One very great thing about crafting a “sonic zoo” of old-time Americana is the unpredictable ways that animal songs flit between hyper-realism, innuendo, religiosity, and symbology—so convoluted that you can’t even begin to pull the song apart. O what a tangled web we weave:
To the first, I think of “Fox Chase.” Of the endless variations of the song, it’s performed on “Sonic Zoo, Volume 2” by Neal Pattman in 1977 in Georgia for field recorder, fiddler, and painter Art Rosenbaum. Often (maybe always?) performed with harmonica and accompanied by the yelps and hollers of the selfsame player, “Fox Chase” mimics, directly, the sounds of the hunt. Same to the cattle call, a loping yodel meta-narrated by the artist, Eddy Arnold calling his cattle and then crooning a commentary on his calls, and to Jean Ritchie’s “Old Woman and Pig,” a delightfully self-explanatory and quietly sad story of the life and death of an old woman, her husband, and her little pig to the tune of Ritchie’s Appalachian dulcimer.
The more I listen to these songs, actually, the less I can mark the division between literalization and slant-speak. “I’m A Bear In A Lady’s Boudoir,” by Cliff Edwards—AKA Ukulele Ike, AKA Jimmeny Cricket(!)—is full-on tongue-in-cheek innuendo, but Charley Patton’s “Mean Black Cat Blues,” a paranoid cheating song with cat-as-Other Man, resonates as an actual cat, conjured and creeping around Patton’s Bed. “Honeyboy” Edwards’ “Catfish Blues” is definitely about vaginas, Victoria Spivey’s “Black Snake Blues” definitely, definitely about a penis, but what could anyone possibly do with Rev. J.M. Milton’s “The Black Camel of Death?”
Rev. F.N. McGee’s “Lion Of The Tribe of Judah” and the Goergia Sea Island Singers’ “Sheep, Sheep Don’t You Know The Road” are both very funky prewar (in the case of the Singers, prewar-styled) gospel tunes where sheep and lions refer specifically to biblical stories, but then there’s “Sea Lion Woman,” a children’s game song performed by teenagers Christine and Katharine Shipp for Alan Lomax in 1939, harkening to the “sea-linin’” women—prostitutes—who stood in line at the docks waiting for sailors. Through years of modulating teenage hand-claps, the song morphed from “Sea Line” / “See-line” / “Sealine” to “Sea lion.” Through the recording his, “she lyin’” comes through, too. So how do you place it? What about my favorite, Helen Humes’ “Alligator Blues,” where she’s the “dark meat” in the swamp that the “alligators” are after?
For your listening pleasure, this zoo features: cow, regular dove, turtle dove, regular fish, catfish, regular bear, bearcat (I do think Gene Autry’s singing about this beast), tiger (rag), fox (chase), hyena, monkey, sheep, pig, grey eagle, rabbit, regular lion, sea lion, horse, panther, alligator, black snake :0, catfish, mean black cat, the grey goose, and, of course, the black camel of death. In the immortal words of Big Mama Thornton, “ain’t nothin’ you can do when something’s wrong with your chicken, baby.” Take these as you will.
If you dig it, check out Sonic Zoo, Volume 1