Of Cocks and Curry: Life on the Farm

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Uncategorized
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The following are excerpts from a paper “Shadow Farm: Animal Cruelty as Allegory in the Music of Shadow” that I presented at the annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association in Barbados, 2010. They have been edited slightly to be presented together here.

…One of Shadow’s chief concerns is the question of intelligences other than humanity’s. Numerous songs about spirits, extraterrestrials, robots and computers punctuate Shadow’s oeuvre and stand out as some of his most popular Calypsos, especially among the cultish horde of Shadow fans who feel rightly that they are privy to a body of secret knowledge that goes entirely missed on the dance floor of the Carnival fete. Shadow’s favourite tactic in his conjuring of exogenic intelligences is to employ a role reversal between humans and those other beings, be they jumbies, space aliens, sentient machines and, in one infamous Calypso, Shadow’s own reflection in a mirror. Humanity itself is critiqued through many such mirrors provided by these alternative intelligences of Shadow’s. And often we humans find ourselves stripped bare and laid low beside the piled tissues of our conceits.

Here we might consider one of the most beloved categories in Shadow’s aforementioned arsenal of exogenous consciousnesses: animals, and the dark glass they hold up to humanity’s idea of itself and its place in nature.

Shadow has many Calypsos on the topic of animals, including “Story of Life” (1973 and 1976) as previously explored, “Animal Kingdom” (1975), “Evolution” parts I and II (1979), “Frisco Donkey” (1984), “Donkey Days” (2000), “Hop Rabbit” (2000), and the popular 1980 single, “Cook, Curry and Crow” (1980).

Many of these songs feature sentient and even talking animals, usually serving some kind of allegorical function. Few present more symbolic levels than “Cook, Curry and Crow.”

Cook, Curry and Crow

One day on de farmer’s farm,

I heard de farmer’s hen.

I was standing very calm

And then I listen again.

 

I heard de farmer’s hen

Rapping to de farmer’s cock.

She was talking English then,

And I was very shocked.

 

She shouted:

Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock,

Me lay, me lay!

De cock on de farm,

Demonstrating he charm.

De hen in alarm,

But he don’t care a damn.

 

(Chorus)

Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock,

Me lay, me lay!

De farmer run out,

Searchin’ for de nest.

De cock shouted out

Loud in protest:

Cook curry okro!

Cook curry okro!

 

A cock on de farmer’s farm,

Is really a king.

He would crow when de clock alarm

Time to eat something.

And when he done swallow down some corn

He look for a hen,

And when he done do de confusion

She bawlin’ again:

 

Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock,

Me lay, me lay!

De cock on de farm,

Demonstrating he charm.

De hen in alarm,

But he don’t care a damn.

 

(Chorus)

 

Life on de farmer’s farm

Is very interesting,

A preview of nature’s charm,

A wonderful thing.

De animals running free

All over de land,

But when de farmer get hungry,

Dat’s de confusion.

 

Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock,

Me lay, me lay!

De farmer run out

with a big set of fuss

De cock start to cuss:

“Ah wish de egg bust!”

 

Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock,

Me lay, me lay!

(Yuh know) she now lay de egg,

You want it to eat,

Yuh nose like a peg,

It should mash up yuh teeth!

Cook curry okro!

Cook curry okro!

 

With a sweet piano melody that sounds like it was composed to accompany a nursery rhyme, this Calypso is deceptively simple and amusing.[i] Shadow describes the farm as a “preview” of nature’s design, that is, a microcosm of nature’s topography, and power and gender relations. His characterisation of this setup as possessing some “charm” is not just an opportunistic rhyme with the previous line but seems a sardonic comment about the general approval with which the farm’s arrangement is met in our society. But in the end, the farm is a contained microcosm, where the animals only feel like they are free, where the cock thinks himself “a king,” until the farmer has to eat!

Then, the confinement of the farm becomes very evident, and its hierarchy looms in high relief.

In fact the cock is a puppet king under a greater emperor, eating manufactured food from the farmer’s store. The hen is a reproductive conveyer belt, powerless to protect or conceal her brood. Shadow turns her cackling into an automatic, involuntary (slavish) declaration of her fertility with a clever reverse onomatopoeia: “Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock, me lay, me lay! The cock’s and hen’s would-be progeny, in the form of freshly laid eggs, go directly into the farmer’s frying pan.

The chance of hatching some and losing some, the game of probability familiar to birds out in nature, are reduced to fateful certainty on “de farmer’s farm.” As the farmer comes for another egg, the cock first seems to advocate that the farmer eat vegetables (i.e., okra) instead, crowing in the same reversed onomatopoeic language as the hen “Cook curry okro!” (which differs from the song’s title “Cook, Curry and Crow”). But eventually the cock is reduced to impotence, unable to stop his overlord. Frustrated, he heaps insults and curses on the egg-thieving farmer “it should mash up yuh teeth!”

The parallels between Shadow’s farm and George Orwell’s are striking. But the animals on Shadow’s farm are relatively powerless to overthrow their oppressor as do the ones in the Orwellian tale. Shadow’s animals will not expel the farmer, set up a “banana republic” and begin re-inscribing the oppressive patterns of the previous despot. On Shadow’s farm, the animals already re-enact the farmer’s vices as the cock struts around like a king, dominating the hens on a bellyful of farmer’s corn.

Likewise, the farmer can come and take what he wants, when he wants from either cock or hen. He can seize eggs, or worse. The animals are powerless against him, not only because they have fewer resources at their disposal than does the farmer, but because they eat from the farmer’s hand and are thus cooped on multiple levels. The farmer’s animals are dependant upon him, and their culture mirrors that of their master. They know of no life beyond the farm, as they have been born and bred there at the farmer’s discretion. They might not even grasp the depth of their own misery, but by the end of the song, the poultry are beginning to suspect that as Orwell’s farm animals protest “nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings.”[ii]

Shadow’s animals can do nothing but complain, a more hopeless situation than Orwell’s, and a situation known from slave narratives throughout the colonial Americas. The cock and the hen both protest their treatment, but they present no united front against the farmer. And even if the cock began “giv[ing] a damn” about the hen, and they successfully rallied the other farm animals to resist the farmer, what then would they do? Orwell has already shown us the problems that ensue after an angry rebellion. The animals factionalise, a group of them become nobles, and the pigs become dictators…

 

The identification of the flexing dominator as “the enemy” and the advocacy of his overthrow is a timeless theme in poetry, song, epics, prose and even scripture. “Remove Man from the scene,” declares Orwell’s Major “and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.”[iii] In Animal Farm we see that the abolishment of Man and his institutions does not entirely abolish his vices, as pigs rise to the position of men in the Orwellian classic and become as abusive as any clever, avaricious biped. The same trajectory has been borne out by a series of African, Latin American and Asian dictators (from Pinochet to Hussein to Amin to Marcos), bent on seizing property and controlling their citizens and/or neighbours internally and regionally in much the same way as the condescending Monroe Doctrines, Roosevelt Corollaries, and overall ‘white man’s burdens’ might dictate externally. The liberators often become the new oppressors.

Unlike Orwell’s revolutionary zoomorphs, Shadow’s farm animals must know on some level that their enemy is also their benefactor. No animal here will overthrow the farmer and then become a despot just like him, as in Orwell’s prescient tale, and the 20th century history upon which the Orwellian parable keenly comments. Instead Shadow’s vision comes to a farm in which the cock’s despotism is already established over the hens, but with the farmer’s unspoken consent, often rescinded by farmer’s fiat.

Shadow’s dystopic farm is more like the dark reality portrayed in American 1970s blaxploitation films or 1990s Hip Hop in which pimps rule over “ho’s” and the architecturally contained urban environments they survey, even as those same pimps can suddenly find themselves seized, beaten, jailed, raped or killed by police. The cock on Shadow’s farm is a mirror or “preview” of his own master. The oppressed male oppresses ‘his’ own female. If anything, the hens must throw both cock and farmer off. But like so many abused females they are complicit in their own exploitation out of codependence, fear and force of habit (the one in Singing Francine’s “Run Away” [1978] is a classic example, to whom Francine sings, appropriately enough for us here, that even “fowl does run away” when men treat them bad). But Shadow’s fowls don’t run away. As soon as the hens lay an egg, they announce it to their captors, “Cock, cock, cock, cock, cock, me lay, me lay!”

We might point to any number of parallels between the situation on Shadow’s farm and the oppressive microcosm known as “the ghetto,” that infamous subdivision of the “urban jungle.” But as with other Shadow concepts, we make people uncomfortable. This time the discomfort comes from what Marjorie Spiegel calls “The Dreaded Comparison” in her book of the same name.

People bristle at the perceived comparison between the abusive treatment of livestock and the abuse of human slaves and other under-classes. “People are not animals!” they declare, sometimes with mock, rhetorical outrage. But in fact, the comparison is not between the victims. It is between the abusers.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we say “what is joke to school children is death to crapaud (toad)” but in the United States, police begin observing children (usually young boys) who have a reported history of torturing animals. The reason is that serial killers sometimes start their careers by torturing animals, from which they move on to people. The pleasure (i.e., schadenfreude) they take in their cruelty to helpless animals is later simulated and heightened on confined and/or restrained (and usually female) human victims. The inability to identify with others is the seed of true criminality and the enjoyment of the suffering of others is its first flower.

Shadow beckons us to our own humanity by bidding us to consider the plight of others.

An important question is whether we consider animals to be qualified “others.” Philosophers have long struggled with the parity between the cruelty to animals and cruelty to people. Immanuel Kant famously declared “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” In many modern cultures, the fact that we are not always required by law to treat animals with kindness makes it so that the way we treat animals, despite this, is an indication of our character. In the same way, if slaves are not recognised as qualified others and their owners are not required by law to treat them humanely, slave owners might elect to do so anyway or not do so. The laws change, but the human qualities of compassion and cruelty are more perennial.

Is it ridiculous to read into farm life as animal cruelty?—especially since neither Kant nor Shadow are famous vegetarians, and some farmers claim to take every possible pain to slaughter their animals “humanely.” But by the end of “Cook, Curry and Crow,” the cock confronts the farmer, albeit with ineffectual protestations. In a final, tragic, impotent curse, the cock shouts “Ah wish de egg bust!” The desperate hope that one’s own offspring should die or never be born rather than be the possession of the farmer is familiar to anyone who has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and any number of slave narratives.

This jokey song with the chicken noises becomes more and more unsettling. When last did you feel so ‘funny’ listening to a Calypso? Many a Calypso has raised goose pimples, but from nostalgia. How many have unnerved us in the way this tragicomic Calypso does as farmer exploits cock and cock exploits hen? Once we punch through the amusing veneer of this song, that childish piano melody becomes haunting—like a bit of innocence lost. There is no doubt that from the perspective of the chickens, the farm is hell.

Why should we consider so closely the perspective of the farm animals. Isn’t George Orwell a little ridiculous and Shadow even more so? After all, didn’t God give us dominion over the earth and the animals to do with as we please? While many are fond of the passages in the book of Genesis that make man the steward and master of the earth, other parts of the Bible that mention animals get far less attention. And when we happen upon them we subject them to far more critical scrutiny and creative interpretation:

 

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might

manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing

befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath;

so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto

one place; all are of dust; and all turn to dust again.

(Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

 

Shadow makes us wonder whether we really do have dominion over nature. We find ourselves asking whether ours is the prerogative of a superior being over the lives of natural inferiors and subordinates. In the meeting of eyes between man and beast there is a mutual recognition through which Shadow slips to look back at humanity. Through the mutual sentience between and across species, Shadow unsettles us in our comfortable superiority. But from Shadow’s perspective, is the farmer wrong or right to feed, fatten and kill animals, and abscond with their eggs?

What I notice is that Shadow, especially in his 1970s and early 1980s work, does not moralise so much as raise questions for consideration. In fact, the question is cherished above the statement, the continued, vital inquiry held above the purported, static answer.

It is only when we listen to other songs by Shadow that we see what most interests him about the animal question: the consideration of the reversal in the roles of man and beast as a moral conundrum. It is the very problem of predation, domination, exploitation that Shadow asks us to consider and thence be aware of our position in the implied hierarchies of culture and nature.

In Shadow’s ethos, there is no blissful ignorance of our transgressions allowed, for we are called to consciousness and consideration by the question he raises. And there is no easy recourse to “justified” cruelty and culturally/religiously sanctioned disregard for the suffering of others.

One might stubbornly consider Shadow’s reversal of animal and human roles as unequal, asymmetrical. For many philosophies put humans at the end of a teleological trajectory, in a hierarchy, of intelligence. Otherwise they put “man” on his own line altogether as possessed of an intelligence qualitatively different from that of the animals.

Elephants who spontaneously assist wounded animals outside their own species, or who return to their ancestral burial grounds to sniff, handle and cherish the bones of their dead ancestors do nothing to dislodge this most cherished of conceits about the difference between human and animal intelligence. Octopi who unscrew jars to get at the food inside them have no greater success than elephants. African grey parrots who construct new sentences based on previously learned vocabulary and grammar, tool-making primates, and the complex, musical language of whales do nothing to dissuade the believer in human supremacy.

Enter Shadow with his 1975 Calypso, “Animal Kingdom,” a bombastic Judo-manoeuvre that makes animals the lords and masters of Earth, in the manner of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes:[iv]

Animal Kingdom

I was kidnapped,

By strong imagination.

I took a rap

And went too deep into meditation.

I saw a world

Where animals are the rulers

I had to bawl

To see men living like foolers.

Here on Earth, man eating animals

Up there isn’t so,

Up there, men are eaten by animals,

I want you to know.

 

(Chorus)

 

Don’t call this lie

I wouldn’t lie so dry,

It’s really a lie

But it’s not a real lie

I never saw no animals

But I really saw those animals,

Not walking like man,

I saw them through imagination.

  

…Here on Earth man training animals,

Up there isn’t so.

Up there men are trained by animals,

I want you know.

  

…Here on Earth, man trappin’ animals

Up there isn’t so.

Up there men are trapped by animals,

I want you to know.

 

Shadow’s qualification of his Animal Kingdom as “really a lie, but not a real lie” seen only “through imagination” establishes this tale of men eaten, trained and trapped by animals as a parable or allegory.

This song is five years older than the “Cook, Curry and Crow” that re-inverts its thesis—in 1975 “Animal Kingdom” first inverted the world and put animals in charge, and in 1980, “Cook, Curry and Crow” flipped this flip-side world to present a world in which talking animals are exploited by a human. Both allegories anthropomorphise the animals to almost opposite effect.

Combined with the older first version of “Story of Life” (1973) from my previous discussion, Shadow continues to explore the overarching existential question: where does humanity fit in the scheme of things?

Whether the listener takes from Shadow’s constant return to the animals’ perspective that (1) we are just beasts ourselves, prone to prey on other beasts as countless carnivores do or (2) that as one of the creatures noted for its analysis and compassion, we should abstain from the exploitation of animals in any form or (3) that we might stake out one of a host of nuanced positions in between these two, is not Shadow’s primary concern. Shadow’s role, time and again, is to raise the question of the animal’s, and indeed the other’s viewpoint. He creates reciprocity, even resonance between different kinds of awareness, intelligence, sentience.

Instead of shrinking from complexity and safely cleaving to a static position on either side of the issue of animal exploitation, Shadow sees the farm as no less natural than the bush and asks the human individual, presumably one of the thinking animals, to consider the place of both his species and himself in the grand and inexplicable scheme called life.

Shadow’s animal paradoxes, like so many other themes of his, inveigle us to take on the great question that seems to have defined his career, “what is life?” Of course, this is not his only question…

 

[i] Art De Coteau and Shadow often used these sorts of sweet melodies, not only in piano, guitar and even fiddle but also in the melodic bass-lines they pioneered together. They would often use these sing-song melodies alongside the most unexpected and disturbing parts of Shadow’s lyrics to produce a kind of menacing, haunting effect.

[ii] George Orwell, Animal Farm (London: The Folio Society, 1984), 7.

[iii] Orwell, Animal Farm, 7.

[iv] Bridge on the River Kwai author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 book, Planet of the Apes, was turned into a critically acclaimed film in 1967, starring Roddy McDowall and Charlton Heston. Shadow is likely to have seen this in the theatre or at least on TV. But its effect on his thinking is uncertain.

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