“The Cuckoo”


"The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies; she brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies." Many versions are women's complaints about men's false hearts (usually similar to "The Wagoner's Lad/Old Smokey")


Legends about the cuckoo bringing in summer (and infidelity) are common and early.

The cuckoo loves warmth, and so arrives late during migration; it is thus held to signal summer. Certain species of cuckoo also lay their eggs in other birds' nests (whence probably the word "cuckold"), hence their association with lustiness.

The legend is ancient; Alcuin (died c. 804) wrote a piece, "Opto meus veniat cuculus, carrisimus ales," in which spring begs for the cuckoo to come. And Alcuin was English. But he worked in Charlemagne's France, and wrote in Latin, so we cannot prove that the idea was that old in England. But we do have the very old English song "Sumer Is I-cumen In"; showing that the cuckoo legend had made it to England by then; see the entry on that piece for more details on the dating.

Outside England, we find a number of other songs on the theme: Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 115, prints "L'inverno e passato," "Oh past and gone is winter, And March and April too, And May is here to greet us And songs of the cuckoo.... May's the month for lovers And songs of the cuckoo" (Italian, from Switzerland), as well as "Kukuvaca," "Cuckoo, cuckoo, sings the cuckoo," in which a girl asks a mower, "Have you cut the grass for me?" (p. 217, from Croatia). - RBW

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Firth c.12(211), "The Cuckoo" ("Come all you pretty fair maids, wherever you be"), J. Evans (London), 1780-1812; also Harding B 11(762), Harding B 15(77a), Harding B 11(1231), "The Cuckoo"


  • Clarence "Tom" Ashley, "The Coo Coo Bird" (Columbia 15489-D, 1929; on AAFM3)
  • Clarence Ashley & Doc Watson, "The Coo-Coo Bird" (on Ashley03, WatsonAshley01)
  • Charlie Black, "The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird" (AAFS 1389 B1)
  • Anne Briggs, "The Cuckoo" (on Briggs2, Briggs3)
  • Mrs. Joseph Gaines, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 832 A1)
  • Gant Family, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 72 B1)
  • Maggie Gant, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 66 A2)
  • Kelly Harrell, "The Cuckoo She's a Fine Bird" (Victor V-40047, 1926; on KHarrell02)
  • Aunt Molly Jackson, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 823 B1/B2, 1935)
  • Mrs. C. S. MacClellan, "The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird" (AAFS 986 B2)
  • Jonathan Moses, "Cuckoo is a Fine Bird" (AAFS 3705 A2)
  • New Lost City Ramblers, "The Coo Coo Bird" (on NLCR04, NLCR11)
  • Lize Pace, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 1437 A1)
  • Mr. & Mrs. John Sams, "The Coo-Coo" (on MMOKCD)
  • John Selleck, "The Cuckoo" (AAFS 4219 A2)
  • Vivian Skinner, "Cuckoo is a May Bird" (AAFS 2997 A2)
  • Pete Steele, "The Cuckoo" (on PSteele01)
  • John Williams, "Cuckoo Song" (AAFS 4182 A2/B)


  1. Randolph 49, "The Cuckoo" (4 texts, of which "A" is about half "Inconstant Lover/Old Smokey" verses and "B" never mentions the cuckoo and appears to be mostly floating verses; 1 tune)
  2. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 117-118, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 49A)
  3. Belden, pp. 473-476, "The Unconstant Lover" (3 texts, 1 tune, of which the first is "Old Smokey"; the second mixes that with "The Cuckoo," and the third is short enough that it might be something else)
  4. BrownIII 248, "The Inconstant Lover" (5 texts plus a fragment, admitted by the editors to be distinct songs but with many floating items; "A," "B," and "C" are more "On Top of Old Smokey" than anything else, though without that phrase; "D" is primarily "The Broken Engagement (II -- We Have Met and We Have Parted)," "E" is a mix of "Old Smokey" and "The Cuckoo," and the "F" fragment may also be "Old Smokey")
  5. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 313-314, "The Cuckoo" (1 short text, with local title "Too Wandering True Loves"; the piece, which begins "A-walking and a-talking and a-courting goes I," never mentions a cuckoo and consists mostly of floating material similar to Randolph's; it could well be an "Inconstant Lover" type but is too short to classify; placed here because Scarborough does)
  6. FSCatskills 34, "A-Walking and A-Talking" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Creighton/Senior, pp. 142-144, "The Cuckoo" (1 text plus 2 fragments, 1 tune)
  8. Karpeles-Newfoundland 85, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. SharpAp 140, "The Cuckoo" (13 texts, 13 tunes)
  10. Sharp-100E 35, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 38, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune -- a composite version)
  12. SHenry H479, pp. 347-348, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  13. Kennedy 148, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  14. MacSeegTrav 57, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. Lomax-FSNA 110, "The Cuckoo"; 111, "The Fourth Day of July" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  16. Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 255-256, "[The Cuckoo She's a Pretty Bird]" (1 text, 1 tune)
  17. Opie-Oxford2 121, "The cuckoo is a merry bird" (2 texts)
  18. Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #475, p. 210, "(The cuckoo is a bonny bird)"
  19. Montgomerie-ScottishNR 18, "(The cuckoo's a bonnie bird)" (1 text)
  20. Flanders/Olney, p. 163, "[Cuathiciag Ghorm]" (1 short text, purporting to be a translation of a Gaelic text of "The Cuckoo")
  21. Scarborough-SongCatcher, p. 69, (no title) (1 fragment, the single floating stanza "I'll build me a cabin On the mountain so high" that is perhaps most typical of this song)
  22. Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 79 "The Coo Coo Bird" (1 text, 1 tune)
  23. Silber-FSWB, p. 164, "The Cuckoo" (1 text)
  25. ADDITIONAL: Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 44, "The Cuckoo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  26. Roud #413
  27. BI, R049


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1769 (Herd)
Found in: Britain(England(South),Scotland(Aber)) US(Ap,MA,NE,SE,So,SW) Canada(Mar,Newf) Ireland