BY Jon Donlon
(2014). Bayou Country Bloodsport: The Culture of Cockfighting in Southern Louisiana, McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina.
Lawrence “Blue” Edwards
As is the pattern with other long popular sports and pastimes, the structure of cock fighting allows participants to change along with the normal twists and turns of the human life course. Lawrence “Blue” Edwards had been raising, fighting, breeding and trading game cocks for much of his life when I spoke with him. “We’d raise ’em, you know, fight ’em. See who could develop the best bird. I’d change birds with another feller. I’d sell a couple now and then when a guy wanted to get started. I’d give him advice.”1Blue once ran a pit near Rayne, Louisiana. He was retired when we spoke and is dead now, so you could say he was a life-long enthusiast; he was amused by all the fuss being kicked up in the press at the time, just a few years before Louisiana decided to ban the sport.
“People come in from all over. They come in from the Philippines, from the Pacific thereabouts. Lots of people drive in from Mississippi, Texas, Florida. But the do-gooders [again, the apparently universal euphemism for troublesome activists of whatever stripe] want to change it. I always wonder why people always want to change what the other man is doing!”2 Blue said to me when we began to talk.
Blue delivered his comments while holding me in the gaze of calm, youthful eyes. Having seen much in a life full of work, activity, and no doubt danger and hardship, his face resonated with unspoken irony as he discussed “outsiders” and their odd notion of ethical behavior.
Later, after showing me the orderly breeding, conditioning, rearing, and training areas he maintained behind his neat, ranch style home, Blue contemplated the sport. His bird yard is on the same property with his contemporary, modest brick veneer suburban subdivision house, in no particular way different from his neighbors or the community. He was watching afternoon television the first time I visited him; the premises were immaculate. Outside, the place’s small lawn was closely cut, carefuly clipped and edged as if along a ruler; the landscaping showed the result of hours of attentive work.
Blue apparently lavished the same attention on his birds, every one of which was, of biological necessity, reared in individual quarters. Each hutch in the long, low row showed off a trimmed plastic milk jug water trough and a feed tray in the same corner. “It’s really man- to- man, when the cocks fight,” Edwards reflected as he topped off each of the water containers, “the fight is the least important part of it and the most. I wouldn’t do it if the fight was all there was to it. For me, I like to know if I did everything the right way to bring a winning bird to the pit.”3
As one philosophical aficionado pointed out, “all conflict throughout time has been either because of sex or religion. With cocks, it’s sex.”4
Way back when my Irish forbears were wandering muddy moors in crude leather armor, game cocks were prized possessions of the apparently invincible invading Roman legions. Earlier, when the Romans were still unconfederated tribes, game fowl were precious in Eastern empires, some of whose mythology credit the cock with driving away the creature of the dark to bring the dawn. And so it goes, back into dimmest antiquity. The Gallus-gallus were probably domesticated in India or thereabouts, and were certainly being fought in the time of Jesus’ teachings.
But there is now nothing save trouble in store for would-be cockers, the sport being everywhere in the United States illegal and the mere possession of paraphernalia often itself a crime – making the scholarship of material culture problamatic. No doubt for as long as the practice has existed cock fighting has had its opponents and today is certainly no different. In the distant past it may have been the local shaman or so-called witch-doctor who didn’t want the competition on his spiritual turf. Later it was this or that Churchly representative, testy about the sense of power and perhaps even the happiness the sport allowed its followers. Today the chief opposition was probably from anti-cockfight or so-called animal rights groups and business interests. All members of this vastly heterogeneous yet uniformly hostile community might be mistaken as a monolith the way members of the cocker fraternity lump them all so disconcertingly under the rubric of “do-gooders,” a term in itself oddly mild considering the opprobrium cast on the cockers from the other direction.
Hot on the heels — so to speak — of a surge of ethnic pride in South Louisiana, quickly manifested in a burgeoning industry pumping out Cajun food and music, was a fresh drive to squash this traditional, largely rural, pastime. Self-described spokespersons for the culture chose to embrace the safe – not to explicitly say monitizable — portions of Louisiana’s exotic culture and tradition, finding some authentic pastimes a bit too exotic. It might be overstating to say there was concern for bad press in the jejune, middle-class, generally urban, certainly entrepreneurial, tastes of this selection. Not everything is fit for converting into a salable commodity.
Cockfighting, perhaps one of humankind’s most ancient sports, has been shrouded in mystery and clad in myth until at last it’s been suppressed and made unlawful. Regardless of the haze of gobbledygook spun out about its sociopolitical meaning or its vouchsafed “cruelty” on purplish prose web sites (only a toddler would mistake the magnitude of cruelty taking place at the nation’s pits for the staggering degree of institutionalized heartlessness in the on-going factory system central to our economical food system) or the smoothly uttered accounts, these things always involved a pair of big cocks thrashing about wildly and beating the dickens out of one another. There can be little doubt that historically, in South Louisiana, the strange attraction generated by cocking gripped contemporary industrialists, many middle-class professionals, blue collar workers, country & western stars, and traditional rural folk –including transplants in some of America’s biggest cities–as it did round the world.
The unique nature of cockfighting as a blood sport and as a social phenomenon is a compelling and curious bit of reality. It was impossible to stand in the reek of a country pit and mistake the event for just a pair of chickens fighting. What’s going on here? Why bother with it, in rural America or urban center, in such apparently unrelated cultures as exist in Bali, Cajun Country USA, the Philippines, and across South America? What about cock fighting allowed it or caused it to endure through the millennia?
And what makes Louisiana, especially South Louisiana, so different – expressed as je ne sais quois — from all else in America? Part of the Louisiana uniqueness springs, no doubt, from its curious cultural milieu, involving Spanish, Indian, Chinese, German, Anglo-Irish, and perhaps most important, French roots. Some of it is also the simple reality of inter-personal dynamics operating over time in a climate hardly fit for human habitation, a setting which ironically created such a bountiful natural realm that until recently, and even now if one considers the poachers which are still common members of the regional population, many folks could and did live entirely off the land and water.
South Louisiana – Cajun Land?
When Marc Reisner, already well known for his reportage of the battle for water in the agricultural West, investigated poaching in Louisiana, he immediately became involved in a forest, shall I say, of conflicting preferred narratives. Discussing the savage natural environment of downstate Louisiana, and noting the colossal cloud-bursts, the almost malignant verdancy of the foliage and the monumental fecundity of the biosphere thereabout he wrote that if “you were there [in South Louisiana] at all meant, almost assuredly, that you were a French Acadian–a Cajun–because the Atchafalaya wilderness scared the rest of mankind to death.”5 Well, Reisner was perhaps overstating a little, yet, in some ways, he was on to something. As far as can be sussed out, “Cajun” is some huckster public relations person’s invention on the less glamorous term “Acadian.”
It was largely the Cajuns who carved a culture and a living from the marshes of the south and the plains at the ankle of boot shaped Louisiana. It is largely a Cajun, in that essential, creolized and hybridized meaning which concretized the notion of jois de vivre; a mentality which maintained the cock fights around Duson, Carencro (a site where settlers saw the “carrion crows”), Opelousas, or Rayne, and down by Dulak, Mire, St. Martinsville, and Venice. The sport was certainly not unique to these European settlers, nor was it anything like as popular as, say, duck or deer hunting or other harvest hunting. Moreover, Anglo, and European, and African American groups were always well represented, as were more recent arrivals: Cubans and Viet Namese, and all the rest, all embraced the cock fight sub-culture. Indeed, Cuban immigrants were credited with innovations, including a basket release which involved placing the two competitors in the pit, each under a separate, large, woven basket. Instead of being thrown together by handlers, as in the more recent, traditional way, the cocks face-off only when ropes attached to the baskets are quickly yanked up at once, creating an even-handed presentation. This change was considered to have improved fairness at the fights in the last years of the sport. Pits in North Louisiana were not so colorfully Cajun.
The whole state is different, you might say, pointing to the plans for change with which the arrival of the twentieth century was greeted; lots of folks welcomed it as a harbinger of modernism for the Boot State. Yet as Reisner I think quite correctly points out, “Louisiana has long been reputed to contain more lawless hunters and fishermen, per capita, than any of the United States.” 6 In fact, for a place with a church or two, or so it seems, on every block, there is a glorious feeling of frontier free-for-all about much of prairie Louisiana. When Allen MacDonell published his memoir recollecting his several decades in the trenches doing editorial work with Hustler Magazine, perhaps America’s premier slezie popular press porn publication, he discussed a series of leads related to stories on Republican miscreants. Larry Flynt, Hustler owner, had directed a search for a set of tell-all investigative reports outing these hypocrites in response to the grilling President Clinton was getting at the time.
According to MacDonell, the dirt was that Bob Livingston had been squealed on by a fellow Republican for his infidelity; there were implications of other, worse impropriety and, as a result, the powerful player was at the top of their leads list. However, the two off-staff special editors suggested laying low on Livingston: “You left out Bob Livingston,” MacDonell writes he said at the meeting, “Bob Livingston should be first priority.”7 Their special investigator reminded them that Livingston was from Louisiana, and advised caution, suggesting that the politics were so “dirty” there, they would likely get burned. That is, he warned Hustler owner Larry Flynt about how unsavory Louisiana was. Or, as Reisner more gently explains it, “so many people in South Louisiana have lived so closely to the land, with such a close approximation of a communal social network, for so long that many ideas associated with contemporary law abiding behavior is simply not a part of the structure.”8Although talking more particularly about poaching, in part, he raises the larger issue at foundation: cockfighting is a mere symptom of the tug-of-war between a spirit of laziz faire living and the extraordinary sense of pressure from governance felt my many Louisiana citizens and the growing will to impose organized management methods on contemporary people in the state.
It is obvious that today’s governing elite would prefer a single, convenient meaning of cockfighting be prescribed on these now marginalized groups. Such a model is familier: in order to gain the economic and social benefits of homogeneity “fringe” or edge associated forms and meanings must be expunged or at least managed for damage control. This was the case with the Cathars hundreds of years ago and such is the case again when rural sports and their dwindling numbers of participants undergo the process of pariatization. The threat to social stability intra-group (within the local area social organization) is neither the presence of an occasional cock pit nor the presence, in the typical and normal scarce numbers research has shown them to exist, as participants of marginalized sports.
From the perspective of the especially invested traditionalists the threat arises with the malicious interference of the “outsider.” While it is very important to maintain a clear eyed vision of the nature of the animal combat under discussion and the social setting in which it is embedded, it is certainly true that my field work uncovered strong variance between public or popular (or perhaps, preferred) description of these events and legitimate accounts.
Visit a local pit, which would now be an impossibility, and you would have likely found, mostly depending on scheduling or other predictable competition for leisure time-budget decisions, parents and their children, you might have found parents of the parents and maybe grandkids. The occasional visitor might have found packs of teenage guys and teenage girls, and little dyads of dating couples, sometimes if they are young; they are with one or the other’s parents. What might have been seen, in short, was a vital example of both micro and macro society still integrated. Competition for the scarce resource of leisure time would explain some of what sociologists call demographics. As I made field notes, what struck me was the unusual profile and texture of that audience compared to many commercial settings.
The families in attendance sometimes had the appearance, to the observer, of being intact. There tended to be, or temporarily seemed to be, an orderly, visual progression of ages along the life course – like an extended family on display. Older folks got what appeared to be courteous help and attention from younger. Of course, there was also a powerful bias toward the legitimate sport follower; most of every crowd I saw was composed of people of the age cohort most likely to be engaged in such events – it was the spectator or collateral crowd which hinted to the cohesive elements available in this and other closely related traditional undertakings.
To the careful observer, these settings were reminiscent, at least temporarily, of a kind of approximation of the traditional agricultural social mode (a pre-industrial setting). Importantly, although all technical attributes are “modern,” the atmosphere lacked the modernist social aroma and harked back – perhaps playfully; this is a game setting after all — from the post-modern. As such in spite of the new cars & trucks in the lot and cell phones held up to so many ears, it very aggressively refuted the values so necessary to sustain mass consumerism, such as may be exhibited at the local mall, for instance.
Those at times self-consciously anti-consumerist performance should be seen as having been a threat to contemporary institutions ranging from niche marketing methodology to Brand value deepening (the cock pit was far too empirical to support values based on “looks” alone). The pre-modern setting strongly reinforced the benefit of having “experience” and put little value on processing cash for its own sake; it’s contrary to the post-modern setting which must be based on consumption of “wants” far distanced from legitimate human needs – including experiential needs and desires.9 In a certain way of thinking about it, the cock pit was a threat because of its “opportunity costs,” because it’s world provided a fundamentally alternative societal experience which although wanted and consumed was not easily “commoditized “ or, even more directly, “monetized.”
As a pattern in my observations, older men, in particular, tended to be treated almost as if they were sages, with the younger cock fighters listening attentively to their technical advice or occasional reminisces. The air would be filled with tall tales, family narratives, local gossip as well as the shouts of wagers and the claims of superiority or inferiority of this or that bird. Most unusual, most anachronistic of all perhaps, the air is filled with powerful young men yes sirring and no sirring their fathers (or, older folk).
Cock fighting was, of course, under the reformer’s well-focused eye all across the nation for decades. They (the “do gooders”) long said it was brutal, which perhaps it was. They say it’s archaic, which it might well be. In fact, I have often felt it was the traditional nature of the undertaking which was in part the sport’s lightning rod for attention. They said, going out on a limb to invent justifications, cockfighting “caused” people to be heartless (how often do people really need an antecedent to be heartless?) Reflect: this weak charge was being lodged by members of the apparent mainstream of a nation which has apparently once been accused of allowing catsup to be considered a vegetable for the purpose of feeding poor children. The politician associated with this platform is now held in high regard. Of course it’s unlikely that many people actively wanted, as their goal, children to eat catsup rather than good food. But it’s equally unlikely, realistically teasing out the matter, that human beings would bother to create an event for the express purpose of annoying chickens – that’s not the function of the event though a case might be made that birds are in fact annoyed as a byproduct or that it is the most vulnerable segment s of the population, exactly because they lack political clout, who are necessarily victimized by many draconian budget cuts.
In the same sense, and for powerfully similar structural explanations, accusations of sport cruelty were leveled by members of a nation which regularly refused or refuses to adequately fund its inner-city’s health or education needs, whose cities are peopled by the homeless, and whose elected officials have in the past established a lawful minimum wage which guaranteed poverty and squalor after working a full day. Mudslinging is a useful pursuit if one is willing to take careful measure of the many surfaces available upon which the mire might splatter and cling. Similarly, erection of straw men for the purpose of carrying forward a critique has its uses while, at the same time, never really reflecting historic realty.
Just as Collin Levey wrote in the Wall Street Journal May 2, 2003, “with a world full of intractable problems, banning various kinds of animal entertainments is a cost-free exercise in cultural superiority designed mainly to offend on a class basis.” True enough, as far as the muddled headed explanation goes. Regardless of the motivation of reformers working to reduce the suffering of animals, suffering comes to a halt. The animal entertainments are still banned and the anguish which may have previously taken place has been stopped. That result has no linkage to the intractability of other problems but it does reduce net suffering – not a bad thing on the whole. Indeed, as a moral agent, many would suggest that human beings have a much more powerful imperative to act on the circumstances against which change may really take place. Unfortunately, at times, it seems the moral dilemma is turned on its head.
Appallingly, as Burkhard Bilger explained so terribly in his March 1999 piece in Harpers, for the several thousand game cocks destroyed in battle, the nation factory farms in unspeakable conditions and dispatches in awful horror seven billion [my italics] chickens a year. The suggestion that cockfighting was a uniquely cruel undertaking in the United States is as a result untenable. That this sport terrain, these events, were vastly complex and enormously difficult to describe adequately, fairly, and justly, is much more accurate. Neither a realistic appraisal of these circumstances’ complexities nor a suggestion of comparable barbarity has the effect of actually reducing the amount of violence taking place in a cock pit by one molecule.
It is also important to keep in mind that most major animal rights groups made it their goal to destroy the “stock” of game cocks as a means of short-circuiting the sport. Most have no wish to protect these domestic birds – the goal to extinguish the traditional pastime. Most animal welfare organizations (although there are very, very many with very many agendas) flow from the activity of English visionary William Wilberforce who after a profound conversion experience came to understand that cruelty, as expressed toward human beings or animals, was morally wrong.
After his conversion in the late 1700s Wilberforce devoted his life to anti-slavery, pro-human rights, and anti-animal cruelty activity. Today, the notion that some animals can be willfully subjected to cruelty because they are “domestic” and others should be protected because they are “wild” (or fit some other category) would be fundamental anathema to Wilberforce’s basic notion. Yet, the most important animal protection agencies active on this issue believe that domestic animals have no right to life (this is a necessary “ethical” presumptive decision because the agencies themselves destroy so many animals). As a result, it is quite easy to understand the feeling of overwhelming complexity in the varied dynamics at play in this issue.
Families seem close in South Louisiana, especially so those observed in public as at a cock pit. Poaching, by way of an example, is hard to suppress largely because the hunters simply pass the over-limits of duck or geese or fish on to their neighbors, families, and friends. The cohesion of the Cajun way of life is undoubtedly decaying, in part through the erosion perhaps natural as outsiders penetrate the society. But part of the decay of the still vital culture devolves entirely from the zealous attempts of reformers to suppress traditional pastimes. And this is an example of reform, not improvement, since no evidence exists of any bad “effect” escaping from such traditional sports as hunting and cock fighting.
No doubt disreputable elements exist here, thought hardly because of cock fighting or jack lighting deer. And while there may be many good reasons to suppress the sport of cock fighting by the agency of criminalizing participation, not many of them have yet been articulated. Certainly the total amount of suffering in the world is not reduced when the amount of chicken suffering is reduced and the amount of human suffering is increased?
How the Sport Developed – Short Form
The sport, if it may be called that, of cockfighting involves pitting – fighting — evenly matched pairs of game fowl, in the presence of wagering, often until at least one is dead. As such, these events are part of a larger orbit of related sport or game-like undertakings involving animal participation. The animal may be seen as a surrogate for a human; standing in as it were either to reduce the risk to the owner or in order to rely on the animal’s superior attributes.
In antiquity, such events may have been viewed as modes of mediation with the gods or as methods by which to negotiate with unseen forces. Today, it is more likely that the behavior is considered criminal, deviant, or a social pollutant. All fifty states now ban cockfighting, Louisiana, predictably slow with this sort of cutting-edge legislation, being the last to regulate, doing so in the first decade of this century.
Current theory presumes that the domestication of game fowl took place from wild stock in the Far East prior to the birth of Christ, and rapid distribution of the sport and the bird followed normal, previously established trade lines. Certainly the sport was pattern-distributed within the great Roman system. It is well established that cockfighting and the reading of cock entrails was commonplace among pagan Legionaries.
If we are to believe a meaningful seam of travel narratives and other reportage, cockfighting was endemic throughout Europe, especially in the maritime nations, by the time of European expansion toward and into the New World. English-speaking settlements quickly enough dotted the East Coast of United States; Spanish language, custom, and governance prevailed further south. According to reliable source material, pretty much all these outposts imported the spirited bird, for food and presumably for its noteworthy contesting.
Most authorities agree that the modern game fowl is a direct linear descendant from the Indian red jungle fowl. From those leafy locales, cockfighting seems to have spread through ancient India to Persia, across and through China. Eventually (perhaps around the sixth century b.c.e.) exploring Greeks incorporated the sport. Indeed, the young were required to attend fights to learn vicarious lessons of courage and fortitude.
General references, such as Page Smith and Charles Daniel’s The Chicken Book, speculate that cockfighting may be “the oldest sport known to man.” By 386 A.D., St. Augustine records a cockfight in De Ordine. St. Augustine wonders why the birds so willingly fight with one another and, moreover, why the onlookers seem so fascinated by the spectacle. Perhaps overly informed by metaphysical perspective, the philosopher concluded that without evil, there would be no good. A more sanguine observer might suggest that without competition, there could be no wagering.
The historic record seems to indicate that the sport was introduced by English and Spanish speakers, within each orbit of power, all over the New World. Certainly cockfighting was widespread throughout the southern United States by the early 1700s—laws to regulate the sport were among the first parts of the Civil Code enacted in the New England colonies in the 1600s. Poorly substantiated but hardly unlikely legend tells us that presidents Washington, Jackson and Jefferson raised game fowl, and that Abraham Lincoln’s nickname, “Honest Abe,” came from his fairness as a referee of cockfights.
Nude, Harpoon, or Knife
In actual pitting, game cocks often use the bony spurs which grow on the back of their legs as their primary weapons in bare heel bouts or they may be rigged out with small, generally tubular or pointed rod-like gaffs (also called harpoons); they may be fitted with small, sharp, strong knives. These kinds of attachments can be made of coral, horn, turtle shell, stainless and various carbon steels, special alloys cut from recycled high-speed turbine blades, or even chemically treated chicken spurs. This is all designed to make competition even handed (or legged), reducing the chance of variation in “natural” protuberances and replacing same with standardized gear.
Today, these blades are—or were– custom fabricated by a specialist group within the handmade knife craftsmen fraternity. A further subspecialty existed in the edgers, the people who sharpen cockfight knives. These items were beautifully crafted, as if they constitute jewelry for miniature warriors.
Although cockfighting has incontestably been very popular in the American South, the naive notion held by many that the sport is somehow uniquely “Southern” does not fit the historic record or the pattern of population expansion. As is obvious, for much of its arc of popularity, especially in Europe and Great Britain, cockfighting was a middle-class, yeoman, or elite pastime. Landed estates, popular pubs, and commercial sport houses playing host (again, mainstream theorists suggest that today’s orchestra well is the residuum of earlier theatre designs which featured busker platforms and a cock pit in the center).
In any event, cockfighting was popular throughout the American South. The bird being well suited for many climates and adaptation into the food ways of vast regions with varied palates. Still, if commonplace in the south, cockfighting was equally popular everywhere in the US from the cattle ranches of the West to the sheep stations of the borderlands, from the haciendas of the sandy Southern California to the raucous Barbary Coast of San Francisco, from the splashing sluices of boomtown gold rush Alaska to the front porch of Abe Lincoln’s store in New Salem, Illinois.
By the Middle of the 19th century in the US and much of Europe, activists and so-called “do gooders” busily at work with the Recreation Reform Movement (also called the Parks and Settlement Movement) were powerfully bent on eradicating many leisure events supposedly associated with the rough rural roots of working-class men and likely linked to their ruin. Tavern sports, such as badger & bull baiting, cockfighting, goose pulling, and ratting (to say nothing of whoring, drinking, and brawling), fell under the baleful glare of unforgiveing bourgeois authority. The eradication that begun in earnest in the late eighteen hundreds was completed about a century and a half later. In 2007 Louisiana drew up regulatory apparatus: all 50 states now ban cockfighting.
Notes for this segment.
1) Respondent Lawrence “Blue” Edwards
2) Lawrence “Blue” Edwards
3) Lawrence “Blue” Edwards
4) Commentator, name unrecorded, Rayne, Louisiana, cockpit
5) Reisner, 1991, p. 7
6) Reisner, 1991, p. 19
7) MacDonell, 2006, p. 259
8) Reisner, 1991, p. 20
9) This notion regarding post-modern valuation of desire in lieu of legitimate needs, and its impact (or suggested impact) is taken up in several places elsewhere in other chapters.
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