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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 4/24/15 "The Cuckoo Bird"

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janolov - Posted - 04/24/2015:  09:29:13

I have chosen The Cuckoo Bird as this week’s tune/song. It is also called "The Coo Coo Bird" or just "The Cuckoo" or "The Coo Coo". It seems to be a popular tune/song and there are a lot of versions out there. Most banjo versions today seem to be more or less based on Clarence Ashley’s version. However, I will not focus this presentation on his version; instead I will try to bring some other interesting version.

The bird

The Cuckoo, or common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (formerly European cuckoo), is a member of the cuckoo order of birds, Cuculiformes, which includes also several other species. The cuckoo is a widespread summer migrant to Europe and Asia, and winters in Africa. The common cuckoo is 32–34 centimetres (13–13 in) long from bill to tail (with a tail of 13–15 centimetres (5.1–5.9 in) and a wingspan of 55–60 centimetres (22–24 in). The legs are short. It is greyish with a slender body and long tail and can be mistaken for a falcon in flight, where the wingbeats are regular. During the breeding season, common cuckoos often settle on an open perch with drooped wings and raised tail.  Males weigh around 130 grams (4.6 oz) and females 110 grams (3.9 oz). The cuckoo is a brood parasite, which means it lays eggs in the nests of other bird species, particularly of dunnocks, meadow pipits, and Eurasian reed warblers.

We have the cuckoo in Sweden and it use to come to our place around the May 18th every year and we can hear its call: Cuckoo cuckoo. It is one of the sign saying that summer soon will come. The cuckoo stays here till August when it migrates to Africa to survive the winter. It is easy to hear the cuckoo, but it is more difficult to watch it. It is shy and is hiding among the tree tops.

If I have understood right, you don’t have the cuckoo in North America.

The male's call, "goo-ko", is usually given from an open perch. During the breeding season the male typically gives this call with intervals of 1–1.5 seconds, in groups of 10–20 with a rest of a few seconds between groups. The female has a loud bubbling call. The song starts as a descending minor third early in the year in April and May, and the interval gets wider, through a major third to a fourth as the season progresses, and in June-July the cuckoo "forgets its tune" and may make other calls such as ascending intervals. Also the cuckoo seems to have a form of absolute pitch as it tends to sing in the key of C. Here are some examples of how the cuckoo sounds in Swedish:

In Europe, hearing the call of the common cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. Many local legends and traditions are based on this. In Scotland, a number of Gowk Stones exist, sometimes associated with the arrival of the first cuckoo of spring. "Gowk" is an old name for the common cuckoo in northern England, derived from a harsh repeated "gowk" call the bird makes when excited.In Sweden we call it "gök". There is also folklore that the cuckoo could tell the fortunes. There is a rhyme that goes (in Swedish): 

södergök är dödergök /  västergök är bästergök / östergök är tröstergök /och norrgök är sorggök which roughly can be translated as

Cuckoo in the south, is a message about death / cuckoo in the west, is the best / cuckoo in the east gives consolation / and cuckoo in the north calls sorrows and grief

In Swedish Cuckoo (in Swedish "Gök") is also used for a shot of vodka in the coffee (also called Swedish Coffee): 


The Tune

The Cuckoo is a perfect example of a non-narrative song with a very complex and old history. As early as the 13th-century, the cuckoo bird made his appearance in an English round song sung in a Wessex dialect called “Sumer is Icumen In” which translate to “Summer has come in”. The origins of the banjo song may reach back to an Irish Street Ballade “The Noble Skew Ball” printed in 1822.

Like many other English songs and ballads, The Cuckoo crossed over the ocean and found its place in the American folk repertoire. In the Appalachian mountains, the song survived in different forms: For some, usually women, it remained a lyrical song about lost love and the inconstancy of lovers. However, many men in the mountains would add some verses about gambling and rambling and turn it to a banjo song.

An interesting fact is that it has been played and recorded by both white banjoists (Clarence Ashley and Hobart Smith) and black banjoists (John Snipes, Dink Roberts and Rufus Casey).

Most of the versions have a similar construction. They start with the “bird call part” – the high part, and then there is one or several verses sung to a very simple melody, with the bird call coming back as breaks between the verses. The banjo versions are played in sawmill tuning, but the pitch may differ from player to player.

Clarence Ashley

Clarence Ashley recorded the Coo Coo Bird in 1929. I think there is two different recordings by him from the 1920’s (in New Lost City Rambler’s Song Book I can read that he first recorded it  with Byrd Moore’s Hot Shots and later with the Carolina Tar Heels). Here is one of the recordings:

After the revival of Old Time Music in the 1960’s performed the Coo Coo. Here is a well known Youtube clip from an outdoor performance in a garden or park: (there is also an interview in the video). 

Hobart Smith

Hobart Smith’s version of Cuckoo Bird is a very hard-driving and rhythmically exciting version. His “double-noting” technique contributes to this sound. Smith begins his Cuckoo version with his take on the “bird call” motive. His interpretation is very similar to Ashley’s, but includes an extra beat making the measure a group of 5 beats instead of 4. There are two recordings available from the 1960, by Lomax and by Fleming Brown. I don't know which version these two links are:


There is also a nice a capella version by his sister Texas Gladen:


Black Banjo Songsters

The Album Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia contains three interesting versions of The Coo Coo:

John Snipes ’ “Coo Coo” is the only performance in the Cuckoo genus that does not include lyrics. Snipes’s performance is a mellow, haunting stroll through shifting time signatures and motivic fragments. Snipes performs the tune on a fretless banjo so he is able to play with the intonation of the F-naturals / F-sharps and B-flats / B-naturals to create a distinctive harmonic fingerprint.

Dink Roberts s version of the song is quite different from the others. Instead of jumping into the rhythmic groove for the song, Roberts plays a short blues riff-based introduction before beginning the rhythmic part of the song as the others do with his unique variation on the “bird call” part. His version of the bird call takes the G-F aspect of the others and exaggerates. His version rocks back and forth from G to F# (others use F natural) over and over until finally breaking loose and making the characteristic descent to the lower strings. His playing at many points feels like a run on sentence, or like a record that skips and gets stuck on one or two notes before moving forward.

Rufus Casey's  “Coo Coo Bird” s also the longest of all the versions clocking in at 4:45, giving the listener more time to digest his complex web of lyrics and licks.Kasey begins as all the others do–with the “bird call” motive in the banjo part, which is characterized by a descending lick beginning with the high G and moving through the notes of the minor pentatonic scale to be used throughout the tune (with special emphasis on the high G and F alternation). Kasey, unlike Ashley and Smith, does not return to the “bird call” motive in between versus. Rather, he inserts other filler licks between the verses. Kasey barrels through the lyrics and finally at the end of the recording comes back to the “bird call” theme. The final 1:40 of the track is without vocals. It serves as a kind of much-needed instrumental coda after hearing all the lyrics in rapid succession.

On Digital Library Of Appalachian  there is also a recording by John Lawson Tyree . As with all the versions, Tyree begins with a variation on the “bird call”. Tyree’s variation is very similar to Clarence Ashley’s–it shares the same contour, note choice, and even meter. In this version, the bird call motive begins the song and then appears twice more during the tune to break up the disjunct lyrics Tyree sings.


The Bird Call motive

Common for all versions above is that they all contain some variation of the so-called bird call motive. On the site Banjology there is a comparison between the different versions in music notation. The following analysis is taken from that site. This motive or A part of the tune comes at the beginning of each version and then repeats at various times during each performance. The “bird call” motive involves a repeated interval that could be mimicking the actual Cuckoo bird. (For example, the Common Cuckoo’s bird call is characterized by a repeated interval of a minor third from higher note to lower note in a short-long rhythm. above for an audio clip of a Common Cuckoo. In Ashley’s version, it is seen in the upbeat to each measure where there is an oscillation between D and G. Smith’s and Tyree’s versions are very similar in how they use the D to G interval as the recurrent one. Roberts and Snipes, however, use G and F (between F-natural and F-sharp) to create this oscillation. Rufus Kasey’s version does not include this kind of oscillation, but it quite similar to the others in how it descends from the high G to the low G. All versions involve this descent from the high G that moves through the notes of the scale to be used in the performance. An interesting difference between Ashley’s and Smith’s versions is how Smith adds in an extra beat in the middle of the measure. Instead of descending G-F-D-C-Bb-G followed by an upbeat leading back to the high G, Smith adds an extra D-C-Bb, thereby creating a measure of five-beat length instead of the more common four beats. This “hiccup” in Smith’s version adds to the intense drive and forward propulsion of the tune. Roberts’ and Snipes’ variations are interesting in how they use F#s and in how they oscillate between the two highest notes before making their descent.

Comment: I think that neither of the musicians ever have heard a cuckoo bird in real life. I have difficulties to hear the cuckoo in their playing.


More information, recordings, tabs, etc

There are two sites that contains a lot of information about The Cuckoo or The Coo Coo.">Banjology contains sound clips and music transcription of all the versions above. The music transcriptions are good, but the tabs are not accurate – the tab may show the right note but often it shows wrong information of how the note or which string is played. There is also some interesting analyzes of the tunes (I stole a lot of the text from there).

The Old Weird America  contains mp3s of several version, both banjo and non-banjo, for example by Janis Joplin and Jean Ritchie and several others.Several of the audio links above is to this site. 

Some other nice versions are:

Tom Paley

Mike Seeger 

Josh Turknett

Dan Levenson (in the Clawhammer Tunetirial serie): 

Chris Berry

Rocket Science Banjo contains a chapter about the cuckoo rolls (rasgueado) used by Clarence Ashley.


I have put just added two own tabs in the tab archive:

Clarence Ashley from his 1929 recording;v=21293">Hobart Smith from the recording by Alan Lomax






deestexas - Posted - 04/24/2015:  10:22:39

A great post.  It is obvious that you put a lot of effort into this.    Thanks very much.

canerods - Posted - 04/24/2015:  11:20:30

Thanks for the detailed and well researched post on the cuckoo – very enjoyable !

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 04/24/2015:  11:30:24

Though my version began, long ago, as something like Clarence Ashley's, it has evolved considerably since then. I play it in double C tuning (or the equivalent intervals tuned down to A).

I use the same melody, but played differently, with a completely different instrumental figure from time to time between stanzas. I've also changed a few of the words in the existing stanzas, and added a 3rd and 6th stanzas of my own, with the intention of tying together lyrics that seem to have originated in at least two different songs into a single unified whole.

I have two videos of my version, a solo one (in C), and a band version with added violin and accordion (in A).

VIDEO: THE COO-COO (Double C Tuning)
(click to view)

VIDEO: Ambiguous Armadillo - The Coo-Coo
(click to view)

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 04/24/2015:  11:34:45

Dan Gellert has a superb version of this song on his recent DVD/CD "The Old-Time Tiki Parlour Presents Dan Gellert". Everyone should get a copy of that!

Here's a link to order it:

Edited by - Marc Nerenberg on 04/24/2015 11:36:20

vrteach - Posted - 04/24/2015:  11:39:40

Great write-up, janolov.

Ah, the Coo Coo Bird has a special place for me. It was my goal tune when I got my first banjo, and indeed a reason why I thought I should get a banjo in March of 1976.

I had a songbook, either the Old-Time Stringband Songbook, or one of songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music, which had tablature for Ashley's version. I noticed that it was the same tuning as Cluck Old Hen (which I already played on dulcimer) so I learned Cluck Old Hen first (teaching me how to do the drop-thumb thing), and then I could move on the the Coo Coo Bird. As I recall, I played an OK version by the summer of 1976.

Jump ahead to 2006, when I turned 50 and had played banjo for 30 years. I had largely given up playing for about 15 years, having other things to do (job, son, and PhD). So I decided (with my wife's permission) to indulge my mid-life crisis with a banjo substantially better than I had owned. I had actually thought about what I could do for a Mid-Life Crisis, without ruining my life. I recalled that I missed playing music and also that I tended to have the most fun when I wasn't shy about it. So, 2006 was also the year that I found and joined the BHO--and also started sharing tunes with the BHO community. Best Midlife Crisis ever.

The Coo-Coo Bird was one of the earlier tunes that I shared on the Hangout, recorded in July, 2006 (the first tune with which I introduced myself was Colored Aristrocracy). I'm playing Coo-Coo a bit fast, but I don't particularly like the slow melancholy versions of the song. I often pair it with the "Paterroller Song" because I heard that pairing by Robin & Linda Williams and I like it.

Edited by - vrteach on 04/24/2015 11:50:26



ramblin - Posted - 04/24/2015:  14:37:25

Fabulous post, janolov! Thanks for putting all of that in one place.

For me, when I first started playing banjo, Clarence Ashley's recording presented itself initially as a physical challenge...  so I learned to "play" it, but then came to realize quickly that it wasn't just a tune...  it was meaningless without the singing. That's true even though the words contain almost no narrative! In the mold of the finest traditional old time music and blues, there's no 'story' - just a sequence of images or impressions that leave you with the unshakeable impression of having something ineffable about life being *revealed* to you. It's not a tune, it's not a song - it's a cipher!

Anyway, one of the things I admire about Hobart Smith's rendition is his ability to cast a completely unrelated melodic line on the banjo underneath his singing. He shares this with two of my very favorite musicians (among others): Blind Lemon Jefferson and Reverend Gary Davis. In all three of these, you can find singer instrumentalists who can play and sing things that lead almost entirely separate musical lives. Whew.

Anyway - here's me playing The Cuckoo, none too carefully:

kingfisher500 - Posted - 04/24/2015:  14:51:21


Originally posted by janolov

If I have understood right, you don’t have the cuckoo in North America.


Thanks for chosing such a fine tune for the TOTW. And one on a subject that I know something about.

We do have several species of cuckoo in North America. The most cuckoo-like are the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (found from the Mexican border to the north-central and north-eastern U.S.), the Black-billed Cuckoo (found in the eastern half of the U.S.), and the Mangrove Cuckoo (found in southern Florida and the coasts of Mexico). The Common Cuckoo is a very rare visitor to North America from Europe.

Unlike the Common Cuckoo, the three found in North America do build their own nests and only rarely lay eggs in the nests of other species. Each species has a song specific to the species, and, while somewhat similar in sound, they do not give the clear "coo coo" of the Common Cuckoo.

Finally, there are three other members of the Cuckoo family found in North America--the Greater Roadrunner (found in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico), the Smooth-billed and Groove-billed Anis (found in Florida and in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico, respectively).

The two species found in the Mid-Atlantic states where I live--the Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, migrate from Central and South America to breed, and should arrive here in May. They do sing as soon as they arrive on breeding territory and do not wait until "the fourth day of July" in my experience.









UncleClawhammer - Posted - 04/24/2015:  14:55:37

The first version I ever heard was the Osborne Brothers' recording. Here is their version. It has a totally different, major-key melody but most of the verses are the same. Later I heard Clarence Ashley's version, via Jack Elliott. When dad first heard me playing it like that, he said, "Where on earth did you get that tune?"

I've attached a video me doing it. This is an old recording so don't judge too harshly. I still play this one a lot but more on the guitar than banjo these days.

VIDEO: Cuckoo Bird (clawhammer banjo)
(click to view)


Boykin - Posted - 04/25/2015:  08:54:06

In North Carolina and other parts of the South the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can often be heard calling on hot humid afternoons just before a storm and is therefore commonly called the "rain crow". Here is a sample of it's call:

The tune is one of my favorites!

Edited by - Boykin on 04/25/2015 08:55:36

fillmore x 1856 - Posted - 04/25/2015:  14:27:44


Originally posted by fillmore x 1856

Ah! This tune was the one that finally pushed me to buy my first banjo. I was toying with the idea when I heard the doc Watson/mike Seeger version. And as soon as I was done listening I went right to eBay and the rest is history.

Needless to say, I have listened to many renditions of the tune since then. Besides Seeger and Ashley's playing, the version that influences me the most is Clifton hicks' version.

Here's my humble attempt about 2 years since hearing the tune for the first time!

Whoops, forgot the links! Here's me...

​and Clifton Hicks...

honketyhank - Posted - 04/25/2015:  15:13:55

This may have been the first song I picked up by listening to the recording. Holy Modal Rounders, Peter Stampfel. 1965 or 1966. My dorm-mates hated that record. I just said "if y'all folkies think Bob Dylan can sing, you oughta love these guys."

ramjo - Posted - 04/25/2015:  15:44:51

Jan, I love your write-up for this quintessential OT tune. Great history on the music and the source (that is, the bird).

Another version that intrigues me is from the mid-sixties Holy Modal Rounders. Pete Stampfel does this on solo banjo, and I love the variations he adds as well as his esoteric lyrics.


I wonder if this is one of the slow and melancholic versions Erich said he dislikes  in his post above. If so, hate to disagree with you, but..... wink For middle ground, see Tom Brad and Alice's version, which uses Pete's lyrics in a more brio tempo. (No youtubes of this that I could find, but here's a clip: )

ramjo - Posted - 04/25/2015:  15:45:34

sorry honkytonk hank. We were thinkin' the same thing at the same time.

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 04/25/2015:  16:05:14


Originally posted by ramjo

sorry honkytonk hank. We were thinkin' the same thing at the same time.

Ah, the old saying: "Great minds think alike ... " (We need not articulate the second half.)

beachboy - Posted - 04/26/2015:  07:56:14

wow.....thanks so much, one my top 5 songs ever, personally I love Doc and Merle playing this one, enjoyable reading

Lew H - Posted - 04/26/2015:  12:47:28

Jan, Excellent scholarship and TOTW.  I didn't notice that anyone had added Ron Thomason and the Dry Branch Fire Squad's recording of this song. While they are a bluegrass, band, Thomason also does a good job of clawhammer songs.  A while back, I posted a video of a performance at a local community radio station. I link it again here.

VIDEO: Banjovi "The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird" (Traditional) on 91.1 FM
(click to view)


jojo25 - Posted - 04/28/2015:  14:10:55

Nice Lew!  thanks!

JanetB - Posted - 04/30/2015:  17:42:44

Being away from my computer, it's been hard to appreciate the depth of research and examples of The Cuckoo. But I can indeed verify that the cuckoo's call is in the key of C!

stevel - Posted - 04/30/2015:  18:50:42

Love this song. 

Sounds great Lew!

Zischkale - Posted - 05/01/2015:  14:02:00

TOTW hall of fame, thanks for posting, Jan! Great info and too many great versions in this thread to count! I had skimmed over that Banjology analysis finding it too academic for banjo, but seeing and hearing each musician's version side-by-side and thinking about the intervals of the bird call is actually pretty interesting. Additional thanks for sharing the Swedish rhyme and slang, really cool. 

Additional thanks to Elliot for reminding me one of my favorite birds, the Roadrunner, is a cuckoo itself! But we also have a few more melodically-minded species that could've inspired the banjo pickers--it's certainly closer than the cuckoo-clock song:


I had also deprived myself of hearing Hobart's rendition of the song, which is just excellent, that extra beat in the bird call really gives it an intense rhythmic quality. Thank you for sharing your take on it, Frankie, and highlighting that counterpoint melody under the lyrics. Hobart's got a real nice blues lick in that thing.

Edited by - Zischkale on 05/01/2015 14:02:22

janolov - Posted - 05/01/2015:  23:42:04

Thanks for all answers,links and contributions. I think all versions were very nice to listen to. I really like Marc's double C version, he seems to make something very own out of everything he plays.

I have been frustrated by the so-called bird call part, that absolutely does not remind of a (Swedish) cuckoo call, So I have started to try out an own version of the cuckoo call in double C tuning.

Coo - coo!


Zischkale - Posted - 05/03/2015:  10:03:24

Interesting you mention The Noble Skewball! I wasn't aware of this song until I heard a rendition of it on Willie Watson's (dude from the Old Crow Medicine Show) solo album. He calls it Stewball. I can definitely hear the likeness.

janolov - Posted - 05/03/2015:  11:29:23


Originally posted by Zischkale

Interesting you mention The Noble Skewball! I wasn't aware of this song until I heard a rendition of it on Willie Watson's (dude from the Old Crow Medicine Show) solo album. He calls it Stewball. I can definitely hear the likeness.


Thanks for posting. Willie Watson's Stewball is very like the Cuckoo. I had always associated Stewball with the folk tune that were popular in the late 60's. I wonder from where Willie Watson got this tune? Was it from the Cuckoo or was it from the Noble Skewball?

Zischkale - Posted - 05/04/2015:  20:54:28


Originally posted by janolov


Originally posted by Zischkale

Interesting you mention The Noble Skewball! I wasn't aware of this song until I heard a rendition of it on Willie Watson's (dude from the Old Crow Medicine Show) solo album. He calls it Stewball. I can definitely hear the likeness.


Thanks for posting. Willie Watson's Stewball is very like the Cuckoo. I had always associated Stewball with the folk tune that were popular in the late 60's. I wonder from where Willie Watson got this tune? Was it from the Cuckoo or was it from the Noble Skewball?

He says he got it from Noble Skewball--from the liner notes of the CD:

"Stewball" is a folk song about a supposedly real-life 18th century Irish race horse that ran in England, alternatively known as Skewball, a folk song that has been covered by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and The Hollies.

Hunter Robertson - Posted - 05/06/2015:  03:17:26

Great write up Jan!

Hobart Smith's Cuckoo is kind of my gold standard for banjo playing. I was dumbfounded by his recording of it on the Folk Legacy album and still am. Every few years I get a new inkling of what he's doing and have a new look at it. Here's a video from a couple of years ago at a concert in England.

​I also played a kind of concatenated version based on the recordings on the Black Banjo Songsters album with my friend Casey on fiddle.


VIDEO: The Cuckoo
(click to view)

The Coo Coo

ramjo - Posted - 05/07/2015:  16:01:11

Here's an example of how far the cuckoo can fly. No banjo in this one, but it's fun to fantasize that Taj came across the tune in the banjo repertoire while he was building his chops there. It's at 23:41.


Disclosure: I came across Taj's version while I was looking for something else this afternoon. I had this album on cassette tape, but threw it away about 15 years ago because the tape was worn out. That was before I got serious about banjo, and, although I already had The Anthology, I never connected Taj's cut to Clarence Ashley's recording until this afternoon.

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