CDSS Newsletter: band names

There was a great article in the most recent edition of the CDSS Newsletter. Jody Kruskal’s “What’s in a Name” categorized different types of band names one finds in the folk world. Since CDSS only posts newsletter articles in PDF form, and generally I think good writing deserves dissemination, I’m re-posting the article here. All credit to Jody & CDSS.

What’s in a Name? by Jody Kruskal

I’ve been trying to think up a really great band name. My duo is scheduled for a mini-tour down from New York City to Washington, DC. First we sing a concert on Friday. Then we have an amazing local piano player to join us for the Saturday contra dance. We’ve never played with him before. So, what should I tell the producers? What’s the band’s name? We’ll probably never use it again…but, who knows? So, it better be good. The current band name search is on.

“Easy,” you say. “Whatever comes off the top of your head,” you say. If that’s what you think, you have another think coming.

This question, “What’s the band’s name?,” has been plaguing and entertaining me and my playing friends for years now. Uproarious laughter has accompanied many a family dinner, giggling at the silly, trashy, ridiculous names that we’ve come up with at band-naming time. It’s hard enough being a musician in these times, but now I have to be a poet too? Band name rules and conventions are even more restrictive than haiku.

My wife vetoes almost everything. Thank goodness someone around here has good taste. My names are always too…something. Or perhaps not enough…something. Of course, you can’t please everyone, but it’s got me thinking. What makes a good band name anyway? I’ve come to believe that the best names should have all of the following qualities:

  • Short—two or three syllables would be good; more than six too long.
  • Clear meaning—don’t keep me guessing. (“You are called the what?”)
  • Original—plagiarism is frowned upon.
  • Memorable—an elusive, distinctive and unique quality that etches it into your brain.
  • Recognizable—“I’ve heard that before, sort of!”
  • Conjures up an image—this is the big one. If the five qualities above can be combined with a new vivid mental picture, then…WOW! POW! There’s my next band name and the album cover concept to boot.

Other factors that can make for a great band name:

  • Alliteration and flowing off the tongue is always good—The Capitol Quick Steps, The Thistle Biscuits, A Joyful Noise, Pullets Surprise, Racket Factory, The Tribal Tune Twisters. These all qualify for the alliteration prize as does Lemmings Dilemma and Possum Project.
  • Outright rhyming—Anna’s Bananas, Termite’s Delight, Ants in the Pantry, Vulgar Bulgars, Contra Mantra, Holy Coyote, Zing Kings, The Reel Dealers, Tofu Snowshoe, Too Old To Be Controlled—all rhyme nicely.
  • Oxymorons can get your attention—The New Old Timers
  • A descriptive name might tell you to expect Klezmer-influenced music if you go dancing to Oy Diddle Diddle.

Band-naming conventions include:

  • A bragging name—Mighty Possums, The Amazing Yokum Twins, The Road Kill All Stars, Surreal Doozies.
  • Taking the piss out of yourself can be amusing—The Knuckleheads, The Meandering Cowpaths, I’ve Heard Worse Stringband, Bottomfeeders, Ubiquitones, Contradictions, The Good Intentions Paving Company, Village Idiot, Underindulgence, Fiddlin’ Luke Warm and His Hot Band, Not Rocket Surgery, The Oxymorons, The Noodles, The Toe Whackers, Toss the Cookies, The Try Hard String Band and The Try Harder String Band are all contenders for this prize.
  • Star power, featuring the star of the show—Dr. Ruth and the Pleasure Seekers, Laura and the Lava Lamps, Long John and the Tights.
  • Verbs—I’ve seen Clodhoppers, Cliffhangers, Footscorchers, Hellbenders, Roach Stompers, Barn Burners, Cowtippers, Possum Knockers, Moonshiners, Sheep Stealers, Window Smashers, Kickstarts, PepSteppers, Hayburners, Privy Tippers, Quarry Jumpers, Whippersnappers, Beat Pickers, Rugg Cutters, Sod Busters, Serenaders, Strutters, Pickers, Rubes, Rockers, Rangers and Ramblers.
  • Rough characters always add character—Misfits, Drifters, Hicks, Hotshots, Cutups, Nomads, Moonshiners, Rounders, Saints, Prophets, Sluggers and Hussies abound, and then there are the Mars Rovers and the Contrabandits.
  • In the gender category we have the top contender, Mamma’s Boys. Then there are The Lucrative Gig Boys, Three Wise Guys, Chicks with Guns, Grumbling Old Girls, Sandy Gals, and Swamp Mamas.
  • Kin and Friends—Rodney Miller and Friends is quite straightforward, but then there are The Evil Twins, Fish Family and The Whistling Anchovy Brothers.
  • Claim your crowd with The Chain Gang, Pick-Up Dance Society, Group de Jour, Transylvanian Buskers Association, The Bog People, Clan Loki or Wild Goose Nation.
  • Geography—Perhaps where we are from is most important as in The Catskill Rats, Rachet Mountain Rock Farmers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Cook County Revelers and the inspired Ill-Mo Boys.
  • How big is the band? —There’s Duo de Jour, Fromage à Trois, Trio Brio, FourGone Conclusions, Five Reasons, Six Standard Deviations, Game 7
  • Deliberate misspellings can add some zing—All Strings Projekt, Katz ‘n’ Dogs, Phat Poppy, the Polite Boyz.
  • A tune name from the band’s repertoire would be fine inspiration—Boys of Blue Hill, Cocks O’ the North, Fine Companions, Great Big Taters, Mad Robin, Rambling Pitchfork and Shrewsbury Lasses.
  • Food and drink imagery is fun—Applejack, Apple Crisp, Barley Moon, Better Than Toast, Burnt Turnip, Atomic Fireballs, Choice Morsels, the Beat Greens, Jam Junkies, Hold the Mustard and Scrod Pudding all sound delicious.
  • Animals are always popular, as in—Nightingale, Jaybird, Boiled Buzzards, The Bushtits, Horse Flies, Brasstown Bonobos, Holy Mackeral, Dixie Butterhounds, Killer Bees, Swamp Monkeys, Screaming Earwigs, Something Fishy and Mortal Wombat. There are at least four bands called Firefly in North America. Perhaps I should jump on the band wagon.
  • A musical quality or technical term could form the basis of a band name, like the Rhythm Rascals which sounds way cool, or Rhythm Method which is really very funny. Then on to the Boom Chicks, Groovemongers, Drastic Measures, Notorious, Pluck and Fret, Unstrung Heroes or The Rosin Doctors.
  • A featured instrument could work—Squeezology, Banjulele, The Fiddleheads, The F Holes, Mando Mafia, Planet Banjo and String Theory are all fine names.
  • Good taste or deliciously bad taste can be achieved by avoiding, using or abusing the qualities of cute and clever, corny and downright silly, as in—Fishing for Cats, Hillbillies from Mars, Retrospectacles, The Flying Garbanzos, Latter Day Lizards, Prairie Chicken Asylum and one of my top favorites, Pachelbel’s Bazooka.
  • A joke name is always fun as in—Bambi in the Headlights or Cow Pie Bingo.
  • Some great band names are merely common expressions that sound very punny in a dance band setting. The most notable would have to be Yankee Ingenuity but there are others too—Swing Shift, All Strung Out, Some Assembly Required, One Good Turn, Moving Violations and the very clever Catch and Release.
  • Puns and word play are everywhere and we would be in good company with the likes of—The Young and the Fretless, Craicdown, Hey Wire, Reel to Reel, Off’n Ensemble, Schlock Therapy, Poultry in Motion, Whiskers Before Breakfast, Wabash Cannibals, Rebels Without Applause, ’Twas Brillig and the Mazel Toves, Squeaky Reels, Set Pistols, The String Beings, Brave New Whirl, Chiddle Fix, A Sheep at the Wheel, The Avant Gardeners, Tricky Brits, Forks of Nature, Les Z Boys, The Swing Chickens, Hot Under the Caller, With A Little Elf From My Friends, In-A-ContraDa-Vida, Old and Into Gray, Melodious Thunk, Musical Cheers, Spin and Tonic, Dead Sea Squirrels, The Gnutones, Dr. Grangelove, Imported Crackers, Impossible Feet, Quasimodal, Erin Ways, Happensdance, Oh Contraire, Prairie Frogs, Esteemed Clams, Keys to Excess and finally, The Flatland String Band…from Kansas, of course.

There once was a Hudson River-side picnic and summer dance where I was asked to play for Country Dance New York, just north of Manhattan. I called around to see who was available, and those who were in town formed the band. An unfamiliar combination of fine musicians. Still, we needed a name. Fiddler Michael Gorin came up with this brilliant switcheroo…Ten Gallon Cat.

Lovely, right? Cute. Unexpected. It slaps you in the face with its snappy timing and silly, memorable image. A cartoon in words… sure. Really a first class band name and perfect for a one night stand. Yet still…Ten Gallon Cat…well…that’s pretty stupid, right? How dumb can you get? Cats in Hats, ya know? Juvenile. You could certainly do better. It’s a very superficial pun of a name and though I do like it, you could go much, much deeper, right? Well, good luck! This band naming business is more tricky than you thought.

Depth and poetic skill in the band name can pack in multiple images and meanings that create a rich mysterious effect as in The Crooked Jades. I just love that name. They’re crooked and they’re jades. Wow! They’re both, what a combination.

Crooked means twisted and bent. Deformed and somehow evil. Also the band plays lots of crooked tunes (tunes with unusual or irregular structures). But wait, they’re the jades. They’re jaded. They’ve seen it all and are burned out. Just look at their faces and postures in your mind’s eye. See how crooked and jaded they look? Pretty vivid image for two words. Then go deeper and they are also Jades…precious exotic gem stones, carved into fantastic miniature landscapes and jewelry that you wear against your skin. Hmm, this is one of the deep ones. What a strange combination of evocative images for a band that plays a very dark brand of indie old time, new age music. You do have to hear their music to know what I mean, just how well this two word band name fits the sound of the band.

There’s a band name I have admired for a long time. BLT. So short and sweet you can bite it. Not only a bacon sandwich, it’s a mystery too, but still delicious. The letters cleverly stand for the initials of the last names of the musicians: Peter Barnes, Mary Lea and Bill Tomczak.

Grand Picnic, my first contra dance band and still going strong here in NYC. A happy bragging name that portrays a large assembly gathered for genteel frivolity, food, fun and the great outdoors. It’s a bit of a starched shirt, but with the jacket off and the sleeves rolled up. Grand, but with a snack and a drink, and no shoes, that’s us. It’s also the name of a great old-time tune that we often still play.

Wild Asparagus, an authentic backwoodsy name that quotes Euell Gibbons’ famous book Stalking the Wild Asparagus about eating wild food, hunting elusive mushrooms and a darling of the environmental movement. This band name claims to be wild, untamed and feral, yet at the same time, a limp and wholesome vegetable of a certain political stripe. Lots of depth in this name that goes well beyond the humorous oxymoron.

If some quality is taken to extremes, that can add value to a band name, perhaps shock value. For example, self-depreciation in a band name rarely works, but I love the name, The Wretched Refuse String Band. They were cuttingly funny, irreverent too, and the name fits them well.

Band names that paint a vivid picture, like Giant Robot Dance, Popcorn Behavior, Uncle Gizmo, Sleeping Giant String Band are all to be admired.

The most polite band name I’ve found so far is the Please and Thank You String Band.

The short and sweet award is shared by—Elixir, Flapjack, Footloose, Heyday, Leadfoot, the Primates, Shifty Tweeds, Riff Raff, Ruckus, Rumblestrip, RUMPUS, Skidoo, Spank Me!, Tally Ho!, Thrillville, Tom Foolery, Spin!, Hey!, Wha? and Wow!

There are a few band names I really like that don’t fit into any of the above categories, so here they are, in all their glory and all on their own—A Band Named Bob, Big Bandemonium, Waltz on a Dime, Future Geezers, Will Food Be Served?

Conclusion—after all of my investigations, research and analysis, I’m still no closer to coming up with a really good name for my new band. Help!

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the help of Ted Crane and his amazing database that includes 2,246 band names. Almost all the band names in this article are from that list and have actually publicized and played at least one dance.

Editor’s note: So what other examples of funny, obscure, soulful, mysterious, polite, short and sweet, delicious, alliterative, rhyming, geographical, animal, punny, poetic, etc. dance band names have you come across? Write to