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Tune Names

More so than songs, tunes often have lots of names. Sometimes a tune will take on a regional name. Sometimes, nobody locally will have known the actual title, and so simply call it something else. Sometimes, there will be a name from a tune’s country of origin and a completely different name in North America.

There are countless examples. One that comes to mind right away is a tune I learned as Susananna Gal or sometimes Suzanna Gal. Others call it Western Country and in some places it is Fly Around my Pretty Little Miss. Another example is Rye Straw. I know that one is sometimes called Joke on the Puppy. Today I was on the Traditional Tune Archive site and discovered those are not this tune’s only names. It has also been called: Big Fish; Black my Boots and Go See the Widow; Dog Shit a Rye Straw; Dog in the Rye Straw; Illinois Whiskey; Ladies Fancy; The Unfortunate Dog; and more. It was first published in 1876 as Whoop From Arkansas. I enjoy the fact that they are all right. It’s no wonder I love folk music!

Here’s Rhys Jones….

Rye Straw

The variety of tune names is quite reasonable in folk music. After all, with folk music, we own the tunes together, don’t we? We accept that tunes develop and change in all kinds of ways, including regionally, and it’s all good. Songs are more problematic, because people want to own them. If it is a product, something one person might own and have copywrited, having multiple names is problematic.

There are also some songs which consist of a melody which has been recycled, but with new lyrics, published and pressed on records. Woody Guthrie was responsible for several of those. For instance, he took the melody from the fiddle tune Red Wing and turned it into Union Maid. My fave Woody Guthrie example is the song he called Grand Coulee Dam, which unmistakably recylcles the melody of Wabash Cannonball. Wabash Cannonball was the name of an actual train, but also the name of a mythical train, one which appeared when a member of the “traveling nation” (hobos, tramps and bums) died, to carry the dying hobo to his reward. My guess is that train has only one stop – at a mythical place known as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a place where handouts grow on bushes and cigarettes grow on trees, where cops have wooden legs and bulldogs have rubber teeth, where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs, where there is a lake of stew and whiskey too, you can paddle around in a canoe.

Woody Guthrie was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs as part of a documentary about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, and he trotted out the melody for Wabash Cannonball as the basis for the song Grand Coulee Dam. Is this a bad thing? Was he “ripping off” somebody else’s melody, or was he repurposing a melody that we all collectively own anyway? Today, Mr. Guthrie has received some criticism for writing “propaganda” songs promoting construction of a massive power dam. Today, dams are not so popular, since they are so detrimental to the natural environment. Still, I’m glad the world has this song, because it’s also about hope for a better world, one we can achieve by working together through hardships, and the lyrics are nothing if not moving.

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav’lers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,

But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land,
It’s the king Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.

She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide,
Comes a-roaring down the canyon to meet the salty tide
Of the wide Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the West
And the big Grand Coulee country in the land I love the best

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray,
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave,
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thrity-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Here’s Bob Dylan and The Band….

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