John Tyree

John Tyree (1914-?) performs a rendition of the traditional Scots-Irish ballad-turned American banjo standard “The Cuckoo Bird” (Sometimes known as “Coo Coo Bird”, or simply “Coo Coo” or “Cuckoo”). The song in its American form has little relation to the original Scots-Irish ballad and has considerable influence from African American traditions.

Some distinctions include a mentioning of the cuckoo “never saying”, “singing”, or “hollering cuckoo”, until “the fourth day of July”. The song is also rarely just “The Cuckoo Bird”, and is generally performed in floating verses, often paired with the distinctly American folk song “Molly & Tenbrooks”,  an embellished retelling of a real horse race between two horses named Mollie and Ten Broeck on July 4th 1878 in Louisville, Kentucky. The date of the real Mollie and Ten Broeck race might give a faint idea as to why July 4th is mentioned in the Cuckoo Bird half of the song.

The American song also often features what has been referred to as a “bird call motive”, a pattern of notes played at the beginning (And sometimes throughout and at the end of the song) suspected to be imitating a real cuckoo bird call. This would not be unusual, as African and African American song and dance has a history of imitating the everyday sounds and movements of people and animals.