Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Boss Tracks; Iko Iko, the Dixie Cups

This 45 is a mysterious little platter. The origins of this song are shady and the meaning of the lyrics have been lost to time. Maybe the mystery of the song is why it is still such a popular staple during Mardi Grass in New Orleans. Springsteen did not exactly cover this song but included just a little snippet in "Light of Day" when he took New Orleans by storm in 2000. I've been trying to uncover the meaning of the lyrics for weeks now, but I must conclude that the Boss didn't have a clue what he was singing. Nor do any of the other cats who ever tried on this song for size. The version I have here in my hands was recorded by the Dixie Cups. A vocal group who had hit big in 1964 with "The Chapel of Love". The success of this single for the New Orleans based group led to a sessions in New York, to be produced by Leiber and Stoller. During a break in the recording sessions the girls started fooling around with drums sticks on ash trays and coke bottles, chanting this little folk ditty from home. Leiber and Stoller had the sense to keep the tape running and record the song. Later they overdubbed some base and "Iko Iko" found its release on the Red Bird label and proved to be the version that popularized "Iko Iko". The single shot to #20 in the Pop charts, making it the oddest recording ever to grace the charts.

Much to the disdain of James "sugar boy" Crawford who had recorded "Jockamo" 10 years down the road with much the same lyrics, which he claimed he wrote. The law suit was settled out of court with Crawford getting 25% although he made no further claim of authorship. Nor could he. The lyrics to the song had been around for centuries and are most likely a mix of African languages and Caribbean. They prove to be a delightful puzzle to anthropologists up till this day. The words "Iko iko un day" have been traced back to Gambia by some, meaning something along the line of "Pay attention today" or "Hey listen to me". The words "Jockomo feeno ah na nay" have been translated from Gambian as "Don't mess with us! We are for real!" or as explained by the Neville Brothers "Kiss my ass", supposedly secret code for the slave drivers on the plantations. Other sources however claim that Jockomo is derived from French and means Jester. So what's the deal with "My spy dog see your spy dog, Gonna set your tail on fire". Most commonly this is explained in the Mardi Grass culture. The parades in New Orleans do not go without some rivalry between the different groups of Mardi Grass Indians. From what I read it seems to be a game of challenge, trying to outdo each other and threatening to sabotage each other's parades. Similarly "Fix your chicken wire" should be seen as a threat to damage a person's Mardi Grass costumes, of which chicken wire is the foundation. How all of this exactly adds up, I'm not sure. New Orleans is built up from a fascinating mix of cultures, languages got muddled into cryptic speech patterns and chants nobody seems to understand anymore. So for all I know, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. But who cares, neither did James "sugar boy" Crawford as he later admitted in an interview.

Available on The Very Best of the Dixie Cups: Chapel of Love

"Iko Iko"

MP3 File


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alex! I've listened to so many versions of this song so many times, and have always wondered about the lyrics. I love this post - and the Dixie Cups' version! --azpaull

ian said...

I only just saw your article and the comment it received. The words and origin of this song have now been decipher - took me a long time! The song is all in Louisiana Creole patois with one Native American phrase. If you want to see the original words, their origin and their English meaning you can either log on to YouTube and enter 'Iko Iko origin' into the search bow, or on Google type in Iko iko, then click on the Iko Iko Wikipedia site. If you have any helpful comments, my email is ian.cully@wanadoo.fr