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Banjo Friday 12

Updated: May 25, 2021

Today's tune is the "The Cuckoo." It's an English folk song that has spread throughout the English-speaking world. The earliest printed broadside versions come from the late eighteenth century, but it probably dates back to the middle ages. Below, Clarence Ashley performs a popular American variation of the song with a patriotic chorus: "...she never sings, 'Cuckoo,' till the fourth day of July." Ashley first recorded this song in 1929 when "hillbilly" music was all the rage, but the Great Depression put an end to his recording career, and he gave up music for more settled work. His early recordings were rediscovered in the Folk Song Revival of the 1960s, and Ashley, now an elderly man, found a ready audience for songs like "Greenback Dollar" and "House of the Rising Sun." Here is Ashley in singing "The Cuckoo" in 1963:

There is a great article about this song on the website Banjology found here. The thing that sets Ashley's version apart is his break between verses where he imitates the call of the Cuckoo by brushing across the banjo strings with the back of his nail in rapid succession. Ashley also reintroduced the "sawmill tuning" with this song, a modal tuning where the banjo is tuned gDGCD, something that had fallen out of favour as bluegrass and the open G tuning became more popular.

For a more recent (and really fun) version in the same vein, have a listen to Giri and Uma Peters:


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