Friday, February 10, 2006
Taxonomies of Fowl Music: A Preliminary Foray

Slim Gaillard
Clef : 1951
Available on Laughing in Rhythm
[Buy It]

The Meters
Sundazed : 1970
[Buy It]

This is the story of a quest, one that began as a whisper, a rumor, an overheard remark I've been unable to trace: "The origin of funk is the chicken." Implying, I gathered at once, both the dancer's act of imitating a chicken's walk, and the guitarist's replication of the barnyard fowl's characteristic claw-scratch and gullet-cackle. Was it George Clinton who said it? Sly Stone? Jimmy Nolen? Jimmy 'JJ' Walker? Likely much too modest an aside to credit to James Brown, who'd have claimed to have inspired the chicken. Wherever I'd gleaned it, google hasn't helped me reinstate the source of the epiphany, though I'm certain I didn't concoct it in dreams. For years it merely lurked, a curiosity in musicological imagination - accruing stickiness when a reissue landed Slim Gaillard's "Chicken Rhythm" in my iPod (almost wrote 'I myPod', which sounds like a novel by Isaac Asimov) and a fortuitous shuffle placed it back-to-back with The Meters' "Chicken Strut". Here was due homage: musicians calling to their masters, a music gone pecking backwards in search of its own native source. You'd hardly wish to referee the contest between these chicken imitators, each so gleeful, each so scrupulous, so committed, so fowl. Gaillard's track features, like "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream", a stifled laugh (and recall, from "Tombstone Blues": "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken"). Slim Gaillard, the clown prince of jazz after Louis "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" Jordan, was widely known for his invention of Vout, a nonsensical alternate jazz language no more intelligible than a chicken's palaver to human ears. Less well known is that Gaillard, long after his musical heydey, played one of the extra apes in the original "Planet of the Apes" (hey, like the clown sweeping up after the elephants said, 'at least I'm in show business') and, when the hours grew long and the ape suits hot, spearheaded a true-life revolt against ape on-set conditions, demanding longer breaks and better-ventilated costumes. You could look it up. Another anecdote, even more poignant and, for that matter, even faintly germane to this inquiry into the great chicken-music lineage: when Gaillard was dying, alone and unknown in a Los Angeles hospital, rushing to his bedside to pay an acolyte's homage was none other than George Clinton.

Clarence Samuels
Excello : 1956
[Buy It]

Sly and the Family Stone
Epic : 1968
[Buy It]

What had been a trickle, an inkling, a scratch at the door, became an smashed levee of feathers as I began to consider the conspiracy's extent, hidden in plain hearing: The Fame Gang's "Keep My Chicken Loose", James Brown's "The Chicken", The Chilli Peppers "Chicken Scratch"The Handicappers "What It Is (Pyschedelic Chicken)", Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Chicken Pox" and of course Rufus Thomas' "Do The Funky Chicken" (easily the commonest denominator of fowl music, Thomas's song stands in relation to its genre as Star Wars does to science fiction - somehow seminal without being important, or vice versa). Literally countless are the variants of chicken-walking, chicken-twanging, fowl-indebted proto-funk. To assemble just those who wear their chicken on their sleeves, or in the titles of their songs, was merely to scratch the surface: The pocca-pocca is the pledge of allegiance of the nation under the groove, a groove which may in fact have been carved by a claw in dust. (And the one time I had the privilege of breaking bread with James Brown, we ate chicken.) Clarence Samuels' "Chicken Hearted Woman" is remarkable for its elucidation of the close bond between hen-cackling guitars and the wailing Delta blues stylings which gave rise to Clapton, Page and Beck - the stretch is not so far from Samuels' licks to, say, the Yardbirds. His lyrics decry perhaps the most wholly negative image of chickenhood in all of fowl music, climaxing in the memorable: "I tried to change you - tried to get that chicken out your blood!" No such luck - as anyone with so much poultry in his sonic attack ought to sensibly grasp, once the chicken gets in your blood, it's there to stay. Sly Stone, typically, expresses no diffidence in his own gloss on interspecies convergence. He mocks the chicken. He will make love to the chicken. He is the chicken. He can no longer tell the difference.

La Face : 2003
[Buy It]

Barry Jones
Backbeat : 1970
[Buy It]

Swamp Dogg
Available on: Swamp Thing: The Complete Calla Recordings 1966-1967
[Buy It]

Cibo Matto
Viva La Woman
WEA : 1996
[Buy It]

No need to belabor the obvious: Outkast's "Rooster" is simply the manifest, unembarrassed capstone to a tradition. But what had seemed a pure inquiry into 'chicken music' took a swerve - when exactly, I can no longer say - when other fowl strutted and waddled into my viewfinder. The onset of the turkey and geese signaled a deepening beyond the relatively blithe birds of yore, to the fat-bottomed, aggressive species of the late sixties and beyond. Geese, as Swamp Dogg evidences, are a degree or three more strident than chickens. In "Eat The Goose" the ramshackle soul auteur otherwise known as Jerry Williams causes us to ponder the specter of a Dogg eaten by a goose (and this from a fellow whose album art once depicted him bestride a rat). Other examples of goosedom, more than space allows herein, reveal this same tendency to 'heavyosity', like Little Mack's "Goose Walk", a low-down and sneaky instrumental, with exhortations to the dancer from not only the singer but also his sultry girlfriend. And Hot Chocolate's "Good For the Gander" (not the same Hot Chocolate of "You Sexy Thing", nope), from the revelatory Chains & Black Exhaust anthology of a year or two ago, is a slice of psychedelic soul that veers closer to Jimi Hendrix than to a Norman Whitfield production for Motown. And speaking of frontality (have I done that?), Barry Jones' "Turkey Walk" dares to take the chicken head-on, and merrily survives. Cibo Matto chimes in with an internationalist perspective, a banner any fowl music enthusiast must consent to fly beneath: Know Your Chicken....

(Continued here....)

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Jonathan Lethem is the author of The Fortress of Soitude, a novel, and The Disappointment Artist, a collection of essays. He lives in Brooklyn and Maine.

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