Sunday, July 15, 2018


Sure, you know this, of course you do. You may have sung it as a child; it certainly sounds as if you should have sung it as a child. I didn't but, when I first heard it, I sort of wish I did, or had. I first came across it on the remarkable Kristin Hersh solo album, 'Hips and Makers', in 1994, somewhat of a sidestep from her earlier and later career as, arguably, THE Throwing Muse. (No argument really, but reference is always made, compulsorily, to her half-sibling in the band, Tanya Donnelly.) Tucked in towards the end of a slew of songs of sparse self-immolation comes this cover of an old english folk song, Roud 413 no less. (Me, neither.) It stands out by virtue of its simplicity, perhaps the trigger to her later album, consisting entirely of traditional appalachian ditties, 'Murder, Misery and then Goodnight', also strongly commended. Many of this songs on that set too have a link back to the ballad traditions of Britain.

So what have cuckoos to do with July? Well, everything apparently, or sort of, at least over here. Let me direct you to the lyrics, except, being from the canon of trad.arr., often the lyric varies from version to version, as there is some uncertainty as to whether they "never holler cuckoo till the 4th of July" or whether they "sucketh white flowers to keep her voice clear", the lines apparently interchangeable. This may help. But, as I was saying, it was deemed so essential that a cuckoo's song be heard to beckon in the start of summer that the venerable Times of London traditionally published,  and may well still do, yearly letters around when readers had heard their first of the year. Indeed, a book has put these together. And for those who are thinking the 4th of July late for summer, and I write on the 15th after a full 8 weeks without rain, the suggestion is that the July versions of the song emanate from singers trying to appeal to an american ear.

The list of performers who have included this song in their repertoire is huge, not unexpectedly including the greats of folk song on both sides of the pond, from Jean Ritchie to Shirley Collins, Doc Watson to Martin Simpson, let alone Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. More surprising are versions by rock/blues screamer  Janis Joplin (in Big Brother and the Holding Company) and rapper Buck 65. Here, however are a few more elegant versions, three of my, other than Kristin, favourites.

Archetypal englishman in L.A., Richard Thompson, together with Eliza, daughter of Martin, Carthy and Canadian legend Garth Hudson:

 A radically different version from blues muso-ethnologist Taj Mahal:

And Laura Veirs, with a fairly traditional take:

Hell, I haven't even included Townes, Rory and many, many more. (And some of these, mentioned and/or featured may offer the flower sucking over July. So sue me!) But, before I send you to the record store, all this romanticism should not take away the ugly truth about this bird.

Do you know, if you like the Kristin, buy the whole damn album!

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