Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Chicken In The Car And The Car Can't Go" Rhyme

Edited by Azizi Powell

Chicken in the car and the car can't go.
That's how you spell Chi-ca-go.

"Chicken in the car" demonstrates how the words to a rhyme can remain very constant over time and among various populations, however the same rhyme can have different activities associated with it.

I got to thinking about "Chicken in the car" because I happened upon a very brief video* of a Caribbean vocalist/musician Brushy singing a song whose words, tune, and tempo is almost identical to my childhood remembrances of chanting "chicken in the car".

Brushy One String - "Chicken In The Corn" (Official Video)

Brushy OneString, Published on Mar 20, 2013
Click for information about where this tune can be purchased online.
*I replaced that brief video clip with the official video that is found above. The following comments are from that brief video clip of this song that was uploaded by rezsbc on Mar 22, 2010
"This clip if [sic] from the 'Rise Up Reggae Star,' check out their channel

The tune also came out on a Roof International 7" in the early 90's with a dancehall mix on one side and brushy alone with the guitar on the flip! Brushy is the son of the late, great Jamaican legend Freddie McKay"
Here's my partial transcription of "Chicken In The Corn"

Chicken in the corn, mama eh - hay,
and the corn can't grow.
(Well-a) Chicken in the corn,
so the corn can't grow-o.

UPDATE September 1, 2013 hat tip Guto Santana for alerting me to to this link that has the complete lyrics to Bushy's song and also has more information about Bushy:
According to his spoken introduction to this song in another video "The King Of One String - Trailer", Brushy said he went to San Fransciso and a friend of his sung him this "old country song".

There are several other YouTube videos of Brushy singing this song, but I can't find its lyrics online. (It should be noted that the song "Chicken And Corn" - whose lyrics & video are available online - is a newly composed song which isn't the same as Brushy's rendition of "Chicken In The Corn".
Where did Brushy (or his San Franscico friend) get this "Chicken In The Corn" song from? If it really is an "old country song", is it a precusor to the rhyme "Chicken in the car"?

As I mentioned, I remember chanting the "chicken in the car" lines given at the beginning of this page when I was a child (Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1950s, African American*). That is the full text of the rhyme that I remember. I don't recall it being said with any accompanying activity except swaying back & forth while chanting.

* I'm adding the location, date, and my race for the folkloric record.

I couldn't find any other online references to "Chicken in the corn" and my search for videos other than Brushy's of "Chicken in the car" was unsuccessful. But after a fair bit of sleuthing, I found "Chicken in the car" mentioned on the following websites: (Websites are assigned numbers for referencing sake which have no preferential ranking. These quotes are posted without editorial comment).

Online Source #1
06-14-2000, 03:51 PM
"Does anyone know the origen or purpose of the saying, "Chicken in the car and the car can't go," and i believe it also has "and thats how you spell chicago."

funneefarmer ; 06-14-2000, 05:50 PM
"It's a tongue twister although I haven't found an origin yet.
From Collection of Tongue Twisters

"Knife and a fork bottle and a cork
that is the way you spell New York.

Chicken in the car and the car can go,
that is the way you spell Chicago. "

funneefarmer ; 06-14-2000, 06:43 PM

Gordon "Wedge" Wedgewood
Author of the novel "Chicken in the Car and the Car Won't Go, CHICAGO", (Chicago as it was a half century ago)

"Chicken In The Car" is a song done by Ralph Flanagan on the RCA label."

Ezstrete ; 06-14-2000, 07:05 PM
"This won't help too much but it was also a rhyme used during jump rope.

My first aweareness of it was about 1926 +/- a year or so.

It was a piece of nonsence like" Chevrolet---y'gotta shove 'er or let her lay"
"Bottle and cork spells NewYork"
Kid fun stuff "

Ukulele Ike ; 06-15-2000, 01:17 PM
"I first saw it in Carl Withers' collection A ROCKET IN MY POCKET: THE RHYMES AND CHANTS OF YOUNG AMERICANS (1948), a classic children's book that is still in print and which every parent ought to provide for their kids."

Online Source #2
Regarding the title of a new travel book on Chicago, Illinois:
“The title stems from an old saying to help folks remember how to spell Chicago.”

Online Source #3
"Memorable quotes for A River Runs Through It (1992)

Mr. Sweeney: [delivering letter from Chicago, quotes old song] Chicken in the car. Car won't go. That's how you spell Chicago. Ha he he."

Online Source #4
Excerpt from
"A Knife and a Fork and a Bottle and a Cork: That's How You Spell New York (Riddle Rhyme Trilogy) [Paperback]
Howard Schrager (Author)
Sarah Madsen (Illustrator)
Publisher: Lemontree Pr (July 15, 2010)
From the Author
"A number of years ago, I was watching the movie, Cinema Paradiso, when it cut to the scene of a hen roosting in an abandoned car. Immediately the words of a 1920s street rhyme my father had taught me flashed into my mind, Chicken in the Car, and the Car Can't Go... that's how you spell Chicago. He'd also taught me a companion rhyme that went A Knife and a Fork and a Bottle and a Cork...that's how you spell New York." Within days, I had decided to write a riddle rhyme for each of the 50 states." So says Howard Schrager, a teacher of 30 years standing.

Riddle Rhymes were part of children's culture for hundreds of years, and Schrager doesn't want to see them vanish. "Doing riddle rhymes requires listening, and, moreover, hearing. With games like Jeopardy, you either know the answer or you don't. With Riddle Rhymes you already know the answer, you just don't know which answer it is. You just have to hear the name arise inwardly, and to recognize it. This involves an interesting process of sound sifting, and provides a unique slant on thinking, and on competition."

Online Source #5

Subject: RE: Help: Illinois/Chicago Songs
From: Trapper
Date: 25 Jan 01 - 12:30 PM

My dad went to Chicago when I was a kid for a Chef's convention, and the whole week before he left we were singing:
Chicken in the car
And the car won't go
That's how we spell Chi-ca-go!

In summation,
1. I found no mention of the song "Chicken in the corn" except those on Caribbean vocalist/musician Brushy's videos.

2. "Chicken in the car" is described as a tongue twister; a jump rope rhyme; a piece of nonsense; a title of a song (Online Source #1); a title of a novel (Online Source #1); a title of a travel book taken from "an old saying to help folks remember how to spell Chicago" (Online Source #2); a song [chant]?*(Online Sources #3 and #5); a riddle; and a street rhyme (Online Source #4).

* My sense is that people in the United States often refer to rhymes & chants as "songs", and also describe their performance of rhymes & chants as "singing".

My recollection of "Chicken in the car" would also be placed under the "street rhyme" category.

3. The earliest dates that I found online for the "Chicken in the car" rhyme were 1926 +/- a year (Online Source #1) and 1920s (Online Source #4).

Note: The riddle "chicken in the car and the car won't go/that's how you spell Chicago" is also given on a few other websites in association with the verse:

Knife and a fork bottle and a cork
that is the way you spell New York.
Although I was born & raised in New Jersey, a state that is considerably closer to New York than Illinois, I have no recollection of that "knife and fork" verse or any other riddle verse sung (chanted) along with "chicken in the car".

Update: 2/4/2012
Here's another verse that I found in Harlem Photographs 1932-1940 (Aaron Siskind)

Chicken in the car
Car wouldn't go
Chicken jump out
The car went slow.

This was one of the short rhymes included in that ground breaking photography book.
From "This was perhaps the first time a white photographer documented this black community."

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. chicken in the corn, but the corn cant grow!!

  2. Gelada, if this is the version of "Chicken In The Car" that you know, for the folkloric record, please share where & when you learned it [city, state or region, and nation, and decade].


  3. My grandpa used to sing:
    Chicken in the car,
    Car won't go,
    Chicken fell out
    and broke his toe
    That's how you spell

    1. Thanks for sharing that example. I never come across that version of this rhyme before.

      For the folkloric record, it would be great to know if this version was something that your grandfather made up or if it is common to a particular city or state.

    2. My dad taught me a similar rhyme in the early 50's in Charleston, SC: Chicken in a car; car can't go, chicken fell out and stomped his toe; that's how you spell Chicago.
      I don't know if he made it up.

    3. Hello, Unknown.

      Thanks for sharing that rhyme with pancocojams and remembering to include where and when you learned it from your father.

    4. Unknown, you inspired me to publish this updated pancocojams post on "chicken in the car" and similar rhymes.

      Here's the link for that post "Chicken In The Car And The Car Can't Go", "M Crooked Letter", & Other Similar Rhymes And Lyrics

      Thanks again!

    5. I’m 69 and my mother used to do the chicken in the car and wash on a line and it weighs a ton and that’s how you spell Washington!!!

    6. Hi, Anonymous. Thanks for sharing that rhyme. I appreciate it!

  4. Check this!


    1. Thanks, Guto Santana!

      I included that link as an update in this post.

  5. One of my favorite songs from Apricot Jam, a three-piece band from New Mexico that was regionally popular in the 1990s, featured this rhyme:

  6. Chicken in the corn
    Corn won't grow
    That's the way you spell
    Knife and a fork
    And a plate of greens
    The way you spell
    New Orleans
    We go together
    Hand in hand
    Like a bowleg woman and a knock knee man
    I've heard that sung as a blues a million times

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories of "Chicken in the car", Odis Smokeyrib.

      You mentioned that you heard this sung as a blues a million times. I wish that you would share where you heard this, when, and how (for instance, was it a record, or just sung by folks you knew.)

      The "chicken in the car" phrase fits (somewhat( for the name "Chicago", but I wonder which came first the phrase "chicken in the corn" or the phrase "chicken in the car"?

      Thanks again!

  7. "Chicken in the Car" by Ralph Flanagan was a song from 1951 or so, if that's amy help.

  8. Washing on the line and the line weighs a ton.
    That's how you spell Washington.

    1. Thanks for that example, någon!

      I've never came across it before, but it fits with the patterns of the "chicken in the car" rhymes.

  9. Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, Kathryn McMorrow.

      I'm glad I happened upon this video.

  10. I know this is an old post but I just stumbled upon the One String video too and had so many questions until I found this page and the original song. I grew up with a hand-clapping game I learned in Nassau, Bahamas:

    The chicken in the car
    And the car can't go
    And that's how you spell
    Chicago, Chicago
    1, 1, back to back
    Say 1, 2, 1, 2
    1, 1, back to back

    This stuff fascinates me.

    1. Greetings, krizmah.

      Thanks for sharing the example of "Chicken in the car" that you remember. Also, thanks for including demographics (that this version comes from Nassau, Bahamae) and that you performed it as a hand clap rhyme.

      I'm wondering were the "back to back" line performed by clapping the backs of your hands on the backs of your partner's hand.

      krizmah, please share other examples of hand clap games that you remember from Nassau.

      Please email me at azizip17 at yahoo dot com to share examples of rhymes or children's games that you remember.

      Thanks again!