“Shake for Me” is a rocking blues that packed dance floors—on Chicago’s South Side and elsewhere—when Chess released it as a single in 1961. “The Red Rooster”, with its slower tempo and down home lyrics, takes the listener back to the origins of Howlin’ Wolf’s music, the Mississippi Delta. “I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day”, Wolf announces. He repeats the line, and then informs us that the titular fowl “keeps everything in the barnyard upset in every way”.
“The Red Rooster”–also known as “Little Red Rooster”—has attained classic status in the blues repertoire. The song is credited to Willie Dixon, but the rooster—a symbol of male sexual potency—strutted his stuff in the blues long before Dixon and Wolf recorded it, in 1961. Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf’s mentor and running buddy in the 1920s, released his “Banty Rooster Blues” in 1929. Memphis Minnie’s 1936 “If You See My Rooster” also seems a likely model for Dixon, her lyric “If you see my rooster, please run him on back home” nearly identical to Dixon’s “If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home”.
And why does the red rooster need to get back home? Well, “there ain’t no peace in the barnyard” since he’s been gone. Puzzling, no? How can this rooster, who’s too lazy to crow, keep the barnyard upset and be its peacekeeper, too? “Watch out strange kin people”, Wolf warns, “the little red rooster’s on the prowl”. Who are these strange kinfolk, and why should they be wary of this prowling yard bird? Good question. All I can say is that the elusive (and allusive) quality of the lyrics is a big part of the song’s fascination.