“Poppa Chicken” is a caricature of a pimp. He has style. He is a commodifier of sex. He is violent. He is an outlaw who has paid off the authorities to shorten the prison time he ultimately must serve. Then he gets old. He has sinister heroic status. The ballad has twelve four-line stanzas, rhymed abcb, with lines from five to eight syllables.
Poppa Chicken was a “sugar daddy” in his time, with a stable of many women. He made lots of money, and he harried his women “employees,” who said he was swell (probably out of well-grounded fear of reprisal for disrespect). Poppa Chicken’s face was “long and black” with a wide grin. When he went on show, his women heralded his progress with hysterical shouts. Inexorably, Poppa Chicken brutalized the women to command their obedience—the poem’s line “Treat ’em rough and make them say/ Poppa Chicken’s fine!” is a euphemism that might mask his viciousness. Poppa also carried guns and knives and inevitably killed a “guy”; jailed, he bought himself a short sentence, and released, his ambivalent folk-hero status grew, and he seemed unchanged by his experience. Poppa’s personality is one of conspicuous consumption, especially of custom cigars and large diamonds. In his post-jail life, he boldly carries no gun and swears at police officers (whom he has likely bribed). He eventually meets a woman with whom he actually falls in love, thereby acquiring a poignant and ominous vulnerability. However, soon “her man Joe”—perhaps her pimp of more youthful strength than Poppa—ends the affair, a poetically just denial of the experience of a love relationship for a person who forbade sentiment in the relationships between his employees and their customers. Poppa survives, but the reader now understands him to be the victim of his business as much as the women are and their “johns” who work for him in the soulless grapplings of prostitution.