Ashley’s most popular song was “The Coo-Coo Bird” which has perhaps the most interesting history of any of his songs. He was much more particular with “The Coo-Coo Bird” than any of his other songs. He had recorded it earlier; but when he was asked to play it in the 1960’s, he refused to play it before it was polished to perfection. When he did play it, he often prefaced the song with “I don’t know if other people sing it the way I do or not – and I don’t care.” Fritz Plous gave an account of seeing Ashley perform at The University of Chicago Folk Festival of 1962, in which the audience was deeply moved by the almost oriental sound of the Tennessee farmer playing a centuries-old song on a modal-tuned five-string banjo. The other members of the band suddenly faded into the shadows as Ashley at seventy years of age picked up his banjo, sat down in a chair, and spoke to the crowd:
I set this old bird a-flyin’ back in the twenties, and she’s been flyin’ round the country ever since. People sing this song all over. It’s called ‘The Coo-Coo Bird.’
Ashley rendered the following version of “The Coo-Coo Bird”:
Oh, the coo-coo, she’s a pretty bird
She wobbles as she flies
She never says 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.
I’ve known you from old
You’ve robbed my poor pocket
Of my silver and my gold.
My horses ain’t hungry
They won’t eat your hay
I’ll drive on a little further
I’ll feed ‘em on my way.
The coo-coo is the cuckoo, not the modern one which gave its name to mental disturbance, but the old one, the classical symbol of fickleness, false love, of infidelity. The word “cuckold” was derived from the female cockoo’s habit of depositing her eggs in the nest of smaller birds and leaving them there to be hatched by a bird of a totally different species. Another symbolic role of the cuckoo was that it was the herald of spring and was identified with the warmth and promise of that season.
A singular custom prevails in Shropshire at this period of the year, which is peculiar to that country. As soon as the first cuckoo has been heard, all the labouring classes leave work, if in the middle of the day, and the time is devoted to mirth and jollity over what is called the cuckoo ale.
“The Coo-Coo Bird” is a traditional Appalachian lyric; it tells no story, but it presents a set of impressions, a philosophical statement. Plous says “The story of ‘The Coo-Coo bird’ and her flight is the biography of a folk song and the blueprint for a work of art.” The following is a chronology of the song’s development into a work of art.
|1927||1st recording of “The Coo-Coo Bird.” This recording had only the germ of the future “Coo-Coo Bird.” It reveals a banjo picked too fast and without proper phrasing and an Ashley whose voice is too thin and shaky to do the song justice.|
|1953||Folkways released its Anthology of American Folk Music including a re-recording of the 1927 “Coo-Coo Bird.” A few college students picked it up, academically oriented music buffs found the song had potential and they began to study it. They also began to look for Clarence Ashley.|
|1960||Ralph Rinzler discovered Ashley at Union Grove, North Carolina. Rinzler persuaded Ashley to record again but on the first album “The Coo-Coo Bird” does not appear. Ashley refused to play it; he said he had to practice it.|
|1961||Ashley went to New York and announced that the “Coo-Coo Bird” was ready. Ashley had Doc Watson, a blind guitarist from Deep Gab, North Carolina, accompany him. With Ashley on the banjo and Watson on guitar, they reaped national acclaim for the beauty of their arrangement. Ashley and Watson set out to deliberately make the song more beautiful and they brought it to perfection, a work of art.|
Doc Watson and later Tex Isley were the only two musicians who ever learned to accompany Ashley’s banjo style with a guitar on “The Coo-Coo Bird.”