> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Cuckoo
> Shirley Collins > Songs > The Cuckoo
> Anne Briggs > Songs > The Cuckoo
> Eliza Carthy > Songs > The Coo Coo Bird

The Cuckoo / The Coo Coo Bird

[ Roud 413 ; G/D 6:1157 ; Ballad Index R049 ; Bodleian Roud 413 ; Wiltshire Roud 413 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd sang The Cuckoo in 1956 on his album The Foggy Dew and Other Traditional English Love Songs. He commented in the liner notes:

Spring cannot start till the cuckoo sings. Perhaps that is why the cuckoo is a magical a bird. Turn your money when you hear him first and you'll have money in your pocket until he comes again. Whatever you're doing when you hear him, you'll do most often throughout the year. Especially if you're in bed. No bird is more oracular. It can prophesy how long a man will live and a girl remain a maid. There is no better omen for love than the song of the cuckoo, the beloved bird of folklore. On the other hand, he is the sly creature who gave us the word ‘cuckold’. The flattering invocation to the cuckoo in this widespread song is perhaps in the nature of a magical safeguard for the worried lover.

Shirley Collins learnt The Cuckoo from her great grandmother. She sang it in 1959 on her first LP Sweet England. This track was also included in her anthology Within Sound.

Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger sang The Cuckoo in 1964 on their Topic LP Who's Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?

Dave and Toni Arthur recorded The Cuckoo under the assumed name of the Strollers for a Fontana pop-folk single issued in July 1965. This single was included in 2009 on the CD reissue of their Transatlantic LP Morning Stands on Tiptoe.

Anne Briggs recorded The Cuckoo in 1971 for her album Anne Briggs. Like all tracks from this album it was reissued on her two compilations Classic Anne Briggs and A Collection; and this recording was also included in the Topic Sampler No 8, English Garland. A.L. Lloyd commented in her original album's sleeve notes:

An ambiguous bird, herald of spring and harbinger of cuckoldry, is the hero of this most typical of all English-language lyrical songs. It too is made up of floating verses that zip equally well into a score of other songs. For some reason the song found relatively little favour in Scotland, but it has been one of the commonest of all lyrics in England, Ireland, and upland America. Anne's set is one of several Irish versions.

Pentangle sang The Cuckoo in 1969 on their third Transatlantic album, Basket of Light.

Sally Killen sang The Cuckoo in 1975 on her and Louis Killen's LP Bright Shining Morning. Louis Killen commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Here is another song of “false true love” collected by Sharp in Somerset. Its fine tune and lyrical first verse changed somewhat when it was carried to Southern Appalachia. The bird seems to have become more patriotic:

O the cuckoo, she's a pretty bird and she sings as she flies,
And she never sings cuckoo till the Fourth day of July!

Frankie Armstrong sang The Cuckoo, “collected from the fine Gypsy singer Queen Caroline Hughes in the 1960's”, in 1973 on her LP Out of Love, Hope and Suffering and in 2000 on her Fellside CD The Garden of Love.

Cockersdale sang The Cuckoo with words quite similar to Anne Briggs' in 1997 on their Fellside CD Wide Open Skies and in 2001 on the Fellside anthology Voices in Harmony. They commented in their liner notes:

This is one of the songs which we learnt from Sid Kipper's “Lateral History Programme” for BBC Radio 2. The programme encouraged us to look much more closely at some of the traditional material that we all had in our own repertoires.

Coope Boyes & Simpson recorded The Cuckoo in 2005 for their CD Triple Echo: Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Percy Grainger. They commented in their liner notes:

Sung by Mr Bill Wix of Billingshurst, Sussex to George Butterworth in Summer 1909. Butterworth often returned to Sussex and re-visited people he collected from, but in Mr Wix's case, he seems only to have been once, when he notated The Lads of Kilkenny, It's of an Old Miser in London Did Dwell and The Cuckoo—a song found in many versions here and in North America. We don't, however, have Mr Wix to thank for this beautiful lyric but another resident of Billingshurst. The words to which the tune was sung was of inferior quality, Butterworth complained, and I have substituted these verses which were given to me by Mrs Cranstone. But Mr Wix's tune came through in the end—in 1912, Butterworth included The Cuckoo in his eleven piano settings of Folk Songs from Sussex.

The cuckoo's call is a harbinger of Summer in England, but in all the versions of this traditional song it's linked with melancholy warnings of the fickleness of love.

Both The Devil's Interval and Jean Ritchie sang The Cuckoo in 2005 on the anthology Song Links 2: A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants, and The Devil's Interval (Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman, and Jim Causley) did it a year later on their own CD Blood and Honey. Lauren McCormick returned to the song in 2012 on her album On Bluestockings. The Devil's Interval commented in their sleeve notes:

An original English Blues. We were asked to sing The Cuckoo for Martyn Wyndham-Reed's Song Links 2 project, which linked English traditional songs with their American variants. We chose the Dorset traveller Queen Caroline Hughes' version and have it on her authority that this song is “the oldest song in the world.”

And Jean Ritchie wrote in her book Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians:

My family had always known this song, it seems. It is fairly similar to the variants found in and around Hindman in Knott County, where my father's folks lived. It is one of the saddest and loveliest songs I know.

An older American version called The Coo Coo Bird was sung by Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley on October or November 23, 1929 in Johnson City, Tennessee and published on Columbia 15489D. This recording was included in 1952 on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music on the Folkways label. Greil Marcus describes it as a folk-lyric tune made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other.

Richard Thompson sang The Coo Coo Bird, accompanied by himself on guitar and by Eliza Carthy playing fiddle, on April 25, 2001 at the Harry Smith Project concert in UCLA's Royce Hall, Los Angeles. It was finally released in 2006 on The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited.

Back to English versions, Jon Boden sang The Cuckoo with lyrics similar to Anne Briggs' ones as the January 21, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. And Fay Hield sang it in 2012 on her CD with the Hurricane Party, Orfeo. She commented in her liner notes:

The cuckoo is a bird which has attracted a number of folkloric associations. Its call is used as a signal heralding spring, and the number of times it is heard during the season can translate to the number of years until a death of marriage. From the bird's practice of laying eggs in other's nests comes the analogy of the cuckolded husband rearing another's child, and being ‘cuckoo’ remains a common term for craziness. I got this version from Anne Briggs' extraordinary self-titled, mainly a cappella, album.

Kerry Andrew aka You Are Wolf sang both My Bonny Cuckoo and The Cuckoo in 2014 on her album Hawk to the Hunting Gone. She commented:

A combination of two traditional English cuckoo songs: the lyrics to My Bonny Cuckoo from the Shirley Collins version, and some lyrics from the oft-recorded The Cuckoo or The Coo-Coo Bird. The cuckoo, with its distinctive appearance and striking nest-usurping behaviour, features heavily in folklore, and is seen as the bringer of spring.

Some of the vocal sounds on the album are inspired by the sounds of a regional word for particular birds, as gleaned from the book All the Birds of the Air by Francesca Greenoak; a cuckoo used to sometimes be called a ‘Welsh ambassador’!

The girls at the beginning were a Norwegian school group that I, along with composers, Larry Goves, Adam Gorb and Björn Eriksson, came upon in the nature reserve of Saltögården in Sweden in 2010. I asked them if I knew any songs, and this is what they sang… as recorded by Björn in the woods, and then expanded with my vocals by Larry.

The Rheingans Sisters (Rowan and Anna) sang and played Cuckoo on their 2015 album Already Home. This video shows them live at Shakespeares, Sheffield, in December 2014:

Lyrics

Shirley Collins sings The Cuckoo

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She bringeth us good tidings, she telleth us no lies.
She sucketh white flowers to keep her voice clear,
And everytime she singeth “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo”,
Then the springtime draweth near.

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, no other is as she.
She flits across the meadow and sings from every tree.
She loves the summer sunshine, she hates the wind and rain,
And everytime she singeth “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo”,
Then the springtime comes again.

The Strollers (Dave and Toni Arthur) sing The Cuckoo

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo!” till the Fourth of July.

Well I've played cards in England and I've played cards in Spain,
And I'll bet you five dollars that I'll win you next game.

Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds, I know you of old;
You robbed my poor pockets of my silver and gold.

Well the cuckoo is a pretty bird and she warbles as she flies.
And she never holler “cuckoo” till the Fourth of July.

Anne Briggs sings The Cuckoo

The cuckoo's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She brings us good tidings, tells us no lies.
She sucks the little birds' eggs to keep her voice clear,
And when she sings “cuckoo!” the summer draws near.

As I walked down by the side of a bush
I heard two birds whistling, the blackbird and the thrush.
I asked them the reason so merry they be,
And the answer they gave me, we are single and we are free.

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.

Meeting is pleasure but parting is a grief
And an inconstant lover is worse than a thief.
A thief can but rob me and take all I have,
But an inconstant lover sends me to my grave.

And the grave, it will rot me and bring me to dust,
An inconstant lover no maiden can trust,
They'll court you and kiss you and vow they'll be true
And the very next moment they'll bid you adieu.

The cuckoo's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies,
She brings us glad tidings, tells us no lies,
And when her time is come, her voice we don't hear,
And where she goes we do not know until another year.

Cockersdale sing The Cuckoo

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She brings us good tidings, she tells us no lies.
She sucks little birds' eggs to make her voice clear,
And when she sings “cuckoo!” the summer draws near.

As I walked down by the side of a bush
I heard two birds whistling, the blackbird and the thrush.
I asked them the reason so merry they be,
And the answer they gave me, we are single and free.

A-walking, and a-talking, and a-walking was I,
To meet my true lover, he'll be there by and by,
To meet him in the meadow is all my delight,
From lark rise in the morning to owl call at night.

Oh, meeting is pleasure but parting is a grief
And a false-hearted lover is worse than a thief.
A thief can but rob you and take all you have,
But an false-hearted lover sends you to your grave.

The grave, it will rot you and bring you to dust,
For a false-hearted lover no maiden can trust,
They'll court you and kiss you and vow they'll be true
But like the swallow in the autumn they'll bid you adieu.

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She brings us good tidings, she tells us no lies.
And when her time's come, her voice we don't hear,
And where she goes we don't know until another year.

Coope Boyes & Simpson sing The Cuckoo

The cuckoo is a merry bird, she sings as she flies;
She brings us glad tidings and tells us no lies.
She sucks the sweet flowers to make her sing clear
And she never sings “cuckoo” till summer is near.

Oh, meeting is pleasure but parting a grief,
An inconstant lover is worse than a thief.
For a thief will but rob you and take all you have,
But an inconstant lover will bring you to the grave.

The grave, it will rot you and bring you to dust,
There is not one in twenty young men girls can trust.
They will kiss you and court you and swear to be true
And the very next moment they'll bid you adieu.

Come all you young women wherever you be,
Build never your nest in the top of a tree.
For the leaves they will wither, the branches decay
And the beauty of fair maids will soon fade away.

(repeat first verse)

The Devil's Interval sing The Cuckoo

O, it's night after night, love, I do lay on my bed,
With the pillows, the feathers all under my head;
Neither sleeping nor waking, oh no rest can I take,
But the thought of that young man, he still troubles my mind.

I will rise then, I will meet him, love, as the evening draws nigh;
I will meet him in the evening as the evening draws nigh;
Well if you think you love a little girl, oh, your mind for to ease,
Then, can't you love the old one, till the new one comes on?

It's like the flowers all in your garden when the beauty's all gone
Can't you see what I'm come to by loving that one?
Oh, the grave he will rot you, he will rot you all away,
There's not one young man out of twenty a young man can you trust.

So, I'll take my week's wages, unto an alehouse I'II go,
And it's there I'll sit drinking till my money's all gone;
Here's my wife and little family all at home, starving too,
And there's me in this alehouse, oh, a-spending all I earn.

Oh, the cuckoo she's called a merry bird, love, don't she sing as she flies,
And she brings us good tidings and she tells us no lies;
And she sucks all small birds' eggs for to keep her voice clear,
And every time she hollers “cuckoo!”, don't the summer draw nigh?

Jean Ritchie sings The Cuckoo

O the cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies;
She brings us glad tidings and she tells us no lies.
She sucks all the pretty flowers to make her voice clear
And she never sings “cuckoo” till the spring of the year.

Come all you young women, take warning by me,
Never place your affection on the love of a man.
For the roots they will wither, the branches decay,
He'll turn his back on you and he'll walk square away.

If you do forsake me I'll not be forsworn
And they'll all be mistaken if they think that I'll mourn;
For I'll get myself up in some higher degree
And I'll walk as light by him as he can by me.

(repeat first verse)

Richard Thompson sings The Coo Coo Bird

Yeah, the coo coo she's a pretty bird
Oh, she warbles as she flies
And she never cries coo coo
Till the fourth day of July

Gonna build me a log cabin
On a mountain so high
So I can see Willie
As he goes passing by

Well, I've played cards in England
And I've played cards in Spain
And I'll bet you ten dollars
That I'll win the next game

Jack of diamonds, oh, Jack of diamonds
I've known you of old
You robbed my poor pockets
Of the silver and his gold

(repeat first verse)

Hmm, hmm-hmm, ...

Jon Boden sings The Cuckoo

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird and she sings as she flies.
She brings us glad tidings and she tells us no lies.
She sucks upon the wild birds' eggs for to keep her voice clear,
And when she sings “cuckoo” the summer draws near.

A-walking and a-talking, a-walking was I,
To meet my true lover, he'll be there by and by,
To meet him in the meadow it was all my delight,
A-walking and a-talking from morning until night.

For meeting is a pleasure but parting it is a grief
An inconstant lover is worse than a thief.
For a thief he will but rob you, take all you have,
But an inconstant lover will send you to the grave.

And the grave, it will rot you and turn you into dust,
There is not one in twenty pretty maidens can trust,
They will kiss you and embrace you and swear they'll prove true
But the very next moments they will bid you adieu.

So come all you fair and tender maids and a warning take by me,
And never try and build your nest at the top of a tall tree.
For the green leaves they will wither and the branches decay,
And the fair looks of a pretty young maid will soon fade away.

Fay Hield sings The Cuckoo

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She brings us glad tidings and tells us no lies.
She sucks on the wild birds' eggs to keep her voice clear,
And when she sings “cuckoo” the summer draws near.

As I was walking by the side of a bush
I heard two birds whistling, the blackbird and the thrush.
I asked them the reason so happy they be,
And the answer that they gave me: “We are single and we are free.”

A-walking and a-talking, a-walking was I
To meet my true lover, he'll be there by and by.
To meet him in the meadow is all my delight,
A-walking and a-talking from morning till night.

For meeting it is a pleasure but parting it is a grief
And an inconstant lover is far worse than a thief.
A thief he will but rob you and steal all you have,
But an inconstant lover will send you to the grave.

And the grave, it will rot you and turn you into dust,
An inconstant lover no maiden can trust,
He'll court you and kiss you and vow he'll be true
And the very next moments he'll bid you adieu.

So all you young and tender maids come take a warning by me,
Never set your heart on a sycamore tree.
His green leaves they will wither, his roots they will decay,
And the fair looks of a pretty young maid will soon fade away.

The cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.
She brings us glad tidings and tells us no lies.
When her time has come her voice we don't hear
And where she goes we do not know until another year.