The Cuckoo (song)

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Clarence Ashley playing "The Coo Coo Bird"
Broadside c. 1800

"The Cuckoo" (Roud 413) is a traditional English folk song, also sung in the United States, Canada, Scotland and Ireland. The song is known by many names, including "The Coo-Coo", "The Coo-Coo Bird", "The Cuckoo Bird", "The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird", "The Evening Meeting", "The Unconstant Lover", "Bunclody" and "Going to Georgia".[1] Lyrics usually include the line (or a slight variation): "The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies; she brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies."[1][2]

According to Thomas Goldsmith of The Raleigh News & Observer, "The Cuckoo" is an interior monologue where the singer "relates his desires — to gamble, to win, to regain love's affection."[3]

The song is featured in the E.L. Doctorow book The March. A soldier suffering from a metal spike stuck in his head sings verses from the song.


Usually, but not always, the song begins with a verse about the cuckoo, for example:

The cuckoo is a fine bird he sings as he flies,
He brings us good tidings and tells us no lies.
He sucks the sweet flowers to make his voice clear,
And the more he cries cuckoo, the summer is nigh.[4]

(In many American versions, the cuckoo patriotically "never sings 'cuckoo' till the fourth of July". In some ornithologically observant English versions "she sucks little birds' eggs to make her voice clear.")[5]

A young woman (usually - sometimes a young man) complains of the inconstancy of young men (or women) and the pain of losing in love. The song often consists mainly of "floating" verses (verses found in more than one song expressing common experiences and emotions), and apart from the constant cuckoo verse, usually sung at the beginning, there is no fixed order, though sometimes a verse sounds as if it is going to be the start of a story:

A-walking, a-talking, a-walking was I,
To meet my true lover, he'll come by and by,
To meet him in the meadows is all my delight,
A-walking and talking from morning till night.[6]

but then:

O, meeting is a pleasure and parting is a grief,
An unconstant lover is worse than a thief,
A thief can but rob you and take all you have,
An unconstant lover will bring you to the grave.[5]

Often there is a cautionary moral:

Come all pretty maidens wherever you be,
Don't trust in young soldiers to any degree,
They will kiss you and court you, poor girls to deceive,
There's not one in twenty poor girls can believe.[4]

Or a more symbolic warning, here in a Mississippi version:

Come all you fair maidens take warning of me,
Don't place your affections on a sycamore tree,
For the top it will wither, and the roots they will die,
And if I'm forsaken, I know not for why.[7]


An Irish song, this uses a similar tune and starts with verses extolling the beauty of Bunclody, a town in Co. Wexford. The third verse is the standard "Cuckoo is a pretty bird" and after an adapted floating verse:

If I were a clerk
And I could write a good hand
I would write to my true love
So that she'd understand
That I am a young fellow
Who is wounded in love
Once I lived in Buncloudy
But now must remove.[8]

The song ends in a sad verse about emigration. There is a fine recording of this song from Luke Kelly of The Dubliners.

Note on the Cuckoo[edit]

The cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) was until recent times a common visitor to the English countryside in spring and early summer, and its distinctive call was considered the first sign of spring. It is a nest parasite, and the female really does eat an egg of the host species when she lays her own egg in the nest. It is an important bird in folklore.

The cuckoo has traditionally been associated with sexual incontinence and infidelity.[9] An old name for the cuckoo was "cuckold's chorister",[10] and old broadsides played on the idea that the cuckoo's call was a reproach to husbands whose wives were unfaithful:

The smith that on his anvill the iron hard doth ding:
He cannot heare the cuckoo though he loud doth sing
In poynting of plow harnesse, he labours till he sweat,
While another in his forge at home may steale a private heat.
– From The Cuckowes Comendation: / Or, the Cuckolds Credit: Being a merry Maying Song in Praise of the Cuckow., c.1625[11]


Early printed versions[edit]

"The Cuckoo" was published as a broadside by London and provincial printers, but does not seem to have been common. Broadsides are not precisely dated, but the earliest in the Bodleian Ballad Collection was published between 1780 and 1812 CE, the latest before 1845. The broadside texts are similar, of five verses starting with a "Come all ye" warning about courting sailors and with the cuckoo appearing in the second verse.[12][13][14]


The Roud Folk Song Index lists about 149 collected or recorded versions performed by traditional singers - 49 from England, 4 from Scotland, 2 from Ireland, 4 from Canada and 88 from the USA.[15]

At least one collected version was published in the Folk Songs from the Kentucky Mountains (1917).[16]

Field recordings[edit]

  • Alan Lomax recorded Hobart Smith from Saltville, Virginia performing Cuckoo Bird in 1942, and he claimed to have learned it from a man named John Greer in the early 1910s.[17] He also recorded Jean Ritchie from Viper, Kentucky singing The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird in New York in 1949.[18]
  • Hamish Henderson recorded Willie Mathieson from Ellon, Aberdeenshire, singing The Evening Meeting in 1952.[19]
  • Max Hunter recorded Mrs Norma Kisner of Springdale Arkansas, singing a fragment of Unconstant Lover in 1960.[20]
  • Max Hunter recorded Olivia Hauser of Fayetteville, Arkansas, singing False Hearted Lover in 1961.[21]


The first known recording was made by Kelly Harrell for Victor in 1926.[16]

The song has been covered by many musicians in several different styles. In North America, an early notable recorded version was performed in 1929 by Appalachian folk musician Clarence Ashley with an unusual banjo tuning.[22]

Notable artists who have recorded "The Cuckoo" include:

Artist Album name Album year Notes
Burr Tillstrom as Kukla Kukla, Fran and Ollie 1951
Dave Alvin Best of the Hightone Years 2008
Billy Strings Rock of Ages 2013
Dave Alvin Best of the Hightone Years 2008
Clarence Ashley Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 1-3 1952 Recorded and released in 1929 and included in this compilation album
Cosmo Sheldrake Wake Up Calls 2020
Joan Baez Live At Newport 1996
The Be Good Tanyas Blue Horse 2000 Song was titled, "The Coo Coo Bird".[23]
Big Brother and the Holding Company Big Brother and the Holding Company 1967 [24]
Anne Briggs Anne Briggs 1971
Buck 65 Porch 2007
Shirley Collins Sweet England 1959
Erik Darling True Religion 1961
Alfred Deller The Art of Alfred Deller: The Counter-Tenor Legacy 2008
Donovan Beat Cafe 2004
Dry Branch Fire Squad Hand Hewn 2001
Bob Dylan Live at the Gaslight 1962 2005
Rory Gallagher Wheels Within Wheels 2003
Tim Eriksen and Riley Baugus Cold Mountain 2003
The Everly Brothers Heartaches and Harmonies 1994
Kelly Harrell Worried Blues 2006 The first version recorded, released in 1926
Kristin Hersh Hips and Makers 1994
Ramblin' Jack Elliott Ramblin' Jack Elliott 1961
Hem Rabbit Songs 2002
The Holy Modal Rounders The Holy Modal Rounders 1964
Hamish Imlach Old Rarity 1971
Kaleidoscope Incredible! 1969
The New Lost City Ramblers Vol. 4 1962
Osborne Brothers Voices In Bluegrass 1973
Pentangle Basket of Light 1969
Peter, Paul and Mary A Song Will Rise 1965
The Pine Hill Haints Ghost Dance 2007
Rising Appalachia Leylines 2017
Jean Ritchie Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family 1952
Tom Rush Tom Rush 1965
Martin Simpson Righteousness and Humidity 2003
Hobart Smith In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes 2005
Taj Mahal The Natch'l Blues 1968
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell Music from The American Epic Sessions 2017
Richard Thompson & Eliza Carthy The Harry Smith Project Live Vol. 1 2006
Peter Tork Live/Backstage at the Coffee Gallery 2006
Artie Traum Thief of Time 2007
Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley Original Folkways Recordings: 1960–1962 1994
Townes Van Zandt Roadsongs 1994
Laura Veirs Two Beers Veirs 2008
Uncle Sinner Ballads and Mental Breakdowns 2008
Willie Watson Folksinger Vol. 2 2017[25]

See also[edit]

Folk songs with shared motifs and floating verses include:

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b "The Cuckoo". The Grateful Dead Family Discography. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
  2. ^ "The Cuckoo". Folkinfo. 8 June 2006. Archived from the original on 8 February 2009. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  3. ^ Goldsmith, Thomas (6 February 2005). "The beauty and mystery of ballads". The Raleigh News & Observer. p. G5.
  4. ^ a b Purslow, Frank, ed. (1969). The Wanton Seed. London, UK: EFDSS Publications.
  5. ^ a b Palmer, Roy (1979). English Country Songbook. London.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. ^ Zierke, Reinhard. "The Cuckoo / The Coo Coo Bird (Roud 413; G/D 6:1157)". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  7. ^ Hudson, Arthur Palmer (June 1926). "Ballads and Songs from Mississippi". The Journal of American Folklore. 39 (152): 149. doi:10.2307/535202. JSTOR 535202.
  8. ^ "Bunclody Song Lyrics And Chords By The Dubliners". Irish Folk Songs. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  9. ^ Cocker, M.; Mabey, R. (2005). Birds Britannica. London. p. 277.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. ^ "Cuckoo". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  11. ^ "EBBA ID: 20191 Magdalene College - Pepys 1.406-407". UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  12. ^ "Ballads Online". Bodleian Library. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  13. ^ "1st Ballad - Roud Number: 413. Title: The cuckoo". Ballads Online. Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  14. ^ "2nd Ballad - Roud Number: 413. Title: The cuckoo". Ballads Online. Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  15. ^ "Search". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  16. ^ a b Sullivan, Steve (2017). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings. Vol. 3 and 4. Rowman and Littlefield. pp. 61–62. ISBN 978-1-4422-5449-7.
  17. ^ Armstrong, George (1964). Hobart Smith of Saltville, Virginia (Media notes). Hobart Smith. Huntington, Vermont: Folk-Legacy Records, Inc. p. 14–15.
  18. ^ "The Cuckoo She's A Pretty Bird". Association for Cultural Equity. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  19. ^ "The Evening Meeting". Tobar an Dualchais – Kist o Riches. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  20. ^ "Unconstant Lover". The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection. Missouri State University. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  21. ^ "False Hearted Lover". The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection. Missouri State University. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  22. ^ Lawrence, Andrew. "The Cuckoo". Community Guitar. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
  23. ^ "20 Great Folk Albums to Broaden Your Indie-Rock Collection". Paste Magazine. 2019-12-12. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  24. ^ Britton, Wesley (2012-02-26). "Music Review: Big Brother and the Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin - Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968". Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  25. ^ Wicks, Amanda (18 December 2017). "ESCHEWING AUTHENTICITY: A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIE WATSON". The Bluegrass Situation. Retrieved 13 February 2021.