The Cuckoo (Jack Elliott/Clarence Ashley/cuckoldry)

“The Cuckoo” is another one I got from Jack Elliott, and I still play it more or less the way he did. The liner notes to his record say he learned it from Derroll Adams and got the guitar part from Doc Watson.

Clarence “Tom” Ashley

The ultimate source for all three would have been the North Carolina banjo player Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who recorded it in 1929. Ashley’s record was pretty popular, and Adams may have picked it up from the 78, or from another banjo player, or from the anthology American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith in the early 1950s and issued by Folkways. But Watson would have got it directly from Ashley, who lived down the road from him and sometimes hired him as a guitar player — northern folk revivalists first became aware of Watson when they went in search of Ashley.

As for the song, it’s a compendium of verses from various other songs, but the subtext is a series of oblique references to cuckoldry. The word cuckold is derived from cuckoo — by way of the French cocu and coucou — and the former (a husband whose wife is cheating on him) apparently was named after the latter because the female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, who care for them, leaving her free to go her merry way.

Nothing in the song’s cuckoo-related verses imply that connection, but the reference to building a log cabin on the mountain so that the singer “can see Willie when he goes riding by” suggests a theme like the blues lyric about a singer moving his wife to “the outskirts of town” (another song I’ll get around to at some point) — i.e., worries about male competition. Unless, of course, the singer is a woman and she wants to build a cabin on the mountain so she can see her lover coming, and the cuckoo is just in there because it’s a pretty bird that wobbles as it flies and displays its French heritage in a taste for wine.

As for that wobble… there is a tendency of later singers to shift it to “warble,” but the description of a bird that “wobbles as it flies” makes good sense, while if it was warbling all the time, how does that fit with the claim that it never sings “cuckoo” till the fourth day of July? Besides, another singer on the Harry Smith anthology makes a similar reference — Dick Justice in “Henry Lee,” sings the threat to a little bird: “If I had my bending bow, my arrow and my string/ I’d pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain.”