This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2013/2014 issue

I have always had a very hard time remembering the names of tunes.  Early in my pub crawling career I had a little list of jigs and reels I could pull out of my head and toss into the common pot.  I could even string together two or three in advance of a set and then navigate through the melody and key changes.  But some of my seasoned session mates could launch into a set, barking out the name of the next tune maybe two bars before the switch and everybody would play right along.  Except me.  I needed a bar or two to recognize the melody, because I had no trustworthy method of connecting the tune with its name.

So a number of questions about tune names have given me pause over the years.  For starters, where did these names come from in the first place?  Furthermore, when you’ve amassed a repertoire numbering in the hundreds, how the dickens can you remember all the names?  And are you supposed to?  When a fellow musician turns to you over the empty pint glasses and asks if you know “The So-and-So” should you feel ashamed that you don’t instantly know whether it’s a jig or a reel or what key it’s in?  Also, what’s the deal about all those tunes with more than one name?

I could go on, but you get the idea.  I’ve felt inadequate and culturally semi-literate many times over the years, bedeviled by a Celtic tradition that includes maybe 10,000 tunes and counting, of which I still can only readily bring a handful to mind when it’s my turn to pick a tune in a session.

Here’s a taste of some of the complex and contradictory answers I’ve gotten to these questons.  First, about where the names come from.  There are plenty of tunes with geographic place names.  Those are clear enough.  There are plenty of tunes named after a person, too.  The trick here, though, is to know whether the person named is the author of the tune or was the guy that somebody learned the tune from.

Now, this usually doesn’t matter and isn’t helpful in recognizing a tune, except for when the name is of a tunesmith with a singular style, like Ed Reavey.  All his tunes share a certain something and after learning a few you start to be able to pick Reavey tunes out of sessions.

As a fresh-faced tune collector I sat with my tape recorder in lots of sessions in Ireland, trying to position myself near whoever the Big Dog was and, when they all stopped for a drink, I’d often ask what the name of the last tune was.  In one pub, I remember sitting next to an awesome, grizzled old fiddler, and early in the evening I asked him the name of a tune and he told me, “The Old Man’s Teeth.”  I happily made a note of it.  An hour later, another wicked tune whizzed by and I asked the guy its name.  “The Old Man’s Teeth,” he replied.  Later a younger colleague laughed at my story, saying that the old fellow always told the Yanks the same thing and he didn’t know the names of anything he played.  So much for the oral tradition.

As to making rational links between tunes and names, Francis O’Neill tried his hand at this a century ago in “Irish Folk Music, A Fascinating Hobby”.  One unnamed tune introduced to the Chicago scene was dubbed “All Covered With Moss” just because it sounded so old-fashioned.  And “The Milliner’s Daughter” was so named because one guy judged the tune to be as lovely as his sweetheart.  There are plenty of similar stories all the way up to present day.  One current favorite of mine is called “The Piper’s Despair”, and yes, it does tie your fingers in knots.  But does any of this help me with the first three notes of the tune?  Not so much.

Once in a very long while you run into a Celtic scholar, usually one who speaks Irish, who really knows why a tune acquired a name.  It was from scholars like these that I learned how to recall a few tunes by name, including “Rakish Paddy”, “The Earl’s Chair”, and “The Swallow’s Tail”.  “Rakish Paddy” does not refer to a dissolute man, but to “reacaire”, the street seller, the crier of wares from days gone by.  And it’s his “caoineadh”, or keening tone at the start of the tune that sets the mood of it.  And “The Earl’s Chair” is no ordinary chair, but the stone throne carved at the top of a hill in Galway called “Cathair an Iarla”.  You slide up to the first note as if you’re climbing the crag to the chair.  And I’ve been told that if you play “The Swallow’s Tail” you can practically see the bird in flight.

These are very cool mnemonics, but I’ve only gathered a handful, leaving most of my repertoire still a nameless blur.  So where does this leave us regarding the social stigma of failing to be able to whip into a tune at the drop of a name?  I say to hell with it.  Let everybody bring their party pieces to the table and just share them.  Nobody can know all the names and nobody knows all the tunes.  As to tunes having more than one name, that’s simply an acknowledgement by the tradition that as often as not we’ll remember a name by the last person who played it and eventually the name sticks.  And tunes that get spread to the far reaches of the globe will certainly be renamed along the way.  There’s that oral tradition again and you can’t fight it any more than you can fight the tide.

So, here’s a reel I played and performed in the 1990s and I don’t think I ever knew its name.  I learned it from my old partner Chris Caswell, who played it on the flute with great flair.  Even though I’ve notated it here in straight time, try to give it one heck of a back-beat.  It rocks.  It’s really a four-part reel, with the second part repeated as the fourth, leading me to believe that it may have started life as a Scottish pipe tune.

I ran across it recently and what a fine little tune it is.  If you know its name, let me know.  Or just name it something new and teach it to somebody else.  All hail the oral tradition!