Doc lifts his banjo, clears his throat and thumbs a ringing chord. Next moment his right hand is flying, claw-hammer style across the strings. ‘The cuckoo,’ he sings, ‘is a pretty bird’…
Doc’s seen plenty in his time. His country has been at war with others and with itself. People against people, and against the world. He’s known famines brought by nature, and poverty brought by greed. He’ll take this bird thing in his stride. Come what may. Come what may. Doc’s banjo does his talking, with the lyric an extension of the humble slap and twang. He can’t sing without the instrument – comes out wrong. Though the words flow automatically with the strumming, he notices enough meaning in between delivering the lines, to chuckle to himself.
Come what may. Come what may.
The cuckoo song is old English. It tells a shifting story. It’s that elusiveness, maybe, allowed it to travel, and be reinvented, so many times in so many ways. But for Doc it goes no further back than the uncle who taught it to him one warm afternoon, when the crops were in, and the family had gathered to celebrate. Young Doc half forgot it, too, after that, then re-found it, so this version is his alone.
The bird of the song – the cuckoo – is both loved and reviled. Its call is the sound of the European forest, and said to be the first birdsong of spring. But it forces others to nest for it. As a species it achieves survival at the expense of others. Life’s a strange beast. Winners and losers. Come what may. ‘…I’ll bet you five dollars,’ sings Doc, ‘I’ll beat you next game…’
Doc finishes with an upstroke on a minor chord. His audience is the hedgerow. His roadside is dusty. Sun’s going down slow. He’s a long way from where the worst of the crisis is unfolding.