April 7, 2009
Old-Time Music Permanently Revokes All Song Titles
Retroactive ruling rids genre of baffling, pointless nomenclature
LEXINGTON, KY — In a decision aimed at reducing chaos and promoting the competent execution of old-time music during jam sessions, the industry’s National Council of Elders has unanimously voted to end the long-problematic practice of using words to name old-time fiddle tunes.
From this point forward, musicians will identify fiddle tunes by briefly playing the first four bars, or, in the absence of an instrument, singing some facsimile of that same passage.
The decision to prohibit song titles applies to all existing as well as future tunes, and it is a total repudiation of an age-old system that players have come to regard as a fundamentally flawed failure.
“We’ve been using the old nomenclature for hundreds of years, and it has been an utter disaster,” said Council member and old-time icon Dirk Powell, a very ancient man who has tirelessly promoted old-time music among modern humans.
Old-time fiddle tunes tend to quickly mutate as a result of aural transmission, a highly error-prone process. Within a few short generations a single old-time melody may evolve into many completely different ones in separate parts of the country.
Interestingly, several of the greatest old-time fiddlers ever to live were legally deaf, which often hindered their ability to faithfully reproduce a melody and added to the rapid creation of musical variation.
Unfortunately, most of the variant tunes have retained their progenitors’ original titles, leading to widespread confusion and all-too-common jam session disasters.
“So often in a session, you request a tune by name, say, Chinquapin Hunting, or Blackberry Blossom, or Lost Indian, or Buffalo Gals, or Silver Spear, or Cumberland Gap, or Indian Ate The Woodcock, or Bonaparte’s Retreat, or Backstep Cindy, or Paddy on the Turnpike, or East Virginia, or Five Miles From Town, or Fire on the Mountain, or Polly Put the Kettle On, or Molly Put the Kettle On, or Ducks On the Millpond, or whatever. Everybody says they know it, so you count it off, and each of the nine people in the jam starts playing something completely different,” said musicologist B. Krakauer, a banjo player.
“Train wrecks like those are fatal to group music making, and they certainly aren’t helping our genre’s reputation,” said Foghorn Stringband’s Sammy Lind, who stopped using song titles years before the Council’s ruling.
In addition to the multiple-identity issue that has so badly hampered old-time music, the separate problem of song title loss has proved tremendously vexing.
If, by some miracle, a fiddle tune manages to survive in a recognizable form, more often than not its name is forgotten by the wayside.
“At that point the only function of a tune’s title is to torment you during all your waking hours for not knowing it,” said Powell, on behalf of the Council.
“Yes, my existence is a living hell,” commented fiddler Rayna Gellert.
Indeed, at fiddlers’ conventions many old-time musicians start drinking first thing in the morning, probably to dull these horrible nagging feelings.
“I will miss the titles a little bit, but it’s not like they ever made much sense to anyone,” said Chris Thile, a prominent advocate of the new reference system.
“I mean, what is a Chinquapin, anyway?”