The Cuckoo


This is one Jon picked up from Fay, in fact he says, “I meant to record this with Fay but we haven’t found the time yet, so we may post it up later-on (she sings it much better than me). I hadn’t realised until recording it how close the tune is to In The Month Of January.”

Here’s another example of something you think you know, but… I have a tune in my head, it’s not this one and nor is it the American variant that seems to dominate the YouTube clips of everyone form Rory Gallagher and Janis Joplin to bloke-in-bedroom. Thank heavens then for the reissue of Shirley Collins Sweet England, which restores my faith that I am not simply delusional. Interestingly her sleeve notes for that attribute her source as ‘Great-granny’, so straight down the family line, obviously giving the tune a much wider life span than the confines of my head. The version that Jon sings is, however, very similar to Anne Briggs, but seems to have an extra verse, making this an even more cautionary tale about the falsehood of lovers. Mainly Norfolk covers Anne Briggs version and Bert Lloyds sleeve notes make interesting reading. He refers both to the ambiguity of the bird as the herald of spring and the nest stealing root of the cuckold. I guess it explains to some extent the odd conjunction of what Bert describes as ‘floating verses’ and the marriage of the pretty bird imagery with infidelity. There do seem to be several variants and the American versions in particularly seem to involve cards, whiskey, log cabins and more, in a right old stew of frontier-type imagery.  It’s perhaps not surprising, given the seasonal nature and distinctive call, that cuckoo songs in The British Isles go back many centuries and I even came across one translated from Middle English dated from C13th. You also won’t be surprised to learn that there’s more to cuckoos than brood parasitism. Should you fancy a quick nature ramble Wiki here and note that the Roadrunner is a cuckoo. Pass me my Acme rocket-skates. As for the song? Super-genius!
You can buy the January digital album now from all good download stores.


39 Responses to “The Cuckoo”

  1. John Wigley says:

    Really, no comments?! But this is ace!…

  2. Shelley says:

    Great tune, and one I’ve not heard before, although the words are very similar to the ones my trio sing.

    Hope no-one minds if I post a link to our version (the more familiar tune I suspect):

  3. Simon Dewsbury says:

    Shelley, don’t mind at all, lovely singing! I suspect Jon would be very happy to have you join in one of the social singing sessions he’s got planned for the AFSAD tour (see the other post).

  4. muzza (s.e.England) says:

    @Shelley.thanks for the link to your site……..your version is great as well.Presume you are the singy one as opposed to the guitary one(Aly) or fiddly one(Karen).

  5. the_otter says:

    Very good. Another of my favourites that I first heard from Anne Briggs.

  6. Shelley says:

    @Muzza – well, we’re all singing in the Cuckoo! (Karen on the top, Aly on the tune and me rumbling at the bottom). Karen is the guitary one and Aly is the fiddly one when we’re not doing a cappella.

  7. Shelley says:

    ….oh, and thank you, of course!

  8. Simon says:

    Just caught up with this Shelley… Lovely stuff.

  9. Jane Ramsden says:

    That was great – both versions! Bailey Sisters had Salmon cat’s head over the speaker! She does that sometimes with my singing, so it must be the higher pitched female voice which intrigues. I’m now taking it as an accolade… at least for Shelley, Aly & Karen, if not for me!

  10. Daina says:

    Like this one very much. I am sure that I have never heard it before but the last verse is familiar. I might be mistaken (probably am) but it seems to be that a similiar verse concludes another folk song fairly recently sung, but I can’t track it down.

  11. Daina says:

    Have solved the mystery – thank goodness else it would have driven me to drink.
    Jon sang “In the month of January” earlier this month and the final verse is exactly the same as on “The Cuckoo”.

  12. Tedd O'Ramsden says:

    Both ‘Cuckoos’ still pretty birds second time round! Well done, Daina, on noticing the common verse. I would never have spotted it, but might have felt compelled to find out where they overlapped if I had, and similarly driven missen nuts!

    (Though bird-related) now for something completely different…

    If it comes round again on BBC4, do catch a wonderful hour and a quarter music-mentory of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel speaking about the creative process of putting together the album ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ It was called ‘Imagine… Simon & Garfunkel: the Harmony Game.’ I wonder how many album compilations today could and would incorporate the creative lengths which went into each track of BOTW.

    One influence on Paul Simon’s song-writing of the title track was the gospel sound of a group called The Swan Silvertones (1940s/50s), lead by (Rev) Claude Jeter, who previously sang with The Dixie Hummingbirds (1920s-50s). Here’s their rendition of ‘All Aboard’ from 1951 with the Rev Percell Perkins, who wrote the song:

    Cuckoos, swans, hummingbirds… but not even an oblique reference to a woolly owl anywhere, Muzza!

  13. Tedd O'Ramsden says:

    PS The Swan Silvertones were originally The Four Kings Of Harmony, who became The Silvertones, adding Swan to their name when they were sponsored by Swan Bakeries. So no romantic bird connection there, I’m afraid, but good on the bakery! Bread for the singing birds!

  14. Daina says:

    Tedd watched the Simon & Garfunkel show when it was on a short while ago. I have heard quite a few renditions of “Bridge over Troubled Water”, but nothing to compare with the duo’s version. I am getting to be a flipping marvellous detective aren’t I? The last verse of “The Cuckoo” was annoying me so much that I had to discover which song I had heard it on. via “Mainly Norfolk” I managed to track it down after a considerable time – going back and forward till I found it – sighs of relief.

  15. Linda says:

    Diana. Colin back at hospital end of January will let you know how it goes. Have watched both DVDs and really enjoyed them. The lighting on the Shepherds Bush one was superb bet Jon could do a really good hallowean tale ! As for todays song it wasn.t one of my favourites will try it again tomorrow.

  16. Ruth Dewdney says:

    Tedd, did you watch the other Paul Simon programmes on in the four hour fest? If so you would have seen the 1969 documentary which the programme makers had completely cut up and used almost all of in the “The Harmony Game” documentary. Which I though was a great shame (unless I’d seen the 1969 programme first). All very interesting and lots of lovely music. Simon was very into the 1960s folk stuff, as well as hugely influenced by gospel, while Garfunkel seems to have been pulling in a more classical direction. Just think, they could have stormed the “cheesy classics chart” or whatever Classic FM call it, too, if only it had been invented then. Anyway loved the bit about recording the drums by the lift doors and scaring the pants off someone coming out!

    I know lots of songs about cuckoos but not heard this tune before, so very interesting thank you.

  17. muzza (N.W Surrey) says:

    I first heard the Cuckoo song on a Dick Gaughan record in 1968…totally different tune but made an impression on me.
    @Tedd…I note from “Nuttypedia” (I made it up)..that The Silvertones accepted Swan Bakeries sponsorship because they needed the dough(see what I did there!)..well I am half asleep.

  18. Tedd O'Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: Half asleep, or half-baked? HAHAHAHAHAHA! Next thing you’ll be telling me is there were not only woolly owls in the past, but huge woolly elephants!

  19. Daina says:

    @Tedd: How about Woolly Mammoths – they were very similar to elephants – probably a little before our time though!

  20. Linda says:

    Jon is right Fay does this song on the Orfeo CD and sounds really good, how taste change in twelve months have got to like this one now [thank you Fay]

  21. Diana says:

    Opinion still the same as last year.

  22. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Shelley…………….loved your version of the Cuckoo……only five of your songs on this link….when are you doing more!

  23. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:


  24. old Muzza(N.W.Surrey-UK) says:

    Blimey……have I got to shout even louder

  25. Diana says:

    Thanks dear Muzza, hope you hear this.

  26. Old Muzza(N.W Surrey-UK says:

    Huzzah…..chin up Diana…..Spring is just around the corner

  27. Old Muzza (NW Surrey UK) says:

    Not the jolliest of songs for yer burfday!

  28. Devin Reed says:

    Words overlap with American ‘on top of old smokey’.

  29. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    It is (Diana’s) Daina’s birthday today….sad that she didn’t make it this year having succumbed to her illness last year… more spelling mistakes or dad damn blast roast it!

  30. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yes, thought of Diana on her birthday & all the fun-filled times we had searching for your missing sock, Muzza! Bet you’ve still not found it! Hahahaha!

  31. Old Muzza NW Surrey UK says:

    Remembering Daina on her birthday…..damn blast roast it

  32. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yes, Diana was in my thoughts across the course of her birthday… damn blast roast & set fire to it! (Or something similar.) Is that what happened to all your socks, Muzzy? They went up in smoke! Hahahaha!
    Many happy returns to you for tomorrow. I will be out with Pewter Walsh, who also sends his good wishes. Xx.

  33. Jane Ramsden says:

    Happy heavenly birthday, Diana, co-founding visitor to AFSAD. The daily freshness of both much missed.

  34. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Remembering Daina on her birthday…..damn blast roast it…bless her little cotton socks.
    Not a peep since 2018

  35. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Ref comment above……thinking of Daina on the 21st

  36. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    It is (Diana’s) Daina’s birthday today 21st….sad that she didn’t make it having succumbed to her illness in 2018… more spelling mistakes or dad damn blast roast it!

  37. Linda says:

    Muzza Thought I’d find you here.. bless Diana same your not here to enjoy yet another year of AFSAD

  38. OldMuzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Remembering Daina on her birthday….sigh!

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