Not long ago, I was contemplating this medley of tunes from an album called Stormy Weather by the excellent traditional band Beginish:
I'm Waiting for You
Touch Me If You Dare
The Gooseberry Bush
And I thought, there's almost a narrative contained in the names of these three reels, an abbreviated sexual story whose climax takes place in a gooseberry bush. And, musically, the tunes seem to belong together. It must have been intentional—Beginish (pictured below) seems like a witty collection of people.
The Moving Cloud, The Flowing Tide, Banish Misfortune, Paddy Gone to France, the Girl That Broke My Heart, The Pope's Toe, We Were Drinking and Kissing the Ladies, I Have No Money, Money in Both Pockets, The Cat's Rambles to the Child's Saucepan—just a random list off the CDs closest to my keyboard. But there is often a high degree of wit, metaphor, and color in tune titles (and here I am distinguishing between songs, which are sung, and tunes, which are instrumental pieces), along with the suggestion of a story.
Of course, many tune names are more descriptive than evocative—George Whyte's Favourite, The Green Fields of America, the Longford Collector, Sligo Maid, and thousands more. But as you enter into a tune, going though the process of learning it so that you eventually know it by heart, so that each note and each line of music has an inevitability to it, it starts to seem that the notes are almost like words with their own story to tell. There are shifting moods, funny turns of phrase, surprising developments in the melody line, satisfying resolutions, all found right there in the music. And often the names of tunes seem exactly right for the music they call forth. The Bucks of Oranmore, a big five-part, get-the-hell-out-my-way reel that everyone knows and that is often the grand finale for any number of group-playing situations, seems to summon up a football-team of Galway linebackers ready to roll right over you. [the video features John Whelan's version of Bucks]
The Rainy Day, on the other hand, has a moody, overcast feel, while the Boogie Reel rocks the house and practically goes airborne in the B part. For me, and I think for many other musicians, tunes speak in their own language, and I increasingly see tunes and poems as very closely related experiences.
It must be said, however, that many musicians, while they may know a thousand tunes, wouldn't be able to tell you the names of a dozen of them. And tune nomenclature can be very inconsistent, confusing, or mistaken. The previously cited Boogie Reel, e.g., is a composition by John Nolan, the first Irish-American to win the All-Ireland button accordion championship, yet I have at least four versions of the same tune by Irish-born players, all of whom call it The Durrow. Tellingly, these misnamed versions of the Boogie Reel seem a bit lackluster to me, deficient in the dynamism you get with Nolan's (or Billy McComiskey's) recording of it. Maybe if those players had the name right, the tune would have taken off the way it was intended to.
(Here's Billy's version of Boogie, followed by his composition, The Controversial.)