Unearthing a connection between Juno and the Chicken Heads

Can you recall the opening scene of the phenomenally popular 2007 film “Juno”? A teenage girl wanders through town to the strains of a plucky, upbeat tune called “All I Want Is You.” It begins, “If I was a flower growing wild and free, all I’d want is you to be my sweet honey bee.”

If you’re like me, you fell instantly in love with the cheerful ditty. And like me, you may not have realized that, back in 1977, a Jewish children’s musician, Barry Louis Polisar, crafted that song.

While the general listening public might not be familiar with his work, Polisar is well known in offbeat-music circles — thanks to decades spent performing his own unique brand of clever and edgy children’s folk songs. This reverence is evidenced in the 60-song, two-disc Polisar tribute album released last month. “We’re Not Kidding” features dozens of bands, including a handful of Bay Area–based Jewish musicians.

When Polisar’s promoter sent me a copy of the album, to my shock, I realized one of my own early musical heroes spearheaded the project.

Aaron Cohen is a bit of a legend in Orange County. Granted, he isn’t, in the technical sense, a children’s songwriter, but Cohen’s music does encompass that same Polisar-style, childlike glee.

Cohen, a Jewish singer, has performed dressed as a 7-foot-tall carrot, with his band Joe and the Chicken Heads (now Radioactive Chicken Heads) for more than a decade. His rambunctious concerts, replete with a full horn section dressed as evil chickens, constitute some of my fondest high school memories.

I reconnected with Cohen via phone after listening to his band’s excellent cover of Polisar’s song “I Looked Into the Mirror, What Did the Mirror Say?” I wanted to learn the origins of Cohen’s obsession with the folk singer.

“My mom got me Polisar’s album when I was 7 years old and it blew my mind,” Cohen, now 31, told me. “It was really raw and the songs were so funny.”

He recorded a few Polisar covers while in high school, then last year posted on his website that he was looking for other bands to contribute to an album of cover songs. He was bombarded by replies from across the country.

Though Cohen has long seen Polisar as his musical spirit guide, he didn’t realize they also had the Jewish connection until recently, when the two began a regular correspondence.

“At first I didn’t even realize he was Jewish but it makes total sense — I think we have that same sense of humor.”

Cohen is dead-on with that observation. After I hung up with him, I reached Polisar by phone on his 16-acre farm in Silver Spring, Md.

I found him to be humorous and passionate. He told me stories of his life, from his first album (“I Eat Kids,” 1975) to the recent wave of recognition he’s received due to the success of “Juno.”

Something I hadn’t counted on and was impressed to learn — he’s deeply committed to religion and active in his local Jewish community. While his songs are typically secular, he has written religious children’s books and he’s currently writing a midrash on Genesis.

“I have two sides — the playful side picks up the guitar, the thoughtful side turns to the Torah,” Polisar said.

He also self-published his own Haggadah and reads from it with the 40 friends and relatives who gather around his seder table each year.

“At 12 I wanted to fast on Yom Kippur, but my grandma made matzah ball soup to rebel against her Orthodox upbringing,” he said. “I tell this story in the intro of my Haggadah to demonstrate that traditions have become watered down with each generation. I don’t want to be the last link in my family’s Judaism.”

This sentiment touched a nerve for me — that need to recognize our past to avoid losing the connections with our heritage.

I realized Cohen did exactly that with Polisar’s immense body of work. He paid tribute to the legend by reworking the songs for future generations.

Emily Savage
lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at emily@jweekly.com.