Both of these songs are about animals. For people living in preindustrial times, animals were a source of food, motivation, power, and wonderment. In their songs, rural people often imitated animal sounds, bragged about their animals, endowed them with human qualities, and talked with them.
No one knows who wrote these traditional songs. “Cluck Old Hen” is a traditional Appalachian folk song. “I Had a Rooster” may have evolved out of a folk song brought to America by British colonists. Over the years, singers have changed the songs. In this performance, Mike Seeger sings them in traditional Southern style.
The two songs feature two different types of banjos. Seeger plays a gourd banjo in “Cluck Old Hen,” and he plays a more modern five-string steel-string banjo in “I Had a Rooster.” The gourd banjo is an instrument that was brought to America by African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. It consisted of a gourd with a skin head on a long stick with four strings attached. Until the early 1800s, it was mainly played by African Americans. Today’s five-string version was a commercial adaptation of the West African instrument. In the late 1870s, the banjo became increasingly popular as a parlor instrument for performing popular music. After World War II, the banjo also was popular with the resurgence of folk music and the development of bluegrass music.
Mike Seeger (1933-2009) devoted his life to singing and playing what he called “Music from True Vine," the homegrown music made by American southerners in the days before radio and television. “‘Music from True Vine’ grows out of hundreds of years of British traditions that blended in our country with equally ancient African traditions to produce songs and sounds unique to the United States,” Seeger said. For the peoples of the rural South, their great variety of music, song, and story provided their Shakespeare, their dance music, their news, and the fabric of their daily lives. This music in time became the roots of today's country, bluegrass, and popular music and remains as ever, enduring and refreshing listening.”