Friday, July 8, 2011

“The Coo Coo Bird”

Hey, everybody, it’s Friday, & you know what that means—time for some banjo music!

I’m continuing with my series of favorite banjo songs with one that is “seasonal”—after all, as Clarence Ashley famously sings:

Oh the coo-coo is a pretty bird
She wobbles when she flies
She never hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day of July

Based on this, I guess it’s time for the coo coo to holler!

Whatever the cuckoo’s actual singing habits may be, when you’re taking about old-time banjo frailing, you have to talk about Clarence Ashley.   Ashley hailed from Bristol, Tennessee & from his teens into his 30s, he was a succesful performer, first in medicine shows, then later in string bands.  He also recorded a number of sides for Gennett, Columbia & the American Record Company in the late 1920s.  The recording of “The Coo Coo Bird” comes from a 1929 session for Columbia; it was included in Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, & was written about quite rhapsodically by critic Greil Marcus in his essay “The Old Weird America.”  His inclusion on the Anthology, as well as music collectors’ interest in his other old recordings, led to Ashley’s “rediscovery” in the 1960s folk revival; he went back to performing in a band that included the great Doc Watson. 

Ashley is famous for the “clawhammer” or “frailing” style of banjo playing.  The banjoists we’ve presented previously in the favorite banjo tunes series all plucked “up” on the banjo strings in essentially the same way as a guitarist would pluck a string.  In the frailing style, the banjoist strikes down on the string with the fingernail of his/her index or middle finger.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, most scholars agree that this form of playing dates back to the instrument’s African roots—as we saw in the post on the ekonting, a similar style is still practiced on one of the banjo’s closest African relatives (Rhinannon Giddens also plays in frailing style in the gourd banjo video posted last Friday—in fact, that’s Ms Giddens’ customary playing style.) 

Ashley plays “The Coo Coo Bird” in the so-called “Sawmill tuning,” which Pete Seeger dubbed “Mountain Minor.”  In “Sawmill,” the banjo is tuned gDGCD from 5th string to 1st string.  While the tuning sounds very minor, & while the flatted third (the flatted “Mi” note, which makes a scale “minor” as opposed to “major”) is used a lot in Sawmill melodies, the actual open strings don’t produce a minor chord, but what is called a “suspended chord”—in other words, where you would normally find “Mi” in a major chord or “flatted Mi” in a minor chord, you have the “Fa” note instead (this is the C on the 2nd string).  Interestingly, this suspended feeling produces a tension that’s not dissimilar to the feeling one gets with blues music, where there’s typically a lot of play between “Mi” & “flatted Mi” both in the chords & in the melodies.  Sawmill tuning (occasionally taken up a whole step to aEADE to accommodate fiddles, or at least capoed to produce the same pitches) is one of the most common tunings in old-time music to this day, along with open G & double C.

Hope you enjoy this truly wonderful, haunting song!


  1. Very striking (pun not intended!). Much appreciate the thorough explanation.

  2. Hi Dave: Thanks! Glad the explanation seemed clear & helpful.

  3. I've always loved this tune. They also used it in the movie Cold Mountain; Brendan Gleeson (who besides being an excellent actor is also a helluva good Irish fiddler), played fiddle on it on film, but it was a trio of players associated with Tim Erikson, a musicologist and performer who specializes in 19th Century music and especially Shape Note singing. Erikson's is the voice you hear singing the tune, and Dirk Powell is the banjo picker. Yep, Powell played clawhammer style. Oh yeah, it was Stuart Duncan who played the fiddle on the soundtrack.

  4. Hmmmm... That came out somewhat incoherent. It was the trio of Tim Erickson (vocal), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and Dirk Powell (clawhammer banjo) who played "The Coo Coo Bird" on the soundtrack of Cold Mountain.

  5. Hi Roy: Sounds like a great line-up for that version; I'd be interested in giving it a listen. Thanks!

  6. The YouTube uploader claimed it was Riley Baugus playing clawhammer with Eriksen there.

    Here he is talking about it at a live performance:

  7. Hi Dave: Thanks! I'll check those out.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.