How great is it to live in a town with its own soundtrack?
If an alien spacecraft decided to land itself on top of the Dixie Brewery later this week (hopefully after the cool front comes through for landing purposes) and the space travelers asked our dear city leaders for a musical representation of our community, you know the first CD that would be handed over to Mr. Spock and company would be “New Orleans Mardi Gras Classics Vol 1.” (Yes, you have it in your car right now).
Any alien that is not familiar with the likes of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson can just go back from whatever planet they came from without a Randazzo’s king cake (in my books at least).
The Sound of Mardi Gras
Truth be told, Mardi Gras music defines us as a culture. The same songs that were written sixty-plus years ago are still being sung by young and old alike on Mardi Gras parade routes, carnival balls, work cubicles, and bathroom stalls across the city. Young people who can’t name all four Beatles can still hum the saxophone intro to ” Mardi Gras Mambo” and even get through most of the words. I field-tested this theory over the weekend at St. Joe’s Bar (trust me, I’m a musician). The results were outstandingly positive.
I am going to spend gear you up for Mardi Gras by giving you the rundown behind some of the best songs of Mardi Gras. Why? Because you should know why these tunes are important and what it means to “Jock-a-mo-fi-na-ney,” “Shoot a LaLa,” and “Find a levee and burn it down.”
Consider this your crash course with Mr. Credo. Pencils ready? Let’s go.
Mardi Gras Music 101: Iko Iko (Jock-A-Mo)
Probably one of the most instantly identifiable Mardi Gras songs, “Iko Iko” (originally titled “Jock-A-Mo”) was written in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in New Orleans. The tune is a classic story about two war-time Indian tribes getting ready to do battle. The original version of the song speaks about “spy boys” and “spy dogs” who were considered to be the front men of the Indian tribes who would seek out the opposing groups and give a report on their location to their “Big Chief.” The role of “spy boy” was often the most dangerous as you were most likely the first guy caught and killed if the other side found you hiding in the brush.
The official name change to “Iko Iko” came in 1965 when The Dixie Cups recorded the second version of the tune. Their take of the song was actually considered just a joke to the group and later admitted that they had no idea that the recording machine was on when they were singing it. Their version became a national hit later that year and acted as a follow up to their first smash hit “Chapel Of Love” in 1964.
What does “Jock-A-Mo” mean, anyway?
According to the liner notes of Dr. John’s “Gumbo” album in 1972:
“Jockamo” means ‘jester’ in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and ‘second line’ in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That’s dead and gone because there’s a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.”
Dr. John’s version of “Iko Iko” has also become a standard of the song. His extended version on the “Live At Montreaux” live album (1995) brings in another totally new set of lyrics that reflect more of the original Sugarboy Crawford tune than the Dixie Cups version.
“Iko Iko”’s popularity has brought it into the songbooks of many famous artists like Cyndi Lauper, The Greatful Dead, Cowboy Mouth, Warren Zevon, Dave Matthews, and hundreds of other artists. Natasha England’s version hit the top 10 in 1982, and yes, it was in that scene in “The Hangover.” In fact, “Iko Iko” has been found on over fifteen different movie soundtracks.
The song’s almost sixty plus year history ranks it not only as a classic song of R&B and Rock ‘N’ Roll, but a true New Orleans Mardi Gras classic. When you hear it this year as you’re freezing out on Orleans Avenue waiting for the Krewe Of Endymion to start, sing the chorus as a proud New Orleanian. You can put on some war paint if you get crazy enough, or just dance around with your Abita Strawberry. “Cuz if you don’t like what the Big Chief say, you can “Jock-a-mo-fee-na-ney.” What’s your favorite Mardi Gras song?