“The Cuckoo Bird” by Hobart Smith

Hobart Smith’s version of Cuckoo Bird is the most hard-driving and rhythmically exciting version in this collection of variations. His “double-noting” technique contributes to this sound. Hobart Smith is a fascinating character in Old-time music for his virtuosic talent on the many instruments he mastered (fiddle, banjo, guitar and piano… and likely others, too). In this article from the Fiddlers Hall of Fame website Smith explains where he learned many of his tunes. The “double-noting” technique, which he used extensively in “The Cuckoo Bird,” was learned from a neighbor of his named John Greer who apparently learned the technique from African-American players in the area.

Smith begins his Cuckoo version as the others with his take on the “bird call” motive. His interpretation is very similar to Ashley’s, but includes an extra beat making the measure a group of 5 beats instead of 4. This subtle change breathes new energy into the motive and surprises the listener used to Ashley’s model. Smith’s structure is also similar to Ashley’s in how he alternates between “bird call” motive and lyrical verse regularly. However, Hobart Smith varies the length (number of beats) in between the “bird call” motives while Ashley remains consistent. Again, this subtle shift in timing creates energy and really keeps the listener on the edge of their seat, unsure of when the new section will begin.

Check out Alan Lomax’s Cultural Equity website for many great Hobart Smith performances (just search Hobart Smith to find).

Also included in this website is a transcription of Smith’s transfixing Wabash Blues for solo banjo.

Transcription of Hobart Smith’s banjo performance on the Lomax RecordingClick on the link to preview or purchase the track. Note: I have done my best to transcribe the performance accurately, but of course I am sure there are errors!

Click here for a short clip of Hobart’s performance corresponding to measures 1-6 in the transcription.

Click here for the pdf version of the transcription.

Hobart-Lomax-CuckooTAB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobart-Lomax-CuckooTAB_2:5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobart-Lomax-CuckooTAB_3:5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobart-Lomax-CuckooTAB_4:5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobart-Lomax-CuckooTAB_5:5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lyrics for “The Cuckoo Bird” by Hobart Smith (Lomax Recording)

I’ve often / sit and wondered / what makes women / love men.
I looked back / and I studied / what makes men / love them.
It ain’t nothin’ / but a notion / that fly / through the wind.
They cause you / hard trouble / they cause you / downfall.
They cause you / hard labor / oh behind / prison walls.

Gonna build me / a steeple / on a mountain / so high.
I’ll watch my / horse race / as he / passes by.
Oh you / oh my / oh you / oh my / hm…

 

Old Kimball / gave me money / ? / he bet more.

Old Kimball / ? / through the keyhole / in the door.

 

Lyrics for “Cuckoo Bird” by Hobart Smith (Fleming Brown Recording)

I’ve oft times / sat and wondered / what makes women / love men.
I looked back / and studied / what makes men / love them.
It ain’t nothin’ / but a notion / that flies / through the wind.
They cause you / hard trouble / they cause you / downfall.
They cause you / hard labor / oh behind / prison walls.

Gonna build me / a steeple / on a mountain / so high.
I’ll watch my / horse race / as he / passes by.

Cuckoo bird / mighty fine bird / oh she warbles / as she flies.
She ain’t cuckooed / she ain’t cuckooed / since the Fourth / of July.

5 Replies to ““The Cuckoo Bird” by Hobart Smith”

  1. Thanks for the tab! Although there are several places where it should be open 5th string and other open strings. (He used quite much drop-thumb – that can be substituted with off-string ‘pulloffs’ – that is: ” do a pulloff to that note you would otherwise pick with the thumb of the right hand.

    A tab of the 1942 Lomax recording is found on the Rounder CD Hobart Smith ‘Blue Ridge Legacy’ . Also included is the Singout tab of Last Chance by Fleming Brown.
    The Folk Legacy CD Old timey Rap has a separate booklet with a somewhat different Last Chance tab.

    Regarding the last Old Kimball verse from the 1942 record: here are some ideas through others’ help:

    ” Old Kimball , give (gave?) me money,
    ‘N’ Ol’ ‘Massie’ , he bet more.
    Old Kimball , yo’ muzzlin’ (musclin’ ?) ,
    Through the keyhole , in the door. ”

    http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=153588

    There are a several other threads on Hobart Smith there also.

    That verse probably is from a chain gang version of ‘Kimball, Skew Ball, Stewball (Molly & Tenbrooks) the Racehorse’.
    His sister Texas Gladden sings Old Kimball in ‘the Cuckoo’ way (reissued on a similar Rounder CD like Hobart’s) , but that above verse isn’t there.
    Might show up in songbooks by John & Alan Lomax.

  2. A bit of a correction here: Seems that even though parts of verses got mixed in the american versions of the above songs, Molly & Tenbrooks should be kept separate from the others.
    ‘Stewball and Kimball’ were among the titles used for American variants of the Irish ‘Skew Ball’ song.

    Listen to Leadbelly’s (or ‘Lead Belly’) version ‘Stewball’,

    http://www.tbheritage.com/Portraits/Skewball/Skewball2.html

    Another thread than the above mudcat, push ‘ Ctrl F ‘ and write ‘ Rock about my Saro ‘ ,for example :

    http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=54707

  3. Hobart’s Cuckoo verse, 1942 Lomax recording:

    Old Kimball,
    give me money,
    now ”Massee”,
    he bet more,
    Old Kimball,
    you’re lookin’,
    through a keyhole,
    in the door.

    ‘Massee’ – (Massah)

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