A current Apple iPhone commercial extols the virtues of exercise apps on the smartphone with a soundtrack of a man singing, “Go you chicken fat, go!” While Millennials may be scratching their heads wondering where in the world this obscure song came from, early and mid-generation Baby Boomers immediately recognize it from their school days.
The story of how the song, Chicken Fat, came to be is an interesting one that actually begins in the Eisenhower years. In the mid-1950s President Eisenhower, the former career military man and Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, had received numerous reports from his generals that draftees during the Korean conflict were physically not up to the standards of the previous generation. There was a growing sentiment among the public, too, that in the years following the War, people became more sedentary, and television was thought to be a big contributor to this trend.
This concern reached its peak in the mid-50s when an international study was published with the findings that American children were not as physically fit as those of other countries. President Eisenhower reacted to the findings by issuing Executive Order 10673 on July 16, 1956. This order established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. It was immediately well received and supported by both government and public sectors, but questions remained as to what the U.S. government could do to affect a change in the trend.
During the remaining years of the Eisenhower Administration, the Council languished, in no small part due to lack of focus, organizational issues and the fact that it was not a priority of Eisenhower’s, as he rarely if ever spoke about it in speeches or personal visits.
Then a junior senator from Massachusetts picked up the banner that Eisenhower had set aside. While running for president in 1960, John Kennedy — himself a decorated veteran of WWII — spoke many times of the need for a strong and physically fit country.
One month after his Inauguration in January of 1961, he convened a conference on the state of the country’s physical fitness. As a result, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness was revived and reorganized. President Kennedy asked Robert Preston if he could come up with a song that could inspire children to want to do physical activity in school on a daily basis. Preston had been the star of the Broadway musical, The Music Man, in 1957 and was reprising his role in the film version at the time. (The film was released in 1962 and won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score that year.) Answering the call of his President, Preston enlisted the help of Meredith Willson, the man who wrote the music and lyrics for The Music Man. He came up with the Chicken Fat song, and Preston agreed to sing it while the same marching band that had played in The Music Man movie would play the music on the recording.
The song was released in two versions: a shorter three-minute one intended for radio airplay (where it didn’t do well, even as a novelty) and a longer six-minute version intended to be played in schools. The Kennedy Administration, by some reports, had three million copies of the record distributed to schools around the country with a suggested instruction manual of a simple exercise routine that could accompany the song. Here’s where boomer memories come in, including those of Mister Boomer.
Mister B’s recollection of Chicken Fat were indeed from the classroom. His Catholic elementary school did not have a gymnasium or a physical education program. When Chicken Fat came along, the nuns evidently took notice. After all, the directive was coming from JFK himself, and they revered Kennedy as the first Catholic President. They, like the general public, knew nothing of his philandering ways at the time. When he was assassinated just two years later, they were completely devastated. But it was 1961, the country was full of hope and “progress” was the buzzword of the day. Physically fit children meant a stronger country and a stronger country represented a stronger democracy.
As far as Mister B remembers, the shorter version of the record was what was played in his classroom. Once a week (as opposed to the Council’s recommendation of every day) the nun would get the box record player out of the classroom closet. A stool set in the center of the front of the room near the blackboard (and electrical outlet) would serve as the base as she set it down and flipped the latch on the box to reveal the turntable and record player arm inside. Pulling the electrical cord from its designated storage slot alongside the turntable, she plugged it in, slipped the plastic 45 RPM adapter into the record’s center hole and positioned it on the turntable spindle. Rising from her half-bent position, she instructed the class to stand up next their desks. Then, bending back over, she unlocked the record player arm and deposited it at the start of the record.
After the a few seconds of hiss, pop and scratch, the refrains of a marching band emanated from the single built-in speaker. Then Robert Preston began singing: “Touchdown, every morning / Not just now and then…” It was here the spry Sister, in full habit, instructed the class to perform jumping jacks. The Council’s recommendations of push-ups and sit-ups were not practical with a room full of kids standing next to their desks. Satisfied she had demonstrated enough of them for the class to get the gist of it, she stopped but encouraged the class to continue throughout the song.
Mister Boomer, like his classmates, hated the song. The experiment didn’t last long — four days out of the month at most — and Chicken Fat was never heard in the classroom again. In more than 50 years, Mister B can recall possibly one other time the scenario surfaced in his mind, until the recent iPhone commercial brought it all back into focus.
Undaunted by the lack of interest in the Chicken Fat initiative, President John F. Kennedy was convinced that physical fitness was an issue of national concern. He continued speaking and writing about fitness. In 1961 he said:
Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.
On January 8, 1963, JFK signed Executive Order 11074 which established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to try to reverse what the President’s Council on Youth Fitness had failed to accomplish. The order further defined goals and purpose, and named a director who answered directly to the President. Today the Council remains active in inspiring school children to be active and eat healthy … without the use of a Chicken Fat record.
Do you have memories — or nightmares — about “Go you chicken fat, go!”?