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Turkey Song

From The Interspecies Newsletter

In 1972, I was a young musician working in the Bay Area Avant-Garde scene, performing John Cage, burning pianos wired up for sound, composing and then performing music based on the rhythms of people smoking cigarettes. KPFA Radio in Berkeley was the center of this vibrant but rather small universe. Their program director, Charles Amirkhanian, handed me one of my earliest musical commissions, to compose a radio piece for Thanksgiving Day.

I traveled to the Willy Bird Turkey Farm in the Santa Rosa Hills, with a tape recorder and a bottle of tequila in hand. For the occasion, I had learned multiple verses from the traditional folk song : Froggy Went a Courting. I chose the song because it told a story of several animals species acting just like people, like Walt Disney taught me when I was a child.

Sitting in the dirt with 300 tom turkeys (females don't gobble) I started singing the tune, accentuating each "a-ha" in a slightly louder voice. After a while, the turkeys got into the cadences, and started gobbling just about every time I hit that louder "a-ha". The gobbling would start with the birds nearest me, then move outward. Sometimes it would return into the center again before stopping.

They did it, and I did it, for the better part of an afternoon.

The edited composition "Music to Eat Thanksgiving By" was played nationally for at least a few years over the Pacifica Radio Network. It was later picked up and released by Folkways Records as part of my first album: Playing Music with Animals. When Folkways got bought up by the Smithsonian, my music with turkeys was included in an anthology of children's music entitled "A Fish That's A Song" put together by the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, and including songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

My playing music with turkeys also got picked up by American TV. In 1976 I was hired by ABC-TV basically to reproduce the original musical event for a show called "That's Incredible". Two years later, I was hired by another ABC show called "Those Amazing Animals" where, along with Priscilla Presley and Burgess Meredith, I produced a few six minute segments entitled "the animal interview of the week". My first interview, with orcas, was wildly successful. They fired me after my second show, focusing on bugling elk. The interview backfired when warm weather caused the female elk to come out of heat, which naturally caused the bulls to stop bugling. "Those Amazing Animals' had no patience whatsoever for wild animal behavioral shenanigans that made them lose money.


—Jim Nollman, 2010


Naming Cachalot