little red rooster

Willie Dixon

Lyrics written and sung by traditional bluesmen have often tried to mimic the sound of farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens. For example, Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson accurately copied the braying of mules in his 1928 recording of “Wild Jack Blues.” Lightnin’ Hopkins sings about talking to a cow in “Tom Moore’s Blues.” Other traditional blues players used harmonicas to mimic the sounds of different farm animals. Blues song writers and performers, such as Willie Dixon (1915-92), grew up on Southern farms and were surrounded by such animals. Dixon is often referred to as the “poet of the blues.”

It is only natural, then, that these budding artists noticed the sounds and behavior of their feathered and cloven-hooved friends, later incorporating the same into their music. In fact, one of Dixon’s greatest creations was “The Little Red Rooster,” first recorded by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song about a barnyard rooster gained an instant following, especially after covers were later recorded by Sam Cooke (1931-64) and the British rock band The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ lyrics, somewhat different from the original, go like this:   

“I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day
I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way

The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster’s on the prowl.”

A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded “Little Red Rooster.” Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. Some critics claim the song is the most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan” while more objective analysts see it as an innocuous farm ditty. Dixon himself said, rather sarcastically: “I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!”

American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more up-tempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas, points out Wikipedia. That particular tour was a major impetus for the British Invasion which soon followed.

The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded “Little Red Rooster” with original member Brian Jones, a blues purist and a key player in the recording. “Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke’s, became a number one hit record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to ever reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. ‘Little Red Rooster’ continues to be performed and recorded by a variety of artists, making it one of Willie Dixon’s best-known compositions,” opines

Interpretations notwithstanding, the above comments beg the question of whether white people can authentically sing and/or play the blues invented and perfected by African Americans. Muddy Waters once famously said that whites can play the blues but cannot sing them. A June 1999 article in the Independent entitled: “Music: White Men Sing the Blues” asked the question of whether white bands like the Rolling Stones could actually sing the blues like black singers. “Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones’ artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as ‘the world’s only blue gum [very dark skinned black man] white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake’. Brian Jones also initially called himself ‘Elmo Lewis’, an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.”

Unfortunately, the blues-loving founder of the Rolling Stones drowned in a swimming pool incident in 1969. After his death, the Rolling Stones became less bluesy and more focused on rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger, then comfortably ensconced as lead singer of the group, realized he needed to become more visual and active during stage performances. He needed a dance that would make him appear more African-American like. So Jagger studied the dance moves of the incredibly athletic James Brown in order to perfect his own version of the funky chicken. He also copied the moves of Ike and Tina Turner, in an attempt to become a white singer with black moves.

By doing so, Jagger succeeded in becoming an international sex symbol, but some observers remained unimpressed. Ike Turner said that Jagger “could not sing” and Truman Capote deduced that Jagger’s performances were “about as sexy as a pissing toad.” Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones are still rocking and making millions onstage despite being grandfathers and senior citizens. According to the magazine named after the Rolling Stones, they are the second-longest running rock band (without a break) after U-2, an Irish rock band named after an Irish unemployment form.

The Rolling Stones sing “Little Red Rooster”

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