So many people want to play songs about rainbows!

When I ask adult beginner ukulele players what songs they’d love to play, rainbow songs are top of the list.

There’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. People want to play both the Hawaiian version and the Wizard of Oz version. And “Rainbow Connection”.

What is it with these rainbow songs? I think it’s because they are about optimism in adversity. They’re inspiring songs for these crazy times we live in.

These songs are pretty much guaranteed to raise spirits and shift energy. And that’s something I care about a lot.

Rainbow songs are tricky

These songs are rewarding to play and sing on ukulele. But there’s a catch.

They sound like they should be easy to play. But they’re not.

There are plenty of songs you can play pretty much as soon as you learn a few chords. Like, “You Are My Sunshine”.

But, not these rainbow songs. They’re not about instant gratification. These beautiful songs are worth working for.

If you’re a beginner ukulele player, you’ll need to spend some weeks putting in the groundwork, before you can learn to play any of these rainbow songs in a way that feels satisfying and successful.

I’m not trying to put you off! Going for a stretch goal is a great motivation to practice.

Over the Rainbow – two versions

The two very different versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are both hugely popular.

The Wizard of Oz version

“Over the Rainbow” was sung by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.  The composers were Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

The Wizard of Oz is still popular enough to be shown on primetime New Zealand television on holiday weekends.

“Over the Rainbow” comes near the beginning of the film, when Dorothy is stuck in miserable, sepia-toned Kansas, before she gets to the amazing technicolour world of Oz. The song was almost left out of the film.

This version of the song, with its yearning, expressive melody, is much loved by many people in the gay community.

It also strikes a chord with many people of older generations.

My late mother, Sue, lived with severe dementia for several years. When I visited Sue in the dementia facility where she lived, we would always sing “Over the Rainbow”.

Sue and many of the other residents remembered all the words, long after they had forgotten other important things. But they were pretty perplexed when we played the Hawaiian version!

The lowdown – 16 chords!

Even in the most ukulele-friendly key, this song has up to 16 chords! I’ve seen 13-chord versions, but even that is way too many chords for beginners.

When I play it on ukulele, I use a simplified version, with five chords. That’s good enough for lots of people, including me.

I’m usually very fussy about getting the right chords, but I make an exception with this song.

However, I know some music teachers and highly trained musicians who just can’t stand playing an “approximate” version. “Those chords are wrong,” they complain.

The good news about this version of the song is that the strum is easy – just a simple down and up.

The Hawaiian rainbow song

I can remember the day I first heard Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s fabulous Hawaiian revisioning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It was Christmas 1990, and it made me want to rush out and get a ukulele.

It’s powerful, joyful and paradigm-shifting.

As well as being a great musician, “Brother Iz” was a famous Hawaiian indigenous sovereignty activist. Sadly, he died in 1997, but his music is still inspiring people and raising spirits throughout the world.

Brother Iz revised the words, melody, harmony and rhythm of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. And yet it’s still recognizably the same song.

And it looks so easy!

There he is, sitting on a beach, strumming and singing in the most chilled-out way.

But the truth is, it’s not easy to play. Or sing.

The lowdown – a tricky strum

The good news is that there are only five chords. These are pretty straightforward, once you’ve been playing ukulele for a few weeks.

But the strum is tricky! The best approximation I’ve found is Cynthia Lin’s “in the style of Iz” strum. But even that is still way beyond beginner level.

Here’s Cynthia’s tutorial. It’s pretty good. Just don’t try playing this if you’re a total beginner.

Please don’t make this the first song you ever try to play on ukulele. Put some time into working towards it.

Most beginner players would take several weeks (ideally a few months) of gradually building up their strumming skills before being able play this strum successfully.

The other challenge with the Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is that it’s hard to sing.

Brother Iz makes it look easy. But that’s because he’s a virtuoso singer as well as being a superb musician. Cynthia Lin sings it beautifully – but again, she’s a pro.

It’s not fair that something that looks so easy, is actually quite hard!

I’m not trying to put you off playing this beautiful song.

I’m just being realistic, so you don’t try to play it too soon, and get discouraged and disappointed.

When you love this song, it’ll motivate you to practice.

Rainbow Connection

“Rainbow Connection” was made famous by Kermit the Frog in 1979, in The Muppet Movie. The songwriters are Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher.

Kermit released a new version in 2020.

It’s heartwarming. And completely adorable. If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past forty years, here you go:

This Billboard article calls it “a children’s song that doesn’t talk down to children”.

“Rainbow Connection” has been enduringly popular for more than four decades. There are some great cover versions, including this one by Willie Nelson.

The Muppets first became famous in the 1960s on the children’s television program Sesame Street. In the 1970s they escaped from the kindergarten to host their own hugely successful virtual-comedy-music-variety show. Real time stars like James Taylor and Paul Simon were lining up to sing duets with Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Again, this song looks easy. There’s Kermit sitting on a log, plunking a banjo. How hard could that be?

The lowdown – nineteen chords!

The strum is easy – just a 123, down strum. And it’s not hard to sing.

But the harmonic structure of “Rainbow Connection” is complex and clever. As Kermit plays it, there are nineteen chords! I counted them!

Again, there are simpler versions, which will suit many people.

I’ve seen a version that has just five chords. And there’s a somewhat more complex version, with eleven chords.

But if we’re being harmonically accurate, there are nineteen chords in Kermit’s original version.

Just so you know that your musician brother-in-law may take exception to your simplified version, when you offer it at family events. Some people care a lot about harmony.

I do care about harmony, but I think there are times and places to relax the rules.

Other rainbow songs

There are lots of other rainbow songs. Here are a couple more:

I Can Sing A Rainbow

This is considered a children’s song, but it was first sung by Peggy Lee in a grown-up film called Pete Kelly’s Blues, in 1955. The songwriter is Arthur Hamilton.

This song is harder to play than it sounds. There are some tricky Tin Pan Alley chords.

Here’s Peggy Lee’s version:

Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

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Alice Bulmer ukulele teacher

Photographed by Brooke Baker

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