Main content
Sorry, this episode is not currently available

Hey, Little Hen

Sophie Thompson and Alex Waldmann are the readers as we peck and scrape our way around the curious world of man's old friend the chicken, with readings from Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Herrick, John Clare and P.G. Wodehouse, and music by Rameau, Mussorgsky, Saint-Saens, Lassus and many more.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 8 Jul 2018 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • Gary Whitehead

    A Glossary of Chickens

  • 00:00

    Jean‐Philippe Rameau

    La poule (The Hen)

    Performer: Alexandre Tharaud (piano).
    • Harmonia Mundi 901754.
    • 17.
  • John Clare

    Hen’s Nest

  • 00:00

    Camille Saint‐Saëns

    Poules et Coqs (Hens and Cocks) from Le Carnaval des animaux (Carnival of the Animals)

    Performer: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi.
    • Chandos CHAN CHSA5162.
    • 7.
  • Edward Lear

    O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!

  • 00:00

    Noel Gay

    Hey Little Hen

    Performer: Bunny Doyle.
    • D Sharp DSHCD 7012.
    • 8.
  • Christina Georgina Rossetti

    A white hen sitting

  • 00:00

    Marco Uccellini

    Maritati insieme la Gallina, e il Cucco (The Marriage of the chicken and the cuckoo)

    Performer: Rheinisches Bach-Collegium.
    • CPO 9990832.
    • 24.
  • Clarice Lispector, translated by Elizabeth Bishop

    The Hen (excerpt)

  • 00:00

    Dusty RHodes

    Chick Chick Chicken

    • Gramopone LIB4.
    • 4.
  • P.G. Wodehouse

    Love among the chickens (excerpt)

  • 00:00

    Modest Mussorgsky

    Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks (Pictures at an Exhibition)

    Performer: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons.
    • BR Klassik 900141.
    • 24.
  • Ted Hughes

    The Hen

  • 00:00

    Joseph Haydn

    Symphony No. 83 ‘The Hen (1st movement)

    Performer: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Sigiswald Kuijken.
    • Virgin Classics VC790793 2.
    • 5.
  • Hermann Melville

    Cock-a-doodle doo!, or the Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano

  • 00:00

    Joaquín Rodrigo

    Preludio al gallo mañanero (Prelude to the Dawn Cockerel)

    Performer: Artur Pizzaro (piano).
    • Naxos 8557923.
    • 23.
  • John Gay

    Before the barn door crowing

  • 00:00

    Willie Dixon

    Little Red Rooster

    Performer: The Rolling Stones.
    • ABKCO 9818864.
    • Track 1.
  • Chaucer, translated by Nevill Coghill

    The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (excerpt)

  • 00:00


    Chi chilichi?

    Performer: Ensemble Clément Janequin.
    • Harmonia Mundi HMC 9011391.
    • 10.
  • Katharine Tynan Hnkson


  • 00:00


    The Cockerels’ Dance (Maskarade)

    Performer: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi).
    • Deutsche Grammophon 4477572.
    • 3.
  • Elizabeth Bishop

    Roosters (excerpt)

  • 00:00


    Il est bel et bon

    Performer: The King’s Singers & The Consort of Musicke.
    • EMI CDM 7698372.
    • 19.
  • Jack Mapanje

    The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New & Selected Poems

  • 00:00

    Traditional American

    The Old Hen

    Performer: Pete Seeger.
    • Smithsonian Folkways SFCD45039.
    • 13.
  • Edwin Brock

    Song of the Battery Hen

  • 00:00

    Kramer & Whitney

    Ain’t nobody here but us chickens

    Performer: Louis Jordan.
    • Mercury 8382192.
    • 1.
  • Robert Herrick


  • Henry Vaughan


  • 00:01


    Sonata No. 108 ‘Del Gallo’

    Performer: Bob van Asperen.
    • Astree E8771.
    • 5.
  • Kay Ryan

    Home to Roost

  • 00:01


    Hønens død (The Death of the Hen)

    Performer: Einar Steen-Nøklberg (piano).
    • Naxos 8554300.
    • 26.
  • Mark Roper

    The Hen Ark

  • 00:01


    Eggs of your chickens

    Performer: The Flatlanders.
    • New West NW6049.
    • 5.
  • Heinrich Heine, translated by Charles Godfrey Leland

    The Homecoming

Hey Little Hen - Producer Note

Anyone who has ever kept chickens knows there are few things better in life than watching a hen. When the world’s troubles are getting you down, when the pressures of work seem heavy to bear, release comes when you stop what you are doing, find a hen, and watch it. Maybe you think there isn’t much to see. It may not even occur to you at first that you are doing it. But the little things it does – the struts, leg-lifts, feather-fluffs, comb-wobbles and jerking, sharp-eyed inspections of the ground – and the little noises it makes, from clucks and squawks to gentle, low-voiced murmurs, will nevertheless warm you and reassure you.

It turns out that the chicken is not hard to mimic in music, and in today’s programme many of these little movements are noted in pieces by Rameau, Uccellini, Saint-Saëns and Mussorgsky, as well as in Gary Whitehead’s poem A Glossary of Chickens and an extract from Clarice Lispector’s The Hen.

We also recognise mankind’s long relationship with these strange birds for the things they do for us – however unwittingly – from giving us their flesh and eggs to eat to waking us up in the morning. Chickens as food-source occur in Edwin Brock’s Song of the Battery Hen, Pete Seeger’s version of a traditional American lyric, and in the lighthearted songs Hey Little Hen and Chick Chick Chicken. And the raucous cockerel as herald of the dawn makes himself heard in extracts from Herman Melville, John Gay, Katharine Tynan Hinkson and Elizabeth Bishop, and music by Lassus and Rodrigo. That his puffed-up pride may lead to a fall – as it can for all of us – is the thrust of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and his sexual appetite is darkly suggested in The Rolling Stones’ famous version of Little Red Rooster. 


Elsewhere, readings from P.G.Wodehouse and John Clare draw attention to ways in which chickens can almost nonchalantly outwit supposedly superior beings like us; Christina Georgina Rossetti celebrates their capacity for perfect motherhood; and unexpected symbolic roles are found for them in poems by Kay Ryan, Jack Mapanje and Heinrich Heine, and religious lyrics by Herrick and Henry Vaughan.


In the end, though, my hope as one who has lived with poultry for many years is that this programme will cause you to stop what are doing for a moment and contemplate the beauty of these old friends of ours: for their humbling mixture of low IQ and lateral-thinking chicken wisdom, as shrewdly observed by Ted Hughes; and, as so beautifully pointed out by Mark Roper, for that quiet cathartic quality they bring to our lives.

Lindsay Kemp


  • Sun 8 Jul 2018 17:30

The hidden history of plant-based diets

The hidden history of plant-based diets

Forget social media influencers - the meat-free movement started with the Victorians.

Books website

Books website

Get closer to books with in-depth articles, quizzes and our picks from radio & TV.