Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Red Rooster

Texts of the songs discussed follow the essay.

Willie Dixon’s song “The Red Rooster,” particularly in Howlin’ Wolf’s version, is a classic blues. Resting on a rich foundation of earlier lyrics, the song is minimal, underdetermined, almost purely allusive, yet its power was sufficient to propel a number of versions to hit status, including covers by Big Mama Thornton, Sam Cooke, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and many others.

The song relates only the most limited information about the rooster, all in the past tense: he was too lazy to crow; nonetheless, he kept the barnyard either productively humming along or “upset in every way.” (Transcriptions and/or performances differ.) His roaming causes dogs to bark. This enigmatic description seems unintelligible, yet the tune has been a hit for a goodly list of artists. The underlying tradition reinforced by extra-textual performance elements constitutes a powerful and eloquent statement of erotic energy and ambivalence.

Old country blues used farmyard imagery with archaic roots, which sometimes persisted in the later amplified music. The broadest stratum underlying the rooster figure is a simple association with fertility and sexuality. Since at least the seventeenth century (perhaps much earlier) the word cock has denoted the male sexual organ. [1] Combined with the rooster’s (conventionally masculine) self-assertion amounting at times to pugnacity, this pure sexuality renders the bird an efficient embodiment of masculine bragging. These characteristics have made the animal a national symbol for Portugal and France as well as a powerful image in Dixon’s song.

From the unashamed boasting in heroic poetry through the erotic gab of medieval France [2] to the general assertion by the hip-hop duo Outkast in "Wailin’" “I use my gift of gab to boast and brag in every line,” ego assertion has frequently been prominent in poetry. Simply claiming the time of the audience or reader is egoistic for every artist. In racist America, when other forms of self-aggrandizement may have eluded many African-Americans, power as a lover remained always available.

Chaucer’s Chantecleer made do with seven wives, but many poultry farmers suggest a ratio of twelve to fifteen hens for every rooster, giving the rooster a harem that might constitute an extravagant fantasy for a human. In “The Red Rooster” the primal power of the male is said to be required to return peace to the barnyard. The hounds cry out like Nature itself in misery during his absence.

In the oldest parallel song, Charley Patton’s “Banty Rooster Blues (1929), the semiotic field associated with the rooster in American blues is established. The rooster is here defined as vigilant, enjoying power over women and the ensuing access to sexual pleasure without making himself vulnerable. The formulation would be shocking were it not shot through with self-reflective doubt and satire.

The details are worth exploring as this text is fundamental to the imagery’s later development. The rooster is, first of all, vigilant. Just as he watches over his hens from a high vantage point and warns of approaching danger, he can do the same for the singer. But ambiguities have already proliferated, concealed by this simple description of a common animal’s behavior. The rooster is posted to the “backdoor,” though the front would be the ordinary approach for a stranger. Just as Dixon sang of the Little Red Rooster, Patton specifies a bantam bird, known for combativeness, sometimes considered comic for its belligerence combined with small stature. The size is a clue to the singer’s undercutting irony.

The man of empty words is then compared to a rooster who does not crow. The singer may be bragging of his superiority to such men. In performing on stage, he is certainly crowing. Still, the persona’s identification with the rooster suggests that he may, at times at least, be unable to deliver on his proud promises.

The next verse turns to the female, comparing a woman who will not do what he, the speaker, says to a hen who does not cackle when she lays. Though this line may not represent a functional agricultural value, the point is clear. The woman is to obey the man. The singer’s point is underscored as the line “What you want with a man, when he won't do nothin’ he say?” is succeeded by “What you want with a woman, when she won’t do nothin’ I say?”

The will to power is so apparent as to be slightly ridiculous. In return for this absolute loyalty he offers nothing whatever, no support or commitment. She can expect to be left with nothing to show for her affair but his portrait on the wall, and inquiries about her vanished lover.

For the moment, however, they can enjoy each other. Sexual contact is here expressed in fishing imagery. Patton’s line seems to be original, but the general area is marked by such classics as Henry Thomas’ exceedingly sophisticated and witty “Fishing Blues” (1928) which expresses through the imagery of angling a delicate complaint to an adulterous man: “I bet your life, your lovin' wife,/ Can catch more fish than you.” In Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” (1941) the singer imagines himself a catfish with his choice of women’s hooks on which to experience his Liebestod. In Patton’s song the fisherman expects a catch due to “the help I got.” This surely seems more to refer to his sexual equipment, analogous to the “hook in the water,” and the “cork on top,” rather than to his aide, the banty, long forgotten in the first stanza. Just as Thomas had assured his interlocutor that “any fish bite, you've got good bait” and Petway never doubted that the ladies would be after him, Patton’s appeal is to nature. How can a natural man fail?

The song concludes with the lover associated with a faithful dog. He knows the dog’s bark, and he recognizes the woman during sexual activity in the dark. Patton has provided the key element in the rooster’s semiotic field only in the last stanza: the promise of ample sexuality, as available as one’s faithful hound.

Succeeding versions added little to the meanings clustered around the rooster theme in the blues. Memphis Minnie’s song “If you see my rooster (please drive him home)” (1936) provides the hen’s perspective in a lament for the wandering rooster. His absence has led to an Arthurian wasteland (no eggs) that can only be resolved through the return of the heroic cock. Margie Day’s 1950 jump version of “Little Red Rooster” adds a more possessive hen’s advice: “clip his wings.” [4]

These earlier songs formed the necessary context in which Willie Dixon’s belated electrified rendition can have meaning. Nearly all Dixon’s lines are derived from antecedent songs, yet his presentation is so elliptical as to puzzle the uninitiated. The rooster is a male ego preening, strutting, and signifying, searching to reconcile his wandering ways with his pursuit of love. The first four lines of Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of Dixon’s song employ Charley Patton’s conceit, but with a new trope. Whereas for Patton the lazy rooster is a negative example of a big talker with no action, he becomes for Dixon a pasha-like bird, enjoying his mastery of his domain. The curiously opposed and alternate hearings of Dixon’s line six balance so nicely that it matters little whether the barnyard is “stirred up” or quietly moving along.

The wailing dogs of Dixon’s next verses likewise derive from Patton’s imagery. In the older song the dog’s bark is associated with the familiar body of the beloved, while in Dixon’s lyric that meaning is turned inside out. For Dixon the dogs are the clue in sound to the rooster’s having left his barnyard domesticity to go “on the prowl.” Their howling is a haunting indeterminate symbol, ominous and potent, still inhabited by traces of the earlier lines. As a soundtrack the dogs express the exciting but dangerous sense of the rooster “on the make.” The final stanza only reemphasizes this drive to reestablish peace using Memphis Minnie’s motif, asking that the rooster be driven home in the general cause of the household’s serenity.

Willie Dixon drew on the earlier popular and folk material as well as the lived experience of a generation recently come to Chicago from Southern farms. Much of his original audience had first-hand experience of the proprietary behavior of roosters toward both females and territory. They appreciated the parallel with human actions, both those which might appear strong, heroic, and protective, and those which might seem laughable. His song is truly intertextual in that it can hardly be understood without reference to the composer’s sources and influences. Its lasting popularity


1. This association has led to the American preference of the word rooster. Related terms for penis include bird, surviving only in the expression “flipping the bird,” pecker, oiseau (or zizi) in French, uccelo in Italian, and countless others. The male chicken meaning of cock was in English reinforced by the “upward tilt” meaning. Oddly, through the adoption of a seventeenth century British usage of cock as a sort of passive obscene verb – “to want cocking, ” “I mean to get cocked.” – the word came to signify the female organ in Afro-American usage.

The bird is conflated with the human face and with the male organ in the priapus gallinaceus in which the erect penis is the nose/beak and the balls are the wattles/cheeks. One of these in the Vatican museum is labeled “savior of the world”).

On the other hand Marija Gimbutas documents the widespread cult of bird-headed goddesses in the Neolithic era. See her The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.
Other animals might be used to similar effect, cf. for instance Slim Harpo’s “King Bee,” or the many songs using snakes and catfish.

2. The “Gab” as a Latent Genre in Medieval French Literature: Drinking and Boasting in the Middle Ages by John L. Grigsby.

4. Written by Edward and James Griffin and performed by Margie Day and the Griffin Brothers.
Other related songs include Taj Mahal’s “Little Red Hen Blue”: “Well the little red hen said to the little red rooster/ Why don't you come 'round here like you used to?” and the anonymous humorous version.

“Oh mister Rooster!” said the little red hen,
“I haven't felt this way, since a god knows when...
but a big gruff voice said this ain't no Rooster.
And the little red hen knew the gander had goosed her.


The Red Rooster/Little Red Rooster, Dixon, performed by Howlin’ Wolf 1961, Big Mama Thornton, performed later by Sam Cooke (with Ray Charles), the Doors, the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Dixon himself

I had a little red rooster
Too lazy to crow ‘fore day
I had a little red rooster
Too lazy to crow 'fore day
He kept ev’rything in the barnyard
Upset in every way (elsewhere recorded as “Eager settin’ a-ready to lay,” (picked up everything in the barnyard/either settled or ready to lay)

You know the dogs begin to bark
And the, the hounds
They begin to howl
You know the dogs they begin to bark
And the, the hounds
They begin to howl
You know my little red rooster’s gone
Know the little red rooster's on the prowl

(harmonica & instrumental)

Now, if you see my little red rooster
Somebody, please drive him home
Now, if you seen my little red rooster
Somebody, ple-eee-ase run ‘em home
There ain’t been no peace in the barnyard
Since my little red rooster been gone.


1929 Banty Rooster Blues Patton

I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my backdoor
I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my backdoor
So when he see a stranger a-comin’, he’ll flap his wings and crow

What you want with a rooster, he won't crow ‘fore day?
What you want with a rooster, he won't crow ‘fore day?
What you want with a man, when he won't do nothin’ he say?

What you want with a hen won’t, cackle when she lays?
What you want with a hen won’t, cackle when she lays?
What you want with a woman, when she won’t do nothin' I say?

Ah, take my picture, hang it up in Jackson wall
Ah, take my picture, hang it up in Jackson wall
Anybody asks you “What about it,” tell 'em “That's all I saw”

My hook’s in the water, and my cork’s on top
My hook’s in the water, and my cork’s on top
How can I lose, Lord, with the help I got

I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark
I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark
I can tell my rider, if I feel her in the dark


1936 If you see my rooster (please drive him home) Memphis Minnie

f you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
If you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
I haven't found no eggs in my basket
Since my rooster been gone

I heard my rooster crowing
This morning just about the break of day
I heard my rooster crowing
This morning just about the break of day

I guess that was the time he was making his getaway
I just found out how come my hens won't lay
I just found out how come my hens won't lay
Every time I look around my rooster have done gone away

Now play it, Bob
Tell me 'bout my rooster

I've got too many hens
For not to have no roosters on my yard
I've got too many hens
For not to have no roosters on my yard
And I don't know what's the matter
Something have done got 'em barred

Now, Bob, if you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
Now, Bob, if you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
I haven't found no eggs in my basket
Since my rooster been gone


jump version 1950 Little Red Rooster Edward and James Griffin Margie Day and the Griffin Brothers

Got a little red rooster and, man, how he can crow! (2x)
He's the boss of the barnyard any old place he goes.

He's a tiny little fella but he sure can strut his stuff, (2x)
And the way he loves me, man, he ain't no bluff.

If you want your red rooster and you want him all alone,
Just keep him off the road where these old hens like to roam,
'Cause your little red rooster may seem...(?),
But as soon as your back's turned, he'll make a fool of you.

If you got a good rooster, better clip his wings.
These old hens will get him and give him diamond rings.
Little red rooster, ain't gonna let him go.
I done clipped his wings; man, he can't fly no mo'.

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