“The Cuckoo”

oh the cuckoo
she’s a good bird
and she warbles
and she flies

and she never
hollers cuckoo
till the fourth day
of July

I’ve been making the somewhat unconventional move of introducing my talks on Declaration with a few verses of an old song, “The Cuckoo,” accompanying my singing (or maybe let’s call it “vocalizing”) with five-string banjo, or maybe even more accurately, accompanying my banjo-playing with some vocalizing.

Warming up the crowd? Maybe. Maybe not. The song has close British-isles antecedents (many older American songs that sound as if they have such antecedents actually don’t), and the Anglo versions I know are all fairly straightforward: “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies, she brings us glad tidings, she tells us no lies,” etc. All of the American versions I know are stark and strange. With its gapped modal scale (no chords), which vibrates somewhere between archaic England and African America, the droning and scraping of the archetpyal American instrument, and the incommensurable reference to the cuckoo’s silence before starting to holler on July Fourth, the song, which I’ve been trying to sing and play almost all my life, has seemed to resonate lately with the surprising story of America’s coming into being, which I tell in the book. It’s meant to be sung by the untrained.

A note on the arrangement: Based on my ceaseless 1972-73 listening to the Holy Modal Rounders’ mid-1960’s version, on their first album (which everybody who likes this kind of thing should hear), with Peter Stampfel alone on banjo and vocal, an arrangement I think I may later have discovered was influenced by a recording in the Harry Smith anthology. I’ve added and subtracted a few banjo elements, out of my ensuing decades of clawhammer-style banjo playing in somewhat different veins, but still, the basic, repetitive motif is indebted to the 1960’s Stampfel, whose playing on that recording I’ll never come up to, in any vein; the vocal, which just because its so stark and simple seems to further challenge my already very limited approach to singing, is also inspired by his eerier approach.

I may give it another go at the NYC Upper West Side Barnes & Noble on Monday 6/14.

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