Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Coo Coo Bird" - Clarence Ashley


Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track One: "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Clarence Ashley. "Vocal solo with 5-string banjo." Recorded in Johnson City, Tennessee on November 23, 1929. Original issue Columbia 15489D (W149251).

The third volume of the Anthology is titled
"Songs." The music included in this set is distinguished from the music on the "Social Music" set because it serves no social purpose. It is not music for dancing or for religious worship, but simply music to be listened to and enjoyed. It is "art for art's sake," intended to amuse rather than to uplift, educate, or provide a background for social interaction. It is distinguished from the music on the "Ballads" set in that these songs do not contain a narrative, although a few do tell a rudimentary story (some, like "The Mountaineer's Courtship" and "The Spanish Merchant's Daughter," both recorded by Ernest Stoneman, play more like skits or jokes). The songs on the third volume are "folk songs" in the literal sense.

The term "folk song" is an extension of the term "folk lore." The term "folk lore" was coined in 1846 by antiquarian William Thoms to describe "the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes." The word "folk" derives from the German "volk," which refers to "the people as a whole," an expression that found great popularity in the early 19th century as a part of the German Romantic movement.

"Folk songs" are the musical coin of the realm. Unlike ballads, which are often based on specific incidents and are therefore historically traceable, songs are difficult to trace to a specific date or place. They belong to everyone and no one. Folk songs are made up of lyric "clusters" which are liberally mixed and matched. A folk singer might take some or all of the lyrics from one song and put them to the tune of another song. The folk lyrics also change over time, like an enormous game of telephone, in which a misheard lyric can lead to something entirely new. In the entry on "Shine On Me", I mentioned anthropologist, ethnologist, and semiotician Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theory of the bricoler. Folk songs are constructed in just this way and by many hands. It seems strange to us in this age of intellectual property to think of music as something that is simply "in the air" and the property of everyone who performs it. Yet that is the case here.

Smith kicks off the first disc of "Songs" with "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Clarence Ashley. For biographical information on Clarence Ashley, see the entry for "The House Carpenter." Ashley can also be heard performing with the Carolina Tar Heels on "Peg and Awl."

"The Coo Coo Bird" or "The Cuckoo," is an old song that originated in England. Parts of the lyric exist as a nursery rhyme, possibly dating back as far as the Middle Ages. In his notes, Smtih points out that the first verse of the song "is also heard on "Way Down The Old Plank Road" by Dave Macon," heard later on this volume.

Gonna build me
Log cabin
On a mountain
So high
So I can
See Willie
As he goes
On by

Oh the coo-coo
Is a pretty bird
She warbles
As she flies
She never
Hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day
July

I've played cards
In England
I've played cards
In Spain
I'll bet you
Ten dollars
I'll beat you
Next game

Jack a-diamonds
Jack a-diamonds
I've known you
From old
Now you've robbed my
Poor pocket
Of my silver
And my gold

I've played cards
In England
I've played cards
In Spain
I'll bet you
Ten dollars
I beat you
This game

Oh the coo-coo
Is a pretty bird
She warbles
As she flies
She never
Hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day
July


This is a magnificent performance. Purely from a musical perspective, it is as close to perfection as anything gets. Ashley's five-string banjo is played in a modal tuning, which provides a musical background that is as repetitive and as inscrutable as the words themselves. Ashley sings the song in a deadpan style, singing for all the world like it all makes perfect sense.

The words provide a mystery that can never be unlocked. The first verse has the speaker declare the he is going to build a log cabin on a mountain top. Why? So he can "see Willie has he goes on by." Who is Willie? Why does the speaker want to see him go by? Between verses, Ashley hums almost mockingly, possibly because he knows that his humming makes no more or less sense than the words he sings.

The chorus declares that "the coo coo is a pretty bird" and that "she warbles as she flies." Some transcriptions of these lyrics say that the coo coo "wobbles" as she flies, but it sounds to me as though Ashley is singing the word "warbles." This is consistent with other versions of the lyric, such as the one sung in "My Mind Is To Marry" by Grayson and Whitter: "Oh the coo coo is a fine bird, she sings as she flies. She brings us glad tidings and tells us no lies." The coo coo, or cuckoo, refers to one of any number of birds of the family Cuculidae, in the order Cuculiformes. They are wide ranging, inhabiting every continent on earth except Antarctica. Many species of cuckoo are brood parasites, raising their eggs in the nests of other birds.

Much could be made of the fact that, in this version of the song, the coo coo is said not to "holler" until the "fourth day" of "July." Given that the song originated in England, it's possible that this is not a reference to the American Independence Day. It is likely, if this is the case, that the "fourth day of July" was simply meant to convey that the coo coo does not begin his song until the arrival of summer. However, it is also possible that this line was not added to the song until after it migrated (like the bird) to the United States.

The second verse declares that the speaker has "played cards in England and Spain," wagering "ten dollars" that he will "beat you next game." It is both a boast and a challenge. The next verse is more rueful, however. It is addressed to the "Jack a-Diamonds," whom the speaker has known "of old" and who robs his "poor pocket" of its "silver and gold."

Is the song, then, about a gambling addiction? On the one hand, the speaker boasts of having played cards all over the world and that he will beat "you" in the next game. His focus then switches to the "silver and gold" he has lost to "the Jack a-Diamonds." Nevertheless, the speaker is reading to gamble again at the end of the song, declaring his intention to "beat you this game."

What, if anything, does all of this have to do with the desire to build a cabin (or a castle, in some versions) on a mountain, allowing the speaker to "see Willie as he goes on by"?

All of these questions, I think, reflect our desire to impose meaning on something that is inherently meaningless. While there is speculation that "The Coo Coo Bird" may have started as a ballad, by the time of Ashley's recording, the song is just a jumble of unrelated verses. This does not make the song any less compelling. There is certainly something about it that excites the imagination.

"The Coo Coo" has been covered numerous times over the years by artists including Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Townes Van Zant, and Joan Baez.

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This is a film of Clarence Ashley being interviewed during his rediscovery in the '60s. Towards the end, Ashley performs "The Coo Coo Bird." Although his vocal delivery is as deadpan as on the original recording, it's wonderful to see the slight smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye as he performs.



Here's a version of "The Coo Coo Bird" performed by Oliver Swain, Adam Dobres and Kendel Carson.



Download and listen to Clarence Ashley - "The Coo Coo Bird"

1 comment:

  1. Clarence Ashley is my great great uncle! Is there any way i can get this video from you guys? sis178@yahoo.com is my email thanks!

    ReplyDelete