Sheet Music and the Ukulele


by Janet Roitz | See: All, By Janet, Music

“Even in it’s day, sheet music was acquired and cherished not only for performance but also for a vague but real “cultural delight.”                   D.W Krummel, Bibliographical Handbook of American Music

Take a good look at a piece of sheet music  from the twenties and thirties. Down at the corners and inside the margins you will probably find the names, Albert Barbelle, Sydney Leff and May Singhi Breen. Barbelle and Leff were widely used commercial artists whose beautiful images were often marred by the signature of enthusiastic sheet music owners wanting to ensure that their copies didn’t wind up in someone else’s piano bench.

Cover Art by Alfred Barbell

Cover Art by Alfred Barbelle

The third name on the list, May Singhi Breen, was a ukulele player, teacher and performer who spent her life advocating that the ukulele was an instrument to be reckoned with. Open the inside cover of a piece of sheet music and you’ll probably spot her:  Ukulele Arr. by May Singhi Breen (The Ukulele Lady.)

May Singhi Breen

May Singhi Breen

The marriage of sheet music and the ukulele might not have happened at all without the efforts of Jerome Harris, secretary of the musical merchandise firm, C. Bruno and Son Inc.  In 1922, Harris proposed that sheet music publishers forgo adding the customary barbershop quartet and marching band arrangements to their numbers and replace them with arrangements for ukulele.

 “Mr. Harris pointed out that every porch, every park and every automobile these summer evenings is, likely as not, entertained by one or more ukulele players. Most of these players make blind stabs at their own harmonies, since they cannot find an authentic arrangement of new hits.… The method of playing the ukulele is very simple. The four strings of the instrument lend themselves readily to line illustration in print and the fingering of each bar of a popular song can be easily illustrated. Mr. Harris believes that the utility of every piece of sheet music would be doubled if the publishers adopted his plan.” (Music Trade, Vol.64, July 8,1922)

Look at virtually all the popular sheet music from the twenties and thirties and you’ll see that Mr. Harris got his way.

I surrender, dear

Some original copies of sheet music are harder to find than others. One such piece is the song, “Low Down Lullaby” by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger sung by Dorothy Dell in the 1934 Shirley Temple movie, LITTLE MISS MARKER. I found a copy and true to form, someone had written their name right across Dorothy’s pelvis.

LOWDOWN LULLABY:Dorothy Dell

Shirley Temple died in 2014 at the age of eighty- five. Dorothy Dell died in 1934 at the age of nineteen – not long after singing little six-year old Shirley to sleep.

Dorothy Dell:Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple and Dorothy Dell

The sheet music for “Low Down Lullaby” does indeed contain ukulele tabs. I asked my friend Rhan Wilson to play for me to see what such a pretty song sounds like with just voice and ukulele… I hope Miss Breen and Mr. Harris  are pleased.

To hear our version, click on the arrow at the top of the post…

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For more information on the subjects above:

UKULELE, A HISTORY by Jim Tranquada and John King

Profile of sheet music artists

Shirley, Dorothy and LITTLE MISS MARKER

2 Responses

  1. Pistachia says:

    Perky lil’ tune to send the kiddies off to sleep with…

  2. Guy says:

    Thank you for this interesting story. It’s great to see the uke’s growing popularity. I’m reminded of a friend who found or maybe bought at a thrift shop, a bass (or baritone?) ukulele. She loved it and played it every day, and figured out chords on her own. She wrote several songs and played and sang them for friends. One friend bought her a ukulele lesson as a gift. The teacher took the uke and said, “your tuning is all wrong,” and immediately tuned it properly. In a matter of seconds, all of her songs were lost forever.

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