Name that tune!

I’m pleased to announce that not only did I find it a very satisfying IBMA World of Bluegrass this year, I’m actually feeling pretty good, both physically, mentally, and spiritually, in the aftermath of the event. This is all thanks to the new three day IBMA detox program that I’ve just emerged from.

I don’t have time to go into all the details, but it mainly involves locking yourself in a yurt for three days (you know, the new kind of yurts that lock), listening exclusively to Rachmaninov piano concertos and The Greatest Hits of Johnny Horton as sung by Benedictine Monks in Wales, and eating a diet consisting mainly of parsnips and the occasional Triscuit. A large amount of spring water must also be drunk from a bottle with a label that has a description of the water that begins with the word “nestled.” It’s a very effective program.

If my memory serves me (and thanks to the above program, it is starting to serve me again, if a little reluctantly), I was going to write something about bluegrass song titles, as a companion to the earlier pieces about botched bluegrass lyrics.

Working in radio, and also having some experience playing in bars, has given me a lot of opportunities to hear what happens to song titles by the time they end up in the form of a request. In many cases, they’re barely recognizable.

In fact, in radio you develop a skill—without even trying to—of being able to divine what a listener is wanting to hear, even if the request seems to bear no relation to the title of the song whatsoever. I’ll admit that I still don’t do very well with listener calls and emails in which they say things like: “I’d like to hear that song . . .I don’t remember the name or the artist, but it’s got the word ‘love’ in it. I’m pretty sure it was a female artist, or maybe a man.” Perhaps ten years from now I’ll be able to confidently reply, “Ah yes, of course you’re talking about Tennessee 1949 by Larry Sparks,” knowing instinctively that the listener meant “like” when he said “love,” but I’m just not yet at that level of listener mind-reading.

Once, when I was working at a country radio station, a listener called and requested “Those Old Memories Still Upset You,” and I was almost embarrassed that I actually knew that she was referring to the song Old Flame by Alabama. “Those old memories still upset you” came from the third line of the second verse. Why not?

As a bluegrass musician, you also learn to be unfazed by alternate titles. When you hear someone ask for “The Well Beaten Path” (or “The Well Beaten Calf,” as discussed a few weeks ago), you know immediately that they’re asking for Blue Ridge Cabin Home. If someone wants to hear “Muhlenberg County,” you naturally know that they’re referring to John Prine’s Paradise.

To be fair, Flatt and Scruggs and John Prine didn’t make it easy on people with their song titles: nowhere in Blue Ridge Cabin Home does the phrase “Blue Ridge cabin home” appear. There’s a “Blue Ridge mountain home” in the chorus, and the word “cabin” is slipped in almost unnoticed in the first line of the third verse. In the song Paradise, the word “paradise” seems like a minor addition to the second line of the chorus. The song could easily have been named “Green River,” and everyone would have called it “Muhlenberg County” anyway. I personally prefer to call the song “The Air Smelled Like Snakes.”

I think that Lester and Earl were just messing with us when they named the song Thinking About You. That’s the one that goes:

“Will the angels tell her for me
That my love will never die
Someday I’ll walk along beside her
On that golden way up there”

(note the little-used “ABCX” rhyme formula)

I happen to love this song, but Thinking About You as a title is a little abstract. I think it’s loosely drawn from the first line of the third verse, “Each night I think about you dear.” Here again, the song could easily have been called “My Love Will Never Die,” or they could have gotten even more abstract with “Angels.”

Still, no matter what a songwriter chooses to name a song, a certain percentage of people are just going to use all or part of the first line of the song for a title no matter what (see “The Well Beaten Path”, above), whether it’s the verse or the chorus. Using this naming convention, Fox on the Run becomes “She Walks Through the Corn;” Little Cabin Home on the Hill becomes “Tonight I’m Alone;” Think of What You’ve Done becomes “Heart to Heart;” and Old Home Place, a song we’ve already discussed here at length, becomes “Ten Long Years.” I’ve heard every one of these variations at one time or another.

It kind of makes sense as a naming system, when you think about it, and if songwriters insist on naming songs from random parts of the song, or from outside the song entirely, they should expect this.

Just to make things interesting, though, I wish more people would take a cue from the listener’s Alabama request mentioned above, and name every song using the third line of the second verse. Using this procedure, Fox on the Run would be called “This Woman Tempted Me,” Little Cabin Home on the Hill would become “I’ll Just Keep It There,” Think of What You’ve Done would be renamed “In Those Hills I Learned to Love You,” and Old Home Place would be “I Ran Away to Charlottesville.” Now that I read them over, I think I like them all.

I suppose “I Held Her Close to My Face” makes a poor title for The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake, but no system is perfect.

Of course sometimes titles are just misunderstood. A few years back, I recorded a song by Dixie and Tom T. Hall called Hero in Harlan, but more than a few times I’ve gotten requests for “Heroes in Harlem,” which sounds like a good title for a New York-based action flick.

Once, at a club in College Station, TX, a request was sent up on a piece of paper for “Rocky Tonk.” I just attributed that to excessive consumption of alcohol.