Coo-Coo: A Study

Starting in the summer of 2012, working with Laurent Dubois, David Garner transcribed a series of different versions of the song “Coo-Coo.” (The title, like the song itself, has many variations). Our primary question was relatively simple: what makes “Coo-Coo” “Coo-Coo”? That is, what — if anything — is consistent across the different versions of the song? But the project is also about identifying the structural and rhythmic qualities of this particular song and, more broadly, distinct forms of banjo music.

As the transcriptions show, the musical language of each version of “Coo-Coo” is a unique combination of banjo riffs, techniques and structures, but there is still a common thread running through all of them. There are features that are consistent in every version, but the execution, ordering, and emphasis are different. This relates directly with Greil Marcus’ writing on the text of the song. Marcus illustrates how the lyrics for “Coo-Coo” are an ever-shifting combination of shared lines (such as Oh the coo coo, shes a pretty bird…), lines stolen from related songs, and lines unique to each singer. He writes that Cuckoo was “a ‘folk-lyric’ song,” meaning that “it was made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight.” (pp. 115-116) As these transcriptions will show, the structure of the text is very closely mimicked in the structure of the banjo music.

The transcriptions are extremely detailed, attempting to capture with as much accuracy as possible each unique performance. They are therefore quite different from the usual musical notation one finds in lesson books which are prescriptive (seeking to teach someone the basics of how to perform the tune, without the nuance of live performance). Rather, these transcriptions are descriptive (attempting to notate exactly a specific performance). The idea in these transcriptions is to capture the many variations in phrase length, meter, ornamentation, note choice, and various other parameters that are in fact what gives the music its drive and fascination.

The music transcribed for the “Coo-Coo” study represents a starting point for studying the music of Southern banjoists that perform tunes that do not adhere metrically to the typical structure of Old-time songs–music in 4/4 or 2/4 even meters with regular phrase lengths of 4 or 8 bars. All of the tunes transcribed veer from this standard structure. Hopefully, we can gain a better understanding of this fascinating musical niche through detailed analysis.

The “Coo-Coo” Study is made up of transcriptions of six contrasting versions of the tune: “The Coo Coo Bird” by Clarence Ashley, “The Cuckoo Bird” by Hobart Smith, “Coo Coo Bird” by Rufus Kasey, “Cuckoo Bird” by John Lawson Tyree, “Coo Coo” by Dink Roberts, and “Coo Coo” by John Snipes, a page showing the “bird call” motive used in each version, and finally a Cuckoo Comparison page with an alternate analysis.

Click here to view a guide to the tab used in the banjo transcriptions. Some of the versions are performed in tunings slightly higher than the standard G modal tuning. Each transcription is transposed to the standard tuning in order to compare and contrast more easily. The transcriptions do not include the vocal lines with text. This is done intentionally in order to focus solely on the banjo playing. In the future full transcriptions will be posted which will include the vocals.









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