Pond Crossings: Transatlantic Coverfolk with today’s guest host: Darius

Let me open with a warm thank you to Boyhowdy for inviting me to do this, and for helping to bring it to life.

My name is Darius. I have been an eager reader of and listener to this blog for some time now. One day, I followed a link from here and found myself at Star Maker Machine, where I am now an occasional poster. That’s where Boyhowdy found me. Life is indeed a circle.

Many great folk songs found in this country were born in the British Isles, and in some cases, went through wild transformations, both in getting to these shores, and in continuing to change once they were here. This reflects differences in the two cultures, as well as the personalities of the people who performed the songs.

In Britain, traditional songs often serve as mnemonics to teach children bits of folk wisdom. Consider the song “The Cuckoo”. In researching this post, I was unable to find a single “original” version of the song. Instead, there seem to be variations on the set of lyrics below:

The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies.

She sucks all sweet flowers
To make her voice clear
She never sings cuckoo
Till summer is near

She flies the hills over
She flies the world about
She flies back to the mountain
She mourns for her love

The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies

I found one variant given as a nursery rhyme, where the bird is male, and sucks eggs to improve his voice. The rhyme is apparently older than the music, which would be why there a several different musical settings for the words. The important piece of lore here is that the cuckoo’s song warns of the coming of summer, which marks the end of the planting season. So the song teaches children how to tell when they are running out of time to plant crops.

Nowadays, we have other ways to know when to plant. So modern performers of “The Cuckoo” have added different elements to the song, and it is all but impossible to find a British version with just the lyrics above. Here is John Renbourn’s version.

  • John Renbourn, The Cuckoo
    (from Faro Annie)

    So already “The Cuckoo” is going through changes. But watch what happens when the song comes to America! It is brought to the South by early settlers, and vanishes into the mountains. It passes down through generations of people who have a different climate and planting season, and “till summer is near” somehow becomes “til the fourth day of July”. Characters named Willie and Jack of Diamonds appear out of nowhere.

    In 1961, towards the end of the folk revival, a banjo player and singer named Clarence Ashley was rediscovered. He had been a minstrel show performer and string band player in the thirties and early forties, and then disappeared. His story is quite interesting, and would be worth a post of its own. For now, suffice it to say that he recorded “The Cuckoo” with Doc Watson in 1961. The lyrics he used are the American version. Whereas, in Britain everyone who records the song to this day feels free to change the words as they please, in America the words have become fixed. Here they are, in a beautiful version by Townes Van Zant:

  • Townes Van Zandt, The Coo Coo
    (from Roadsongs)

    Meanwhile, Donovan is originally from England, but has lived in the US for many years. His take on “The Cuckoo” is the American version. Confused?

  • Donovan, The Cuckoo
    (from Beat Cafe)

    Returning to the British Isles, we find many traditional songs which tell stories. That Richard Thompson knows many of these is clear from the number of them he recorded with Fairport Convention. Some of these story-songs contain magical elements, and are survivals of prechristian beliefs.

    Although “Crazy Man Michael” is an original song by Thompson, its characterization of the raven is a good example of this.

    Thompson set the lyrics of “Crazy Man Michael” to a traditional melody. (I have not been able to find what song this was. If anyone knows, please leave a comment.) When Thompson brought the lyrics to his band mates in Fairport, David Swarbrick objected that the words did not fit the melody. So Thompson challenged Swarbrick to write a better melody, and he did. So a traditional song got first new words and then new music, and Fairport’s version is not so much a cover as a smother.
    Fairport Convention, Crazy Man Michael
    (live in Oxfordshire (UK), August 2007)

    When “Crazy Man Michael” came to America, it received a warm welcome from Nathalie Merchant. She changed the arrangement to suit her style, but she left the words and melody intact.

  • Natalie Merchant, Crazy Man Michael
    (from The House Carpenter’s Daughter)

    The tabloid newspaper is a creation of the industrial revolution. To make economic sense, you have to have enough people in one place to buy your newspaper. But people in pre industrial Britain still had an appetite for sensationalized versions of the news. What are now traditional songs originally filled that need. So in 1845, when Lord John Franklin and his crew vanished while seeking the Northwest Passage, a song was written to tell the tale.

  • Pentangle, Lord Franklin
    (from Cruel Sister)

    Over in America, David Wilcox obviously knew the song. “Jamie’s Secret” combines the melody with an entirely new set of lyrics. Wilcox’ tale of a woman’s disappearance gains additional resonance if you know the source of the melody. A “partial cover”, if you will.

  • David Wilcox, Jamie’s Secret
    (from How Did You Find me Here)

    Finally, just for fun, I wanted to present a pond crossing that goes in the other direction. “Pastures of Plenty” is an American song, Woody Guthrie’s evocation of the dust bowl years. In Odetta’s hands, everything becomes a spiritual, which works just fine here.

  • Odetta, Pastures of Plenty
    (from The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie)

    However, the song gets to Ireland, which has certainly had its share of agricultural disasters. And it rocks!

  • Solas, Pastures of Plenty
    (from The Words That Remain)

    Today’s Bonus and Sundry Coverfolk

    Boyhowdy already did a great post on the traditional British ballad House Carpenter. Here’s two jaw dropping American versions that got missed the first time.

  • Kelly Joe Phelps, House Carpenter
    (from Shine Eyed Mister Zen)

  • Rosalie Sorrels, House Carpenter
    (from Folk Songs of Utah and Idaho)

    Folk fan Darius is a regular guest contributor at blog collaborative Star Maker Machine. He has excellent taste in both blogs and music.

  • Category: David Wilcox, Donovan, Fairport Convention, Guest Posts, John Renbourne, Kelly Joe Phelps, Natalie Merchant, Odetta, Pentangle, Rosalie Sorrell, solas, Townes van Zandt 5 comments »

    5 Responses to “Pond Crossings: Transatlantic Coverfolk with today’s guest host: Darius”

    1. The DoorKeeper

      You can hear Clarence Ashley’s 1929 recording of Coo Coo Bird over at

      Archive.org

    2. Anonymous

      Great Stuff Darius! I’m glad to hear the 2007 live Fairport version of CMM. Sure sounds like Richard Thompson on the guitar break! Who’s the singer?

      Curt at hcshann@aol.com

    3. Divinyl

      It’s strange…I was just discussing ‘The Cuckoo’ this weekend with a friend. We were at an open air day festival and one of the acts played it (I forget who!). I was saying how I almost think of the Be Good Tanyas’ version as the original now, as it is so familiar, even though I have heard countless interpretations of the song. Good stuff :o )

      Oh, and I love Odetta!!

    4. Anonymous

      Good stuff as usual. Particularly liked the House Carpenter bonus tracks but I’ll save you the trouble of posting any more. The Mammals’ version posted previously is without question the definitive one. Go back and listen to it and then tell me I’m wrong.

    5. Anonymous

      Just a small point, but Donovan’s actually from Scotland…