Rufus Kasey’s “Coo Coo Bird” is perhaps my favorite version of the tune because it is so ripe for analysis. It is also the longest of all the versions clocking in at 4:45, giving the listener more time to digest his complex web of lyrics and licks.
Kasey begins as all the others do–with the “bird call” motive in the banjo part, which is characterized by a descending lick beginning with the high G and moving through the notes of the minor pentatonic scale to be used throughout the tune (with special emphasis on the high G and F alternation). Kasey, unlike Ashley and Smith, does not return to the “bird call” motive in between versus. Rather, he inserts other filler licks to break up the lyrics. Instead, Kasey barrels through the lyrics and finally at the end of the recording comes back to the “bird call” theme.
For me, the moment he finally returns to the bird call (now slightly different in rhythmic execution) is quite exciting as suspense was built up throughout the piece wondering when he would return to the material. The final 1:40 of the track is without vocals. It serves as a kind of much-needed instrumental coda after hearing all the lyrics in rapid succession.
Lyrics for “Coo Coo Bird” by Rufus Kasey (from Cece Conway’s liner notes in Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia)
Coo Coo Bird / [is a] flyin’ bird. /
She warbles [wobbles?] / as she flies. She never /
hollers coo coo / till the fourth day / of july.
Your name / [is] Charming Betsy . /
[if you think] I don’t love you / you’re just a fool.
Young woman / young lady / walk by. / [I] ready your mind. /
Your mind / [is] to marry / and to leave / this [sometimes “bad luck”] town.
Little Willy / She’s my darlin’. / Little Willy. / she my dear. /
Little Willy / she’s my darlin. / And I hate / to leave her here.
Old Molly / she were the bay horse. / Old Cory / she were too. /
Old Molly / wouldn’t drink no water. / Old Cory / [s]he there flew.
I’m gonna build / me a steeple / on the mountain /
so high. / So I / can see / Little Willy / [As] she walk by.
Transcription of Rufus Kasey’s banjo performance on Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. Click on the link to preview or purchase the song on the Folkways website. Note: I have done my best to transcribe the performance accurately, but of course I am sure there are errors!