From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY FRED SOKOLOW

In a previous column I showed how we can adapt the “raggy blues” style of guitarists like Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake to the ukulele. These guitarists pick alternating bass notes on every beat with their thumb, while picking melody on the high strings with the fingers. It’s sometimes called “Travis picking,” because the very influential Merle Travis took the same technique to new heights. You can apply this picking style to uke, despite the high-G fourth string, and get a similar sound. In this article we’ll do just that, with an old country/blues song, “Deep Ellum Blues.”

The Story of  ‘Deep Ellum Blues’

Because I believe in knowing what you’re singing about, here’s some background on “Deep Ellum Blues,” which is sometimes called “Deep Elm Blues” or “Deep Elem Blues.” I learned the song in the mid-1970s from my friend, folk musician Jody Stecher, and I put a bluegrass version of the song on my 1977 Kicking Mule banjo LP Bluegrass Banjo Inventions. I didn’t know that Jerry Garcia had been playing a version of it since the early 1960s, and that it was a staple at Grateful Dead concerts in the early 1980s (as well as Garcia’s acoustic shows in the ’80s and ’90s).

The song goes back to 1927, when a string band called the Georgia Crackers recorded “Georgia Black Bottom.” In 1933, the Shelton Brothers (also called Lone Star Cowboys) released a recording of “Deep Elm Blues,” which has a melody similar to “Georgia Black Bottom” and many of the same lyrics. In 1935 another, similar, version followed: “Deep Elem Blues” by the Prairie Ramblers. All three songs are about the trouble you can get into in various red-light districts. Deep Ellum, in East Dallas, Texas, was that—and much more. As far back as 1917, the African American neighborhood had several “sporting houses,” but it was also a hotbed of jazz and blues clubs, and a favorite stomping ground for street musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and (a few years later) Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, and more.

The song became popular among string bands, and it was later recorded by Les Paul (when he was called “Rhubarb Red”), Jerry Lee Lewis, the Grateful Dead, and numerous bluegrass luminaries. Interstate construction nearly wiped out the Deep Ellum neighborhood in the 1950s, but restoration began in the ’80s, and it is once again home to dozens of music clubs, as well as film and arts festivals. It’s now a musical and cultural center!

Getting Used to Raggy Blues Fingerpicking

To begin with, get your picking hand used to the “alternating thumb” technique by playing Example 1’s simple pattern, over and over. (In this type of music notation, the stems pointing up are the melody notes, played by the middle and index fingers. Your thumb picks the downward pointing stems.) To get the right rhythmic bounce, try listening to the examples above. (Example 1’s audio begins at 0:05.)

Now, play the same pattern while making the song’s chord changes (Example 2). The play-along track for Ex. 2, (Ex. 2 audio begins at 0:18), is a verse of “Deep Ellum Blues” with the pattern from Ex. 1 played over this chord progression:

C | C | C | C | C | C | C | C | F | F | F | F | C | C | G | G | G | G | C | C ||

Playing the Solo

If you’re new to this kind of fingerpicking, try these practice ideas before playing the full instrumental version, in Example 3, audio begins at 0:56.

Blues Fingerpicking For Ukulele Example 3

Read and play the melody notes (with stems pointing up in the music notation), leaving out the thumb notes. Do this several times, until you’re familiar with the melody.

Then, add the thumb notes—or in other words, play the song as written.

Many people find that picking melody notes throws off their steady thumb on the downbeats. If this happens to you, play just the first bar until you get it correct, then play the first two bars, then the first three bars, and continue this process until you get through all 20 bars.

By the way, the song is sort of a 12-bar blues. The Grateful Dead performed it with the typical 12-bar format, using a half-time, funky groove:

1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 4 | 4 | 1 | 1 | 5 | 5 | 1 | 1 ||

Older recordings were played in cut time, so there were twice as many bars. Also, old-time string bands typically left out a few bars, especially bars 8 and 12. “Doubling up” the number of bars, because of cut time, gives you the progression you hear on tracks 2 and 3.

1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 1 | 4 | 4 | 4 | 4 | 1 | 1 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 1 | 1 ||

Begining at 1:29 on the video, Example 4 is a fancier version of the same tune, with more techniques that you can use to embellish the basic arrangement we used in the previous example. Be on the lookout for grace notes (extra notes between the melody notes that keep the rhythm rolling), slides, hammer-ons, a pull-off, and a few blue notes.

Good luck!

Blues Fingerpicking For Ukulele Example 4

‘Deep Ellum Blues’

When you go down to Deep Ellum just to have a little fun
better have your fifteen dollars when that policeman comes.
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues.
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

Once I had a sweetheart, who meant the world to me
But she hung around Deep Ellum, now she ain’t what she used to be
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

When you go down in Deep Ellum, keep your money in your shoes
’Cause the women in Deep Ellum’s got the Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

When you go down in Deep Ellum, keep your money in your pants
’Cause the redheads in Deep Ellum never give a man a chance
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

Once I knew a preacher, preached the bible through and through
But he went down in Deep Ellum, now his preaching days are through
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

When you go down in Deep Ellum, keep your money in your socks
’Cause the women in Deep Ellum will throw you on the rocks
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues

Uke Basics: Explore the Blues with Fingerpicking


Fred Sokolow, who specializes in rootsy American music, has authored  more than 100 instructional books and videos for ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and mandolin, including Fingerstyle Ukulele.

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