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THE GREATEST MUSICAL EPIPHANY OF ALL TIME: IKO IKO BY THE DIXIE CUPS

Updated: May 30, 2023

In honor of Mardi Gras, happening February 13, 2024 --- we’re bringing you another entry into American Blues exclusively EOTM style.


A brief History of a Song - "Iko Iko" by The Dixie Cups.

If you've only heard one Mardi Gras song, it's probably "Iko Iko," the hit recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. An earlier version titled "Jock-a-mo" by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford came out in 1953, and many artists from Dr. John to the Grateful Dead, to Cyndi Lauper have covered it. It's a playful, taunting chant that comes from the traditional call and response challenges of two battling tribes at a Mardi Gras parade.


The chorus goes something like this:

Hey now! Hey now! Iko iko wan dey Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey Jock-a-mo fi na ney.

Everyone has recorded it a little differently, but no one as far as I know, who recorded it knew what it meant. Crawford had heard the phrases at parade battles, and the Dixie Cups said they had heard their grandmother sing it.


There are as many guesses about the meaning of this song as there are versions of it: Jock-a-mo means "brother John," or "jokester," or "Giacomo;" Jock-a-mo fin a ney means "kiss my ass," or "John is dead"; Iko means "I go," or "pay attention," or "gold," or "hiking around"; the words come from French, or Yoruba, or Italian.


Well, I decided to ask some natives of the Bayou whom I met when I lived in Atlanta in the early 2000's. When I asked what they knew about the origin of the song, after I noticed the similarities between the "Iko" refrain and a stirring call and response chant I heard at a parade in Ghana -- "Iko Iko! Aaye" I recall meeting with a spiritual leader in the community whom I was introduced to by a dear friend, while in Johannesburg with a client. We spoke on how the lyrics resonated a much deeper message, in which we couldn't put into words. What he did note was that the language was not formed in America -- but from a West African language. Once back in the US, a professor of Creole Studies thought it came from a mixture of Yoruba and French Creole, and proposed the following breakdown:

Enòn, Enòn! Code Language! Aiku, Aiku nde. God is watching. Jacouman Fi na Jacouman causes it ida-n-de We will be emancipated. Jacouman Fi na dé Jacouman urges it; we will wait.

T(he Dixie Cups - Iko Iko - Getty Image)


Another theory making the rounds of various folk music message boards is that the "jock-a-mo" part comes from a Native American language where "chokma finha" means "very good." This at least matches up with what Crawford said about his original 1953 recording: he sang "chock-a-mo," but it was misspelled on the record label as "jock-a-mo."


According to Crawford, the chant was derived from two Indian chants.


“Iko Iko” was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. “Jock-A-Mo” was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” That was a phrase everybody in New Orleans used. Lloyd Price just added music to it and it became a hit. I was just trying to write a catchy song.


Some of us may never be able to pin down the origin of the words or what they once meant. But it may well be that even from the very first chanting of the phrases, the Africans, Native Americans, French, and English that made up the great language/culture mélange of New Orleans all understood it in their own way. And still had a good old time anyway.


Here’s the plan—each week, I will highlight a different melody focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part -- I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs!


I was sent this song late last month, and asked to share my thoughts -- outlining the experience on my blog.


I decided to listen during my long drive home from work on Wednesday. Almost immediately I was transfixed, Jimmy Hendrix? Bayouish? Healing type words for whoever may be in need. Hey Now! Thoughts becoming things.....Yes!!!

The chorus --- once more:

Hey now! Hey now! Iko iko wan dey Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey Jock-a-mo fi na ney.

I was transfixed as the drummers settled into the familiar Bo Diddley beat out of their drum solo, but at a more laid-back and serene pace of knowing. Flag boys sitting by a fire. I was curious to hear what would come next. The guy dressed in green?! Hey Now!


Magic? Maybe...

"Iko Iko” aka “Aiko Aiko,” and the trademark aspects of the interaction between band and audience hadn’t yet settled into place. The tempo was slow enough that the words have more time to sink in, and the band locks into a steady groove in that special way they had.

The tempo and groove became eminently danceable. The music literally shook me into dance. Hey Now! Hey Now!

Just as “I Need a Miracle” gave rise to the miracle ticket, “Iko Iko” gave rise to perhaps the only “secret handshake” type greeting among music lovers. A simple, “Hey now!” to a passing head on the street was enough to convey that you belonged. I liked that. I always wished there was some kind of hand signal, for use on freeways between vehicles, when the “Hey now!” was impractical.

Getty Image/Stock Photo


Suffice it to say that the song originated in New Orleans, and has elements of French Creole and African languages, and has to do with the ceremonial battles engaged in by various troops of celebrants in the New Orleans Carnival/Mardi Gras tradition.


Here are two paragraphs credited to Adam Wasserman that expounds on my thoughts.

Iko Iko (as well as other songs such as Big Chief, Hey Pokey-Way, New Suit, Fire Water) has a very specific meaning. They are all New Orleans Mardi Gras songs about the Black Indians. Black Indians are parade crewes (tribes) that parade through the New Orleans streets on Mardi Gras wearing extravagant ceremonial Indian clothes. They face off when they meet and have battles of clothing, dancing, and singing. The Spy Boy is a ceremonial position (the front runner who scouts out other tribes to do battle with) as is the Flag Boy, Wild Man, and Big Chief. Friends and family who follow are in the "second line" and are therefore second liners. So lines like "My spy boy to your spy boy, I'm gonna set your tail on fire" are ceremonial challenges to the other tribe.
"Joc-a-mo-fee-no-ah-nah-nay, Joc-a-mo-fee-nah-nay" is a ritual chant used by the Mardi Gras Indians which has been around for so long the words are no longer clearly distinguishable, and it has a well understood meaning of its own. Very, very loosely translated it signifies "we mean business" or "don't mess with us". Originally it would have been Cajun (a liberal mix of French and English) and literally translates to "the fool we will not play today."

All well and good, but I am interested in another aspect of the song’s performance namely, the notion of a large crowd singing lyrics in another language.


True music lovers and fans of rock and roll and other genres generally are fortunate. We may have trouble figuring out what the heck the band is singing in any given case, but at least we’re pretty sure we’ll understand it once we get it.


Think about fans around the world, for whom American and British rock and roll is an enthusiasm. They regularly listen to songs whose words are bound to be something of a mystery. This song turns that around on us, the spoiled listeners. And does it have an effect?


Indeed it does.


Over the years I heard a lot of speculation about the meaning of the lyrics to the song some spelled “Aiko Aiko.” The band members speculated, too. No one seemed to really know what they meant, and yet, that never stopped anyone from dancing like a fool. The words, the lyrics, the sung verses—even when the verses were in a different language than English...it functioned more as a musical instrument. The sounds washed over us.


And I think that is consistent with the function of lyrics of a great many songs through time and space. To allow ourselves to be washed with words, without worrying about meaning. Just have the songs exist and “mean” differently over time, if at all, but dance!


I’m so grateful for this —it brought a certain something into our culture that was lost, though probably no one but me knew it was missing.


Thoughts? Share with us below in the comments.



Lyrics - Iko Iko

My grandma and your grandma Were sittin' by the fire My grandma told your grandma "I'm gonna set your flag on fire"
Talkin' 'bout Hey now (hey, now) Hey now (hey, now) Iko, iko, un-day Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né Jock-a-mo fee na-né
Look at my king all dressed in red Iko, iko, un-day I betcha five dollars, he'll kill you dead Jock-a-mo fee na-né
Talkin' 'bout Hey, now (hey, now) Hey, now (hey, now) Iko, iko, un-day Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né Jock-a-mo fee na-né
My flag boy and your flag boy Sittin' by the fire My flag boy told your flag boy "I'm gonna set your flag on fire"
Talkin' 'bout Hey, now (hey, now) Hey, now (hey, now) Iko, iko, un-day Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né Jock-a-mo fee na-né
See that guy all dressed in green? Iko, iko, un-day He's not a man, he's a lovin' machine Jock-a mo fee na-né
Talkin' 'bout Hey, now (hey, now) Hey, now (hey, now) Iko, iko, un-day Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né Jock-a-mo fee na-né
Talkin' 'bout Hey, now Hey, now (hey, now) Iko, iko, un-day (oh, oh-oh) Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né Jock-a-mo fee na-né
Jock-a-mo fee na-né (yes, indeed) Jock-a-mo fee na-né (iko) Jock-a-mo fee na-né

Read more blogs from this author - PERSISTENCE IN PAIN: WHILE ON THIS EARTH - WANDERERS



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