The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird and she sings as she flies/ She bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies/ She sucketh white flowers so to keep her voice clear/ And the more she singeth coo-coo the summer draweth near.

The first day of spring calls for springtime music to celebrate the coming of the warmer months. The Cuckoo is such a song. Though it also sings of false lovers and castles built on mountains, this ancient ballad heralds the passing of bitter winter chill and the beginning of summer, symbolized by the cuckoo’s birdsong. The original summer jam, if you will.  

The Cuckoo is actually traditional song from the British Isles that also became enshrined in the canon of American folk. This is not as strange an occurrence as you might think. American roots music, much like the USA itself in a way, is a mash up of traditional folk songs from foreign lands filtered through the American experience and changed over time through the influence of different forms/traditions of music and instrumentation until they become distinct from their progenitors. Early Appalachian folk, in particular, takes its cues from the Anglo-Celtic folk music tradition of the British Isles, thanks to the mass of of Scotch-Irish-British immigrants who made their homes in the fertile 8-state mountain range in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you ever get shivers down your spine when listening to bluegrass or old-time music or British folk revival bands, it’s because the part of you that is descended from those immigrants is resonating with the eerie ballads of murder and magic that are both American and Anglo-Celtic at the same time. Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, we can follow the evolution of The Cuckoo through the centuries by listening to the different versions of it recorded by both British and American artists.

First up is the Pentangle, an excellent British folk rock group, with a straight-forward arrangement of the traditional ballad taken from the band’s 1969 album Basket of Light.

The Cuckoo
The Pentangle
Basket of Light (1969)

You can also listen to Irish chanteuse Anne Briggs’ a cappella version of The Cuckoo for another take on the traditional arrangement.

The Cuckoo
Anne Briggs
Anne Briggs (1971)

Ok, now take that song, transport it across the Atlantic ocean, put it up in the mountains for about 200 years, and add in the influence of African-American instruments and rhythms. At the end of it you get Clarence Ashley’s version of The Cuckoo, recorded for posterity on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

The Cuckoo
Clarence Ashley
1929 (or roundabouts)

Add another 40 years and it turns into this.

The Cuckoo Bird
The Osborne Brothers
Voices in Bluegrass (1970) 

30 more years and it turns into this.

The Cuckoo
Kristin Hersh
circa 2000-01

And so on and so forth. Other notable versions of the song are performed by Doc Watson & Merle Watson, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Everly Brothers with ex-Byrds Clarence White and Gene Parsons playing backup. Here’s a really interesting rendition of the song by Richard Thompson, a member of leading British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, who in this case is singing the American version of The Cuckoo.

So now you see how a single song can be carried across the face of space and time without losing its essential meaning during the journey. It may transmogrify itself to suit the culture, but the sentiment remains ever unchanged.

The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird/ She warbles as she flies/ But I never give her water ‘till the 4th day of July!

Note: This post was inspired in part by the gloomy British weather on the first day of the American springtime, but also by the excellent posts at Singing In The Wire. It’s a really great music blog with new audio posts pretty much every day. Go check it out.