Name That Tune!

Chris JonesOne of the many creative challenges facing songwriters (besides paying this month’s utility bill) is the naming of a new song. This is frequently done after the song is written, and sometimes it feels like a big decision. Unlike a band name, once you register the thing, you’re stuck with the name forever.

Granted, with some songs there’s really only one choice. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were probably never considering “Corn Won’t Grow At All” or “Trapped Like a Duck” as possible titles for Rocky Top. I’ll Go Stepping Too couldn’t be called anything else but that, seeing as how that phrase is sung three times in a two-line chorus. Naming it “Don’t Start To Yell” just wouldn’t have worked at all.

With other songs, though, the choice is less obvious, and it requires finding the part of the song that best sums up what the song is about. Do you use the last line of the chorus, like I’m Lost and I’ll Never Find the Way (which could easily have been called “Lonesome”, the first word of the chorus)? Do you use the first line of the chorus, as in Will The Circle Be Unbroken? You could make an argument for calling the song “In the Sky” or, if you were feeling really impulsive, “Undertaker Please Drive Slow.” Or, do you take the more abstract approach, like in Flatt & Scruggs’ Thinking About You (a phrase that never appears in the song) or Jim Croce’s Age.

Fortunately, these are decisions that writers of instrumentals never have to worry about, because the name of a tune doesn’t need to be based on anything at all. You’re working with a completely blank slate, though maybe that presents its own kind of challenge.

I haven’t written a lot of tunes myself, but when I did come up with my first instrumental, I was really excited about the fact that I could name it anything in the world, from “Two Eggs and a Sausage Patty” (what I had for breakfast), to “Eva Peron’s Rabbit” (because who doesn’t love a reference to Argentina and cute furry animals?) .

Without even giving it any thought, here are a few bluegrass instrumental titles of the past and present that come to mind: Fling Ding, Sockeye, Spam Jelly, Burnt Fuzz, and from our own current album (shameless plug alert): Swine Flu in Union County.

I rest my case.

It’s my opinion that certain words and phrases don’t lend themselves to bluegrass instrumental titles, and should be avoided, but even these are debatable. They are as follows:

  • “Cold Sore”
  • “Pancreas”
  • “Ecumenical”
  • “Bedpan”
  • “Proactive”
  • “Dishwasher-safe”

Other than these, though, and the openly obscene, pretty much anything goes.

However, if you still don’t feel confident about just grabbing an idea out of the air, and saying to yourself, “I think I’ll call this one ‘Dog Breath on a Harley,’” you can subscribe to different schools of tune-naming (these schools have no tuition, no fees, and mostly consist of endless recess).

One school is Bill Monroe’s system of naming a tune after the place where you wrote it, which is where titles like Road to Columbus and Panhandle Country came from. This means you can name it after a planet (in case you wrote the tune on Jupiter), a country, a state, a county, a town, a road, or even an apartment complex. All have been done.

Yes, you can always play the tune, close your eyes, and let the melody “speak to you,” i.e. the touchy-feely approach. This yields titles like “Bending Willow,” “Appalachian Lament,” and “Passion’s Serenade.” That’s no fun.

There’s the fiddle tune approach that usually has people, animals or objects placed in or on various things or locations, like Granny in the Corner or Cricket on the Hearth. Using this method, you can name a tune something like “Kitten in the Suitcase,” or “Dentist on the Couch.”

None of these work for you? Try these ideas: get revenge on someone who wronged you by naming a tune after them, something cryptic like “Jason’s Regret,” or “Lucinda’s Rage”; or indulge in completely unrealistic fantasies like “Dancing With Heidi Klum,” pay tribute to your favorite sports figure with something like “Bautista’s Swing,” or honor your favorite author with a title like “Sam-I-Am” (my taste in literature is not very mature).

There’s the lazy approach, which is to take a random word, then stick “Breakdown” at the end of it if it’s fast, or “Blues” at the end of it if it isn’t, e.g., “Toothpick Breakdown,” or “Jumper Cable Blues.”

When all else fails, do what many before you have done: name the tune after the very first thing you see after you’ve written it. This will get you titles like “Stained Carpet,” “Dad’s Suspenders,” “Cheetos in the Bowl,” and “Aging Microwave.”

I fear the sad truth about naming instrumentals is that those names may be just as good as the ones you take days of soul-searching, fasting, pondering, and agonizing over to come up with.

I’d better close this right here; I’m just adding the finishing touches to the B part of “Crumbs on the Laptop.”

  • Randy Gregg

    Surely Alison Brown must deserve at least an honorable mention for her instrumentals named “Weetabix” and “Shoot the Dog”.

  • Dick Bowden

    Excellent topic! I used to love Jason Carter’s fiddle tune “Chicken Under the Washtub” which he and Del said was a true story.

    The old Sacred Harp number “Africa” always mystified me, there isn’t a word in it about Africa.

    I have plenty of fiddle tune names for anyone to use, from things I see while driving. Granny Leaning on the Railing. Dead Porky on the Bridge. Bird at the Feeder. For instrumentals I also like using the plethora of Indian place names on our great continent.

    David Grier has an excellent but unmentionable generic title for all old time fiddle tunes…

    I kind of like your alternative for “I’ll Go Stepping Too” — “Don’t Start to Yell”. Good one!

  • Jacob Underwood

    Some of my favorite titles are on Stuart Duncan & Alison Brown’s “Pre-Sequel,” released in 1981 on Ridge Runner Records. Their original tunes include “Possum Gravy on Grandma’s Beard,” “The Great Lasagnia Rebellion,” and “Bionic Marshmallow.”