Man Sings To Turkeys, Turkeys Gobble Back

Host Rachel Martin speaks with Jim Nollman about his recording of playing music with and to animals, and one very appropriate recording for this Thanksgiving weekend. In 1973, Nollman gathered a group of turkeys together and sang Froggie Went A-Courting to them. The group started to, sort of, gobble along to the beat.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And it's time now for music.

JIM NOLLMAN: (Singing) Froggie went a-courtin' and he did ride, a-huh, a-huh...

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

MARTIN: ...or at least a kind of music that's especially appropriate for this holiday weekend. We heard about it from The Atlantic magazine. And that voice you hear on this recording, the man with the microphone in the middle of a crowd of turkeys, is Jim Nollman. It's a recording made in the early 1970s. And to help us explain exactly what's happening here, Jim Nollman is on the line from his home in the San Juan Island in Washington state. Hi, Jim.

NOLLMAN: Hi. How are you, Rachel?

MARTIN: Doing well. OK. So, explain, what is that sound that we're hearing right now?

NOLLMAN: I'm sitting in the center of a group of 300 tom turkeys and I am singing a Scottish folk song, "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" and I'm accenting the refrain because I had learned previously by doing some experiments that a loud sound at a higher pitch would get turkeys to gobble almost 100 percent of the time. (Singing) Uncle Rat...

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

NOLLMAN: (Singing) ...laughed and shook his fat sides, uh-huh. (gobbling) Uncle Rat laughed, shook his big fat sides to think his niece would be a bride, uh-huh...

MARTIN: Help us imagine what this looked like. I mean, you're standing there in the middle of a group of 300 turkeys. How are they responding to you?

NOLLMAN: I knew a little that they're going to gobble but I didn't really know a lot about it. And I sat down in the dirt. It was dry - I remember that. I mean, please understand this is 40 years ago. And I'm a kid. I mean, I'm in my early 20s and I'm a musician looking for something to hang a career on. And I had chosen this Scottish folk song because I could sing it for hours. There was so many verses to it. And I specifically chose it because it was the Walt Disney version of nature, where the frog wears the uniform and the raccoon makes the wedding gown. It was a statement of irony, and it was coming out of avant-garde music of the time, the John Cage kind of phenomenon of modernism. (Singing) Well, Uncle Rat gave his consent, uh-huh...

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

NOLLMAN: One thing that really surprised me that I had no way of knowing is - so the turkeys made a big circle around me and I'm in the bulls-eye. And the turkeys next to me would start to gobble and it would gradually go towards the back of the circle. And then it would do the strangest thing - it would come back into the middle again. And so it wasn't entirely like it was just a reaction to a loud sound. There was something else going on, which to this day I can't tell you what it was. (Singing) Who comes in, but one bumblebee...

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

NOLLMAN: (Singing) Dance the jig with a two-legged flea, uh-huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

NOLLMAN: You know, I've done this music over the years with many different kinds of animals, and the key thing that keeps me going is just to feel like I'm sort of a representative of the human race trying to elicit some kind of a greeting with these animals. And the turkeys, they give me that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

MARTIN: That's Jim Nollman. He is the founder of the nonprofit Interspecies. He is also a musician. And that is his version of "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," featuring 300 turkeys. Jim, thanks so much.

NOLLMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEYS GOBBLING)

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