Even vegetarians can appreciate good chicken metaphors. In early Blues, R&B, and rock and roll, Gallus gallus domesticus proved a pliable and versatile stand-in for limber legs, funky dance moves, cowardly lovers, and sexual positions. A partial list of chicken-themed songs would include Link Wray’s legendary “Run Chicken Run,” Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Henny Penny Blues,” and Andre Williams’s “The Greasy Chicken.” Taken alone, the titles are amusing, but below their plucked skin lies evidence of the hardscrabble, rural world in which these songs were written.
The South—birthplace of Blues and rock and roll—remained largely rural during the early twentieth century. People kept livestock and gardens. Bluesmen often worked on farms, and many musicians who later built careers in big cities grew up in the country. Naturally, agrarian elements appeared in their art. Biscuits, boll weevils, and tar paper shacks all make appearances, yet few motifs seem as widespread as the lowly chicken. Chickens are cheap and easy to raise. They produce both eggs and meat. Their appearance and personality lend themselves to parody and comic representation, generating such familiar phrases as “don’t be a chicken,” a reputation captured in Roy Orbison’s “Chicken-Hearted.”
Also, the bird’s signature strut resembles human dance. “Come on baby, do a chicken, chicken walk,” sang Hasil Adkins in his classic 1956 rockabilly clucker “Chicken Walk.” Still, one can’t help but wonder why hogs didn’t enjoy equal musical popularity. Mid-century rural Southerners kept hogs in great number, and they seem easy to caricature. Why no “Hog Jowl Blues?” And why no vegetable-themed songs, maybe a “Shucked-Bean Boogie?” With the ubiquity of health-food options today, I can imagine a modern urban analog might be “Mock Chicken Blues” by The Vegan Soy Stompers.
Aaron Gilbreath has written about food, music, and culture for many publications, including Men’s Journal, the Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, and Gettysburg Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon.