I love research! There’s nothing more fun than chasing after details to make a story come alive, and the best part of all is how you find cool things you weren’t even looking for. Like “The Chicken Fat Song.”
I’ve been working on a novel about a kid who ditches the girl who thinks they’re getting married to hitchhike with a friend to St. Petersburg, Florida in search of Jack Kerouac—who turns out to be not at all like they expected him to be. It’s set in 1963 and 1964, so I’ve spent a lot of time poring through my old yearbooks, listening to early 60’s music, and looking at photographs in ancient issues of Life Magazine to trigger memories of what it was like back then. I’ve read fiction and nonfiction about the era. I took a road trip down Highway 41, the route Paul and his friend, Duke, travel, thumbs out—and another to St. Petersburg, where I found Kerouac’s house and got a lay of the land so that I’ll be able to set authentic scenes when the boys roll into town.
In the midst of all this useful research, I came upon “The Chicken Fat Song.” Like I said, I wasn’t looking for it. I was looking for information about the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, particularly the fifty-mile hikes that I remembered had become a fad when I was in high school. Kennedy had come upon an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt that challenged Marine officers to complete a fifty-mile hike in twenty hours, I found out, and passed it along to the current commandant of the Marine Corps, suggesting that he encourage modern day Marines to duplicate the feat. When Bobby Kennedy took it upon himself to complete the hike, slogging the distance through snow and slush wearing a pair of dress shoes, the public became enamored of the idea and took up the challenge—to such a degree that the Council sent out a press release recommending a moderate, gradual program of walking for exercise.
I remembered that part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was geared to encourage kids to get more exercise, but I did not remember (perhaps I’ve blocked it1) that, as a result, daily calisthenics became a part of the school day for many children and that these calisthenics were done to “The Chicken Fat Song.” (A record of the song was sent to every single school in the United States to be played over the intercom for just this purpose!)
The song was composed by Meredith Wilson and performed by Robert Preston, of “Music Man,” so you can imagine the following lyrics sung in rousing “Music Man” style…or actually hear them sung by Preston at youtube.com (search: Chicken Fat).
Now and then.
Give that chicken fat
Back to the chicken,
And don't be chicken again.
No, don't be chicken again.”
It goes on. (And on and on).
Sometimes the weird details you come upon serendipitously can solve a problem that's been driving you mad or profoundly affect a book’s direction. Discovering “The Chicken Fat Song” did nothing but delight me. Which is no small thing. ‘’
The only problem is, I can’t get it out of my head.