“Cuckoo’s Nest” and the old-time bow shake
“Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of the most mysterious and archaic sounding Bob Walters recordings I’ve heard. It’s also a great example of what I call the “bow shake” ornament. A lot of old-time fiddlers think of this as an Irish thing, but it was actually very common in earlier American fiddle styles and can be heard on many great old recordings.
My source recording is The Champion, used with permission (you can buy the CD here). The Soundcloud clip is at actual speed, with the pitch corrected—key of D, standard tuning. In the video, as usual, I play the tune up to tempo, then slowly. At the end I do my best to give some useful pointers on how to play the tune and do the bow shakes. But the tune has plenty going on and can easily be played without the bow shakes, too. About the video, I have to say I’m really unhappy with the sound quality, and with the balance between voice and fiddle. I’m planning on getting a good USB mic for my next post—promise!
History of the tune & other versions
“Cuckoo’s Nest” is an old and popular tune, with lots of variants, both in North America and across the pond. The Traditional Tune Archive has tons of info about it, and their entry begins with a surprising and somewhat naughty bit of information about the title. Here’s the link, if you’re curious—and after that, how can you resist? Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There’s a common, and fun, festival version I hear a lot, in A. I’m not sure where that one comes from, but please comment if you know. Jane Keefer’s Folk Music Index lists a whopping 70 recorded versions. Before I learned Walters’ version, my favorite was one of Ed Haley’s—there are two different versions on his collected recordings.
Here’s the best version of the tune I could find on video, by Wilson Douglas, from Kim Johnson’s nice collection of music videos on Youtube, used with permission. Kim told me in an email that Douglas learned this directly from Ed Haley, and the similarity is pretty clear, at least in the broad outlines of the tunes. If you’re familiar with Haley’s version, it’s interesting to hear how Douglas has left out a lot of the notes and put in more rhythm: it has more of a groove and backbeat than Haley’s does. Good thing we don’t have to choose, because they’re both stunning.
Back to Bob Walters’ version of the tune. In the liner notes to The Champion, Dwight Lamb describes how “Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of the last tunes he recorded from Bob, after Bob told him that if there were any more tunes he wanted to get, he’d better do it, because he (Bob) was “just about done.” Bob died two weeks after the recording—the one from which I made the slowed down version here—on Christmas day, just after his and his wife Goldie’s 50th wedding anniversary. In a recent email, Dwight’s friend Bill Peterson told me that the tune is one of Dwight’s favorites.
The bow shake
As I mentioned above, the tune uses what I call the “bow shake” ornament very prominently. Some of my old-time fiddler friends have been interested in this lately. If you want to learn how to do it, this is a really good tune to practice on, since the shakes come in such regular places.
The bow shake is surprisingly common in classic old-time fiddle recordings, once you start listening for it. Tommy Jarrell did it a lot, and his dad, Ben, did it even more, judging from the few surviving recordings of him I’ve heard, both the well-known DaCosta Waltz ones and some very lo-fi home recordings I have on cassette somewhere in my garage (sorry, I just can’t face going in there and finding them right now). Here’s a nice discussion on Fiddle Hangout about Tommy’s bow shake, which some people who knew him say he called “catching up the slack.”
The first tune I tried to play that had bow shakes was Lon Jordan’s “Bucksnort.” It’s an interesting one because it uses a four-note shake (up-down-up-down, if you start on the down bow) rather than the more common three-note one (down-up-down) that you hear in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Slippery Hill now has an Arkansas Fiddle page with some Lon Jordan tunes, but not “Bucksnort,” unfortunately.
There are also lots of bow shakes in J. W. Day’s recordings—“Martha Campbell,” “Forked Deer,” and “Hell and Scissors”—and in those of many other archaic fiddlers. But it’s the kind of thing where, if your ears aren’t already open to it, you might not hear it. And with some old recordings, like J. W. Day’s, the bad recording quality can obscure the bow shakes.
Hardly any younger old-time fiddlers seem to attempt the bow shake these days. Many seem to think of it as the exclusive territory of Irish fiddlers. But why should the Irish fiddlers have all the fun?
The Irish fiddle websites I’ve looked at call the bow shake a “bowed triplet,” although maybe some of you out there who know more about it can post a comment and expand on that. In the narration of R. P. Christeson’s recordings of Bob Walters, Christeson says it took him a long time to see how Bob was doing his bow shakes, and it proved to him that “the hand is quicker than the eye.” Christeson was classically trained, and he calls the ornament “32nd notes.” But I think that’s very misleading. It puts a mathematical grid over something that’s actually much more mysterious. It’s just as bad as saying the old-time shuffle rhythm is an eighth note followed by two sixteenths. The reality is so much weirder and more complex, and fiddlers’ shuffle rhythms vary widely. It’s one of my pet peeves, can you tell? But that’s a subject for a different post.
I’ve been working on my bow shake for a long time. You just have to start practicing it, no matter how feeble it sounds at first, and then wait for it to come together. For me, it’s taken years, and I’m still working on it. The best way to do it is simply to pick a tune that has bow shakes and play it often. Mine was Walters’ “Thunderbolt Hornpipe.” But even after all these years, my bow shake still can’t compare to Bob Walters’. His happens so fast that it’s over before you even know it’s started. Even on the slowed down recording, his bow shakes seem faster than my up-to-speed ones in the video! But at least I’ve gotten so that most of the time I can do it without breaking time or bringing the tune to a crashing halt.
To me, the key thing is to finish on the beat. Don’t worry about where it starts. Think about the end, not the beginning (sounds a bit new-agey, doesn’t it?). The temptation is to start too early, and then you lose time and jump ahead. But it doesn’t take as long as you think it will. You have to keep your eye on the next strong downbeat after the shake and think of that as your landing spot. It also helps to be holding your bow so that your wrist can’t move very much, or to briefly tighten up and restrict your wrist movement so it only has a little bit of play. I check my bow shakes with a metronome from time to time, and I often find I’m rushing into the next downbeat after the shake.
I remember watching an instructional video by the legendary Irish fiddler Kevin Burke where he teaches the Irish version of this technique and shows how he puts pressure on the bow as he does it, which gives it that nice percussive “scritch” you hear in Irish fiddling. But I don’t hear that sound at all when any of the old American fiddlers do it, including Bob Walters. Their version of the bow shake seems much lighter and more relaxed, so I don’t press down on the bow when I do it. In a way, I guess I actually lighten the pressure. My goal is for people to hardly notice it. It shouldn’t jump out, or make all the other musicians go “What the . . . ?” when you’re playing in a session. Maybe someday I’ll get there.
Good luck! I hope you like the tune. Remember, it’s perfectly alright to play it without the bow shakes.