Clarence Ashley’s Coo Coo is by far the most well-known version of the tune. Many performers learned the song from his recording on the Anthology of American Folk Music created by Harry Smith. Greil Marcus wrote about Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” in his book The Old, Weird America

Because of this versions popularity, many banjo enthusiasts have attempted to learn it as Ashley plays it, but the techniques and structure Ashley uses presents some challenges not seen in other banjo pieces. The first is the brush stroke Ashley employs on the “and” of the third beat in his “bird call” motive A section. This downward stroke is commonly known in the classical guitar world as rasgueado. In searching around the internet for tab versions that banjoists have created for the tune, they often spend a lot of time on this technique and do not notice the phrasing irregularity in the “bird call” section of the piece. I am talking about the 2/4 measure that is inserted at the end of the “bird call” motive segment just before the vocals enter (see measure 5 and 18 of the transcription below.) In most of “The Coo Coo Bird” Ashley is clearly performing in the ubiquitous 4/4 meter, so it is surprising when he inserts a 2/4 measure at the end of every “bird call” repetition. This subtle metrical shift makes it hard for other banjoists to replicate Ashley’s performance exactly, because most players are used to remaining in 4/4 meter for an entire song. In addition, Ashley performs the tune the exactly the same with Doc Watson later in his life and in every version I have found. You will notice that this subtle metrical shift is just the beginning of what is to come in the progressively complex Cuckoo versions by Smith, Tyree, Kasey, Roberts and Snipes.

Recorded by Clarence “Tom” Ashley in Johnson City, TN on November 23, 1929 and found on the Anthology of American Folk Music. Listen to Ashley’s performance:

Transcription of Clarence Ashley’s banjo performance. 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! Click here for the pdf version.

 

CooCooBird-ClarenceAshleywithTAB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyrics for “The Coo Coo Bird” by Clarence Ashley

 

Gonna build me / log cabin / on a mountain / so high

so I can / see Willy / as he goes / on by.

 

Mmm…

 

Oh the Coo Coo / is a pretty bird / she warbles / as she flies.

She never / hollers Coo Coo / till the fourth day / July.

 

I’ve played cards / in England / I’ve played cards / in Spain.

I’ll bet you / ten dollars / I beat you / next game.

 

Jack o diamonds / jack o diamonds / I’ve known you / from old.

I rob my / poor pockets / of my silver / and gold.

 

Mmm…

 

I’ve played cards / in England / I’ve played cards / in Spain.

I’ll bet you / ten dollars / I beat you / next game.

 

Oh the Coo Coo / is a pretty bird / she warbles / as she flies.

She never / hollers Coo Coo / till the fourth day / July.