'Let's Turkey Trot': Festive Music About Fowl

Nov 22, 2018
Originally published on November 22, 2018 6:43 am

Keeping with Morning Edition's longstanding Thanksgiving Day tradition, classical music commentator Miles Hoffman stops by to give listeners a sample of music that speak to the themes of the holiday. This year's music selection serves as a lesson on famous references to musical fowl throughout history.

While your holiday meal might consist of turkey that's deep-fried, braised or roasted, the turkeys who've been featured in music through the years boast a lot of personality and have even inspired cultural crazes.

The 1889 ballad "Ballade des gros dindons," by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier translates to "Ballad of the Fat Turkeys," and as Hoffman explains, it holds the birds in high regard. "They're very bourgeois turkeys," Hoffman says. "They only care about walking around looking important and respectable, sticking their bellies out."

In 1909, a dance step known as the turkey trot was invented in America and became popular to do with ragtime music. "The dance was considered so risque, so downright depraved that The Vatican denounced it, which, of course, helped make it very, very popular," Hoffman says. A perfect slice of music that would inspire the dance move is the turkey trot movement from Leonard Bernstein's 1980 composition "Divertimento for Orchestra." And some 50 years after the dance was first introduced in America, the turkey trot made another appearance in pop culture thanks to the Little Eva song "Let's Turkey Trot."

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in French).


That's an excerpt from a piece that in English translates to "Ballad Of The Fat Turkeys." It's by the French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. And it is the perfect music to continue a longstanding Thanksgiving tradition - a conversation with classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Now, in the past, Miles has talked with us about such important Thanksgiving musical subjects as plucking, drumsticks and leftovers. This morning, though, we're going to get right to the center of the feast.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. I assume those are French turkeys in the Chabrier song.

HOFFMAN: They are. But, more importantly, they're very bourgeois turkeys.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: They only care about walking around looking important and respectable, sticking their bellies out. It's actually a very funny song. And the text is by Edmond Rostand, the same man who wrote "Cyrano De Bergerac."

MARTIN: So some French turkeys - a little odd to start off our conversation about an American holiday - Thanksgiving. So what do you have for us that features American turkeys?

HOFFMAN: Let's go to 1909, Rachel - either in San Francisco or Chicago, depending on which sources you consult. The turkey trot was invented.


HOFFMAN: It was danced to ragtime music. And the dance was considered so risque, so downright depraved, that the Vatican denounced it, which, of course, helped make it very, very popular.

MARTIN: This is all very fascinating because I always thought the turkey trot was just is the name of the 5K that my family runs on Thanksgiving morning.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So despite concerns about moral corruption, I think we should probably hear a turkey trot, right?

HOFFMAN: Well, yeah. Let's find out what happens. But we'll skip from 1909 all the way to 1980 and to a turkey trot by none other than Leonard Bernstein. This is the turkey trot movement from Bernstein's "Divertimento For Orchestra."


HOFFMAN: A slice of the turkey trot from Leonard Bernstein's "Divertimento For Orchestra."

MARTIN: That didn't feel depraved to me at all. It felt very sweet.

HOFFMAN: You don't feel corrupted.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Not really. OK. So all corruption aside, what do we do about people who don't really dig turkey?

HOFFMAN: Well, I was thinking we could listen to something from Maurice Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite. Actually, we'd be cheating if we did that because Mother Goose herself doesn't even make an appearance in the music. She's the imaginary author of the "Mother Goose" tales, not a character in them.

MARTIN: OK. Any other musical geese come to mind?

HOFFMAN: Well, no, I'm afraid (laughter). But I've got a chicken. This is "The Hut On Fowl's Legs" from Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition."


HOFFMAN: That's "The Hut On Chicken Legs" (ph) - or fowl legs. The hut was the home of Baba Yaga, an evil witch in Russian folk tales. So the chicken legs are really just a kind of architectural accent.

MARTIN: Architectural accent, all right. So pick something that we can play to wrap up this fowl conversation. And don't take that personally.

HOFFMAN: I have one more turkey trot from none other than Little Eva - "Let's Turkey Trot."


LITTLE EVA: (Singing) Come on, let's turkey trot. Let's get it while it's hot.

MARTIN: Oh, I love it.

HOFFMAN: Immortal poetry, I think.

MARTIN: Right, immortal poetry. Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga. Hey, Miles. Happy Thanksgiving.

HOFFMAN: You too. Have a wonderful holiday, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.