Shaw is not only a great singer, dancer and strummer, but a consummate showman in the finest Vaudeville traditions…his animated shtick took Milwaukee by surprise with laughs galore! People really want to be entertained and instrumental music only goes so far no matter how good it is…so to have Ralph step in and deliver the goods with Joel (also a consummate performer), it was a highly memorable evening. I have seen Ralph many times over the years as we work together, but I ain’t lying when I say he was on fire in Milwaukee in 2010.

Workshops ran the gamut from Beginners classes with Curt Sheller, to Novelty Songs with Aaron Keim and yours truly. Other great classes included Victoria’s Mouth Trumpet Class and Ukulele Building Talk with Todd Korup to name but a few. Oh! Everyone packed in to hear Joel Eckhaus discuss the Techniques of Roy Smeck and many left determined to learn Ain’t She Sweet A La Smeck!

One other aspect I thought was especially wonderful was a dinner time jam/concert with Jon Prown, Dominator and Seeso. Together they displayed unparalleled talent and skill, weaving a variety of songs and styles with an intense progressive bent to it all. Jon is on our planning committee and this was his baby, I am grateful that he had the vision to think up a dinner time concert, because it offered lots of folks a chance to hear some really progressive playing as well as sit and relax during the dinner hour and not have to run out somewhere for something to eat (Milwaukee Ukulele Club Member Cherylann Kelly catered with a scrumptious meal option for all…thanks Cherylann!).

We plan to do this dinner concert again in 2011, and all agree it should be better promoted ahead of time so everyone knows about it, also those who want to come for the evening concert would be welcome to come early and catch these guys as well in 2011.

While I have never been more exhausted as I was after the 2011 Uke Fest, I must also say that everything from Registration to the raffle was handled by our team with such professionalism that I stood in awe! I am grateful that so many have invested their heart and energy into helping The Milwaukee Ukulele Festival to become one of The Midwest’s best little one day Uke events.

We also had a ton of Ukuleles to give away from Kala, Mya-Moe and Todd Korup to Ohana and Mainland Ukuleles. We are thankful to all of those who helped us raised quite a bit of money. Perpetuation is our goal!

We set up the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival as a 501c3 non-profit, so funding this festival and pulling it off takes a lot of work and sales savvy, in a recessionary economy. Again, thanks to all of our sponsors (visit: MUFest Link to see who our sponsors were).

2012 brings with it a few changes. First of all we will be moving from our funky, soul-filled, old, downtown church space to the suburbs of Milwaukee by way of Elm-Grove’s Sunset Playhouse. The playhouse will offer us a tech crew, ample space for vendors, jamming and an actual Theater for performance as well as a legit box office and concession space for food and alcohol. This is a classy little theatre with a great team in place, so there will be a lot of opportunity for us to help them realize some new customers as well as the theater can help us connect with some new attendees as well. Lastly, the Sunset Playhouse is located in close proximity to many restaurants, hotels and shopping on Blue Mound Rd. so it is a win-win choice we have made in deciding to move the festival to the outskirts. I am sure you will all agree.

Our website (thank you Tim Sverlong of www.ukeeku .com ) has many pictures and info so please check it out . Also there is a great You Tube Video about our club at, YT ink. You can also find The Milwaukee Ukulele Club on Facebook at, FB link.

Our 2011 Festival Lineup will include: Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Craig Chee, The Lil Rev Blues Quartet Featuring Jon Simmons, Peter Roller & Steve Cohen (W/special guests: Robyn Plurer and Dave Fox) Harmonious Wail, Marianne Brogan, Rob Bourousa, The Barnkickers, Dominator, Seeso & Jon Prown and MC Mark Peterson (Plus possibly one more act!)

Hope to see you all there!


Lil Rev
1/5/2011 Written in Tarpon Springs, FL