Today, S.A. brings us the chicken playlist we never knew we needed (until now!) and takes us on a rollicking ride through the history of the term and its ties to blues music (and more!). Tune in.
Where to begin with this prehistoric prince, the loud and disoriented and long-consumed chicken? In contemporary parlance, being “chicken” is akin to being neurotic, cowardly or wracked with anxiety (see, for example, the Magnetic Fields’ apt “Chicken With Its Head Cut Off ). In the past, the figure of the hen connoted an old maid, where “old hen cackle” manifests an ageing woman with a fringe-hysterical, hacking cough. Chicken can’t escape the delicious, fleshy innuendo held also by “pigmeat,” where a “big fat mama with her meat hanging off the bone” isn’t far from Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” battle cry, “yeah, I got a big fat ass, come on!”
The chicken actually still looms large in popular music—Redman has a memorable skit, “Chicken Head Convention,” on his 1996 album Muddy Waters (a throwback to the blues great and, really, the blues history of chicken songs), and Minaj raps “don’t fuck with them chickens / unless they last name’s cutlet” on her latest hit, “Only.” In the fifth grade, I slapped a boy for yelling “all girls are chickenheads!” during group work, figuring that my female teacher would understand (she didn’t). “Chickenhead” is almost as diffuse as “chicken,” connoting anything from a woman giving oral sex to a woman who’ll fall for anything, head bobbing up and down in either case. If this sounds gross, that’s because it is—calling a woman a “chicken” or “hen,” changing flesh for flesh and brain for bulk, is historically and contemporaneously icky. Singing about chickens and hens almost requires a man to loll and swagger, “shooing that chicken” like “balling the jack.”
But the chicken is also notoriously slippery, and not always feminine. I think, first, of my favorite line from Clifford Geertz’s essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (published in his seminal Interpretation of Cultures), which plays “cock” against “cock” and the bloody chicken fight against the mutable male psyche:
In identifying with his cock, the Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and, ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by—“The Powers of Darkness.”
The Powers of Darkness! The deep-seated masculine anxiety and the cock-pointing death drive! Roosters were actually bred, originally, for cockfighting—it wasn’t until much later that they were embraced as, among other things, the national emblem of comfort food, fried, baked, or stewed.
Cock as erection and potentiate violence is writ large on these tunes: Chicken-king Hasil Adkins’ “Chicken Walk,” covered here by the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Hubby Jenkins and New York musician Jessy Carolina as the Square Struts, hones in on the chicken’s quivering walk with the sexy, delirious imperative to “push in and push out.” Bo Carter—for food innuendo, there’s nobody better—sings an evocative and disorienting “Shoo That Bird,” where chicken is a rooster is a cock, plain and simple:
Yeh, Shoo that chicken off your leg,
He gonna spoil up ya shortnin’ bread—
All I want is my lovin’ at night.
In the cloying “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon,” Frank Stokes brags that he can “steal a chicken from anywhere,” but the chicken slips often into the masculine pronoun, “he don’t roost to high for me.” And of course, my favorite—Algia Mae Hinton, an admirable buck-dancer and masterful blueswoman—blows the whole thing open, singing some next-level chicken ontology with death displaced: “When you kill the chicken, save me the head.”
Chicken has a long-standing home in the American imaginary, and as with most “old-time” American songs, its musical roots are of the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon, Bo Carter, and Peg Leg Howell all engage with the vaudeville, minstrel, hokum, and medicine show circuits directly, while Stovepipe No. 1, Eck Robertson, and the Tune Wranglers were absolutely inured in the melodies and lyrical fragments of the genres. Hokum—joke blues, “nonsense,” performed by Stokes, Cannon, Carter, Howell—is rife with innuendo, performed by black musicians as a riff off of the slapstick racism of the 19th century minstrel show. Dom Flemons did some excellent research and graceful analytic legwork on Canon’s subversive tune, “Can You Blame the Colored Man,” for the Oxford American, which starts to get at the many-stranded texture of American sound:
“In his music I heard minstrelsy, but I could also hear a novel, legitimate black art form developed from minstrel roots. And not only that. Cannon’s music was linked to both popular music and traditional blues and folk—he played country songs, he played popular songs, and he incorporated traditional music into his repertoire before there were any copyright or industry standards for codifying song ownership. He played what he liked, it seems, though that’s not to suggest that he wasn’t influenced by a popular demand for minstrelsy entertainment. He was a professional musician, after all.”
Fitting, in a multitudinous genre of riffs and agential repetitions, that the fleshy and mutable chicken looms large.
Where Cannon’s “tired of chicken…tired of steak,” Peg Leg Howell absents the “turkey buzzard” from the narrative completely, filling the sexual scavenging role, implicitly, himself. “Turkey Buzzard Blues,” sung to the old minstrel tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” ties itself together with “sugar in the gourd,” a reference to the custom of hanging sugar-filled gourds around a dance floor to smooth the floor with its rough texture, to sex (think of Bessie Smith’s infamous “I Need A Little Sugar in my Bowl”) and to the drinking gourd, the folkloric symbol for the North Star and symbolic stretch towards freedom.
Over at the Smithsonian Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler give a compelling intersectional history of the chicken, with a taste of its mythical status as “the mascot of globalization,” the “worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility,” and “a universal signifier for virility—but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, a benign spirit that crowed at dawn to herald a turning point in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light.” “The rooster plays a small but crucial role,” they remind us, “in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” In Eck Robertson’s standard “Hawk Got the Chicken,” chicken is Icarus potentiate, the stuff of myth, boy-steals-girl and both are imperiled, another great American love story.
Run, old man, and get your gun
The hawk’s got a chicken and he’s on the run—
Hawked his wings and he batted his eyes
And carried that chicken to the sky.
Long live the chicken, the chicken sees!
*Special thanks to Dave Rogers (or, as we call him over at WTJU-FM, Professor Bebop), for his help with this and the forthcoming C-H-I-C-K-E-N playlist.