Them’s Fightin’ Words

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

Rooster Hill

I’ve always been a huge animal lover, and when I was a little kid I just loved a country song I heard on the radio everyday. It was about a nice man and his rooster and how they went to a fight. His bird got hurt in the fight, but that was okay, because they took it easy on the farm all week, and then the next weekend, the rooster went back and fought the same opponent again, and this time he won. And the man and his rooster were very happy. It was such a cute, clever little song.

And then as I grew up I wondered why I never heard that song on the radio anymore. They played lots of other old songs, but never that one. It wasn’t until the Napster revolution that I was able to get ahold of that beloved old song again about the happy rooster. Then I realized why it never was heard on oldies country radio, or showed up on oldies CD’s. It was blacklisted, because we don’t want to remember that we used to like songs like this. It is a bloody song about maiming and killing animals. At least, that’s how we view it today.

The song is called “Rooster Hill” and was sung by David Dudley (lyrics at end of post). I must confess I still like the song immensely.

In concept it’s very similar to the folk ballad “Stewball” in which a thoroughbred gray mare is favored by all the gamblers to win a race, but is defeated in the end by the underdog horse Stewball. Nonetheless, “Rooster Hill” has a strong flavor of masculine pride. After all, “champion cock crowing satisfaction” could easily be a line from a double-entendre blues song. It’s this bawdiness that amuses me so much about this song, somehow juxtaposed in creepy fashion with a horribly violent sport.

The cock who is the hero of this song is appropriately named Cortez, after one of the world’s most famous conquerors. After losing his first fight against the gray, Cortez is thrown into a paper sack, a rather brutal act of rejection. But in country music, “paper sack” strongly suggests the wino, a kind of down and out street alcoholic who stays drunk on cheap wine hidden in a paper sack. Cortez has truly hit rock bottom, since nothing is more un-masculine than the wino. A wino is not only psychologically castrated, but useless to family and community. As the song progresses, though, we see Cortez recovering, snapping at his cage “like pliers” (a man’s tool), and eating steak. Having lost a leg in the fight, the singer now affectionately refers to the bird as “Ole One Leg,” another strong suggestion that the cock is actually a symbol for the man’s penis.

Geertz and the Cockfight

Clifford Geertz, a renowned anthropologist, eloquently explained all this in a classic essay called “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.”  As Geertz describes it,

In identifying with his cock, the Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by – The Powers of Darkness.

Geertz says that “deep play” happens when people do something that is totally irrational from a sensible point of view, but in fact Geertz believes that as a social mechanism it has great value and meaning. The Balinese cockfight was not about the birds, or the gambling. It was about reinforcing social boundaries, pitting one kin group against another in mock war, to continually prove one’s status in the social hierarchy. The Balinese engaged in cockfights with their social rivals and enemies with high stakes betting, in order to prove who they were in the grand social scheme.

It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one’s public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one’s cock, on the line. And though to a Benthamite this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all. And as (to follow Weber rather than Bentham) the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the economic costs involved. (Emphasis mine)

Dave Dudley had the working class man’s take on all this, but it comes out the same. In fact I’m fairly certain that Charlie, the man the singer is betting against in the fight, has a higher social position than the singer, either in his office or in his town. He’s likely wealthier, too. By the end of the week, when the frustrations of blue collar smallness, often felt when working in factories and fields for powerful, faceless bosses and harassing foremen, has a man feel beat down, it’s always possible to recover a sense of participation in the web of power, to bring meaning back into one’s life. On Rooster Hill.


Phallus Bird from Roman ruins in Nimes

Rooster Hill
by Ronnie Rogers, sung by Dave Dudley

Last Saturday night on Rooster Hill
I lost four one hundred dollar bills
Came home with my champion cock cut all to pieces
Some homemade ‘shine made my vision blur
And I carelessly tied up a pair of spurs
Last Saturday night
On Rooster Hill

I picked Cortez up off the ground
His neck was floppin’ and he wasn’t makin’ a sound
His left side leg was missing and he was barely breathin’
I dropped him down in a paper sack
Told old Charlie I’d be coming back
Next Saturday night
On Rooster Hill

I took Cortez home and laid him in his cage
He was up and about in a couple of days
A’hoppin’ around and crowing loud revenge
I fed him steak the rest of the week
He’d just rip it apart with his angry beak
And he got to snappin’ at his cage wire like a pair of pliers

Look out Cortez is coming back!
And he won’t be in no paper sack
He’s healed and he’s fired up
For Rooster Hill

Well Saturday night rolled around again
I tucked Cortez into his portable pen
We drove on out to check out the secluded hill
When we arrived the bones was already rollin’
Charlie’s big bad gray was crowing
Sure enough it’s Saturday night
On Rooster Hill

We scaled ‘em up and Cortez was light
And I said, “That’s all right let ole ‘One Leg’ fight”
Charlie gave two to one odds on his big bad gray
We faced them off and Cortez knew
He was looking at the bird
That had spurred and chewed him half away last week
On Rooster Hill

We set ’em down to let ’em scratch
Took all I had to hold ole Cortez back
His leg dug a hole deep enough to bury Big Gray
Charlie looked at me and said, “A grand to five”
I said, “Charlie you’re on let them feathers fly”
It’s Saturday night
On Rooster Hill

Look out Cortez is coming back!
He won’t be in no paper sack
He’s healed and he’s fired up
For Rooster Hill

Earl gave us a count and hollered “Pit!”
And Cortez flew up and made one fatal hit
Charlie kicked his big bad bird down in the gully
He slowly peeled off ten big bills
I said, “Charlie old buddy I know how it feels”
This ain’t my first trip
To Rooster Hill

Well it’s Sunday morning back here on the farm
Things are quiet except around the barn
It’s sunrise and I’m cookin’ me and Cortez a T-bone
The bars are closed about the only action
Is my champion cock crowing satisfaction
And me a count’n my take…
From Rooster Hill


2 responses to “Them’s Fightin’ Words

  1. Sorry to hear you never got to hear him play; I do not know him.


  2. Do you still have B F Hembree (Frank) playing fiddle? My Granddad, I never heard him play> William Peters

    Liked by 1 person

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