The Chicken Chokers (FRC603)
The Chicken Chokers were an old-timey string band from the Boston area who intersected their roots influences with reggae, punk, and rap. Fiddler Chad Crumm and multi-instrumentalists Paul Strother, Taylor Smith, and Jim Reidy released two albums on Rounder, 1987’s Shoot Your Radio and Old Time Music in 1990. But when Crumm departed for New York City, the group fizzled. The remaining Chokers went on to form Primitive Characters, a more tradition-oriented fiddle band. Together with fiddler Sandy Stark, the band issued The Leavin’s in 1997 (Chubby Dragon CD). However, PC fizzled too, since the rigid song structure didn’t allow for the kind of creativity Strother, Smith, and Reidy craved. This led to the formation of Twang with bassist Robbie Phillips. Twang’s debut, Second Slam, appeared in 2000. — Johnny Loftus, All Music Guide
- 1980 – Joe Fallon names us ‘The Chicken Chokers’ then runs off to join Critton Hollow Band
- 1981 – March 30 – gig for Harvard Outings & Innings for $200 – we’ve hit the big time!
- 1986 – July 18-20 – Chokers at 8th Annual Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival – with the Swamp Cats and Jethro Burns
- 1986 – August 23-24 – Chokers at the Newport Folk Festival – with Alison Krauss, Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Hot Rize
- 1997 – Primitive Characters play Grassroots
Chip Taylor Smith
My first musical memories were sitting at the console of the big pipe organ my dad played in church where I grew up in Massachusetts. I was mesmerized as he swayed back and forth with arms extended, reaching for different keyboards, stops and pages of music while his feet danced over octaves of pedals. Off in the distance I could hear my mothers voice as the melodies that were rehearsed in the piano room at home all week resonated beautifully through the rafters of the church and wafted out over Main St.
A few years later I would find myself in the basement of a church down the street where they held a weekly night of folk music at The Cellar coffeehouse. It was there that I became acquainted with the music by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Spider John Koerner and The Holy Modal Rounders. Through high school I was able to keep musically active by playing trombone in the school band, electric guitar and organ in a blues/rock band and acoustic guitar and fiddle in a jug band.
Going to music school seemed like the thing to do but after one semester I decided that it wasn’t for me as I preferred my music less formal. I soon found that I could hitchhike with my fiddle and small dog in search of new musical experiences. These travels allowed me to join a bluegrass/jam band on Martha’s Vineyard called the Condor Brothers. It was on the Vineyard that I met Chad Crumm. I wanted so badly to fiddle with Chad but I just couldn’t get up to his level so I backed him up on guitar. We both moved to Cambridge that fall and soon The Chicken Chokers were formed.
Now, so many years later, my musical experiences reflect those of my high school days. To augment the Choker experience I play electric guitar and keyboards in a blues band ( The Black Cats ), electric guitar and fiddle in a zydeco band ( Dirty Rice) and after getting to meet musical hero Koerner, have been playing fiddle with him for 30 years.
When I was a kid I thought anyone who could play an instrument was a god. There were commune bands like Spirit in Flesh and talent show bands with light shows and ‘battle of the bands’ for all the cool kids in school, and even Doc Williams came through Ashfield with a pantheon of pickers. My dad played guitar, but when I picked it up I couldn’t mash the strings down. I’d get camel foot fingertips in about two seconds and give up. I was just a camp follower.
I kept hanging around musicians all through college, reverently picking up little things until one snowy winter break on a remote island in Maine I picked up a banjo and started seriously wasting time on it. Things started to fall into place as I realized mere mortals could play music. Back at UVM my friend Paul Gittelsohn taught me enough about chords and keys to keep me busy for decades. Paul had a great collection of early bluegrass and old time records (many borrowed from roommate Chris Jones) that really got me going on that primitive sound.
When I met Chad and Joe Fallon in Boston I was already a fairly lame banjo player. There was always a better banjo player around, and one banjo player is more than enough, so I had a problem. One rainy day I bought a banjo-uke that was hanging on someone’s wall, put metal strings on it and took it to Brandywine. I found I could infiltrate the hot sessions much better with uke (there weren’t many around then) and I ended up hearing some really great music. I began to notice the strong backbeat the southern bands like Gary Silverstein of The SwampCats had. I got way into that offbeat chop.
I’ve always liked the old songs ﾐ mules and moonshine, love and death, trains and food, etc. – and the unadorned hard edged voices that sing them on the old 78s. The Chokers have a lot of fun with the songs, and sometimes get a little irreverent with the lyrics. We’re not reenactors, we’re just trying to carry on.
Starting at 13, I played in orchestras through college where I studied with Robert Mellin and, very occasionally with Sam Hollingsworth (Pittsburgh Symphony). I met the rest of the Chicken Chokers during the winter of 1979-1980 and promptly forgot how to read music. In the 1990’s, when the band dispersed, I fell into a series of local electric guitar/song-writing projects beginning with a thrash band called Third Wheel (the cops came into the Rat to tell us to turn down), then The Weeds followed by Twang (with Chip and Jim), and, currently my own band, mr talliman (with Bob Metzger ex guitarist for Leonard Cohen and Jean-Do Sifantus ex Pousette-Dart Band). On the folk side, I play bass with Spider John Koerner when he is in town (a gig I got through Chip), had a stint with Ruthie Dornfeld playing Hungarian folk music, played in the Primitive Characters, was in an early version of the Tarbox Ramblers in their pre-touring days, and have played with Michael Hurley. I was the original bassist with the Eilen Jewell Band before their current lineup and spent 2005 playing in the hill country blues band, Whoa!Man!Jesus! led by Wayne Rhodes. Locally, in addition to mr talliman, I play electric bass in a 60’s band, The Reverberators, and acoustic bass in Jubilee Mule, an old time quartet featuring fiddler Andy Reiner. For my day job, I am Research Professor of Paleontology at Boston College.
I have been playing the banjo for more than 20 years. I learned first from Sandy Davis, and then from musicians around the SF Bay area including Molly Tannenbaum, Brendan Doyle, and Greg and Jere Canote. I later had the chance to learn from Tommy Jarrell and from other great fiddlers in Galax and Mt. Airy, where I lived in the early 1980s. Later, in Boston, I took up with the Chicken Chokers, and with Mark Graham. I also played for many years with Ruthie Dornfeld, and with Daniel Steinberg and Paul Kotapish of the Hillbillies from Mars. Later Rafe Stefaninni, Carol Elizabeth Jones and I formed the Wildcats; we released a couple of recordings on the Marimac label, and with the Kentucky Warblers we toured Southeast Asia. In addition to the old-time banjo picking, Iﾕve also played West African drums with the Agbekor Drum and Dance Ensemble, and Iﾕve studied drumming in Ghana with Godwin Agbeli and Fuseni Alhassan. I’ve taught banjo and drumming at music camps around the country, including Port Townsend Festival of Fiddle Tunes, Ashokan, Fiddlehead, and the Augusta Heritage Festival.
The signature sound of The Chicken Chokers combines a string pounding 4-man rhythm section, ever-crazed fiddling, infamous ‘air-raid siren’ vocals, and the hallmark Chicken Choker Big Boy Chorus. Throughout the 80’s the Chokers entertained many, influenced a select few, and recorded 2 albums for Rounder Records before exploding in all musical directions. Recent 20 year reunions reveal that the Choker Drive survived the explosion. Combining the unvarnished, primitive energy of the early years with mementos from 5 separate musical journeys, the band endures, still inspiring amateur dancers and professional revelers to higher states of consciousness.
A new CD recorded in January 2007 at The Music Tank is available NOW!. You can listen to the driving sound of The Chicken Chokers at: myspace.com/thechickenchokers
Mark Graham has been playing old-time music on the Marine Band harmonica for over 30 years. In that time he has played hundreds of concerts and dances and performed with many of the luminaries of Southern old-time and bluegrass music including Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis, Dirk Powell, The Horseflies, The Chicken Chokers, Tom Sauber, Pete Sutherland, Bad Livers and Hurricane Ridgerunners. One of the few harmonica players schooled in the melodic and rhythmic intricacies of Southern stringband music he plays in a powerful yet lyrical, blues-tinged style that recalls the feel of the finest fiddle and banjo playing. Graham is one of the few harp players who can “burn it up” like Norman Edmonds and Earl Johnson or evoke the lonesome desolation of Dock Boggs’ banjo playing and singing. With an encyclopedic knowledge of Southern country and blues styles, Mark has mastered the hallmark traditional harmonica solos: fox chases, train impressions,and call and response song accompaniment reminiscent of Sonny Terry and Peg Leg Sam.
The song writing of Mark Graham is a singular universe of surreal mountain hilarity and lonesome terror that covers the big subjects:The Beginning of the Universe, Natural Science, Mathematics, Food, Stupidity, Great Literature, Festival Love and Death, while drawing favorable comparison with: Homer and Jethro, The Tobacco Tags, Blind Alfred Reed and Dock Boggs, the revered songwriters of country music’s past. His songs have been performed and recorded by The Austin Lounge Lizards, Bryan Bowers, Bad Livers and The Limelighters.