Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” can work like a plug-and-play template. It’s a proven framework for creating tension and resolving conflict with plenty of main character development along the way. The artistic world is full of similar structures – one of my alternate favorites is a folk song format called “The Cuckoo.”
Learning to spot any template is learning to see the bones behind proven structures. If you’re telling a story of growth and development in the face of adversity, the hero’s journey is super useful. If you’re creating a feeling of life, love, and loss in the face of nature, the cuckoo has you covered.
There’s 100s of versions of this song. HUNDREDS. All variations, no one standard. And at their core, the formatting rhymes. Here’s a deeper look at the three primary sections:
The song starts with (or at least contains somewhere) a description of the cuckoo, as in the bird. It’s pretty to look at, it sings as it flies, and it marks the time in the year when it shows up.
It continues with a perspectived tale of love. Mainly, the inconsistency of lovers and the heartache that ensues. Sometimes in small stories, sometimes in longer stories – the key is how the singer/author moves through love found and love lost.
It ends with a cautionary note. Often about choosing lovers. Almost always with hinting at seasonality within life.
What I obsess over when I listen to different versions is the lack of clear narrative structure like you have in the hero’s journey. It’s a template for variation, more focused on mood. I like the reminder of forms with feelings-driven variations.
In Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s version, he talks about a gambler who builds a log cabin on the top of a mountain. He’s built the house to propose to his love when she eventually walks by. The things we build in honor of hope, the risks we take as humans.
Clarence Ashley has a similar version, again gambling and building the cabin to fetch his love’s attention. But the emphasis is heavy on the gambling. It’s all risk, with some wins sprinkled in across the inevitable losses. The song’s bookended by the reliability of the bird.
Buck 65 has a more modern mashup of the coo coo against his song “Wicked and Weird.” The song is stream-of-consciousness style, about being on the road with his dog. He hints at how the dish ran away with some other spoon, and how little changes with the passage of time.
Can you use the cuckoo for businessy LinkedIn posts? Probably not. But – can you practice spotting the bones of structures when you listen to three different versions of this? I think you can.
Ps. there are more structures than hero’s journeys. Look around. You might see cuckoos everywhere too.
Pss. Cuckoo and cuckold – I bet a lot of people don’t know the relationship between the words (I wouldn’t have it weren’t for the song)
Pss. Beyond bird-structures, think of the formats of reality TV as another example of this. There are cuckoos everywhere (check out this Cursed Knowledge podcast, “#2: The Narrative of Reality TV”