The Cuckoo (song)
"The Cuckoo" (Roud 413) is a traditional English folk song, also sung in the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland. It has been covered by many musicians in several different styles. An early notable recorded version was performed by Appalachian folk musician Clarence Ashley with a unique banjo tuning.
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".
Lyrics usually include the line (or a slight variation):
According to Thomas Goldsmith of The Raleigh News & Observer, "The Cuckoo" is reportedly descended from an old folk ballad; it's an interior monologue where the singer "relates his desires — to gamble, to win, to regain love's affection."
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.
(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.")
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. "
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note on the Cuckoo
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. An old name for the cuckoo was "cuckold's chorister", 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., c1625
Early printed versions
"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 5 verses starting with a "Come all ye" warning about courting sailors and with the cuckoo appearing in the second verse.
- Alan Lomax recorded Jean Ritchie from Viper, Kentucky singing The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird in New York in 1949.
- Hamish Henderson recorded Willie Mathieson from Ellon, Aberdeenshire, singing The Evening Meeting in 1952.
- Max Hunter recorded Mrs Norma Kisner of Springdale Arkansas singing a fragment of Unconstant Lover in 1960.
- Max Hunter recorded Olivia Hauser of Fayetteville, Arkansas singing False Hearted Lover in 1961.
Notable artists who have recorded "The Cuckoo" include:
Notes and references
- Lawrence, Andrew. "The Cuckoo". Community Guitar. Retrieved 2008-12-06.
- "The Cuckoo". Grateful Dead Family. Retrieved 2008-12-06.
- "The Cuckoo". Folkinfo. June 8, 2006. Archived from the original on December 1, 2012. Retrieved 2016-02-09.
- Goldsmith, Thomas (February 6, 2005). "The beauty and mystery of ballads". The Raleigh News & Observer. p. G5.
- Purslow, F (ed); The Wanton Seed, EFDSS, 1969
- Palmer, Roy; English Country Songbook; London; 1979
- "The Cuckoo / The Coo Coo Bird (Roud 413; G/D 6:1157)". Mainlynorfolk.info. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- ""Jimmy"". The Journal of American Folklore. 39, No. 152: 149. June 1926.
- "Bunclody Song Lyrics And Chords By The Dubliners". Irish folk songs. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- Cocker, M and Mabey, R; Birds Britannica; London; 2005; p277
- "Home : Oxford English Dictionary". Oed.com. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "EBBA ID: 20191 - UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive". Ebba.english.ucsb.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "Ballads Online". Ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- [dead link]
- [dead link]
- "Vaughan Williams Memorial Library : Search". Vwml.org. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "Research Center". Research.culturalequity.org. 1949-04-16. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "The Evening Meeting". Tobar an Dualchais. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "Unconstant Lover - The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection - Missouri State University". Maxhunter.missouristate.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
- "False Hearted Lover - The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection - Missouri State University". Maxhunter.missouristate.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-19.