My grandma and your grandma were sittin’ by the fire…

It does take a dash of fortitude and a smidgen of endurance if you’re going to catch the best of it all… and I’d say that means catching the all-female Muse Parade on the Thursday evening before Mardi Gras and sticking around through the stroke of midnight when the party ends and Lent begins on “Fat Tuesday” itself.

This time I figured out the lay of the land but left a little early.  Next time I’m going to lay down the law and insist that Linda come too, especially if the kids can make it again.

While Bourbon Street (where they had shootings last weekend…and where my son was mugged a few years back) quickly becomes a teaming, raunchy bore full of cheap drinks and drunken tourists, pretty much all of Uptown (Garden District) and Downtown (including the rest of the Lower Garden District, the French Quarter and a healthy portion of the Seventh Ward) puts on a surreal celebration that, between the parades, the music and the family friendly partying, will leave you amazed and delighted.

Biggest disappointment: Acme Oyster House wasn’t doing the oyster eating challenge (15 dozen in an hour and…I…know…I…can…do it!)  Second biggest disappointment, try as I might (getting up before dawn and trudging through the Tremé) I never managed to see any Mardi Gras Indians.  But at least I now know why the kids spotted some from a taxi (and snapped a picture for the old man) at the Claiborne Ave. overpass, on their way back uptown to Tulane.

Apparently there are 38  of these social clubs or “tribes” made up of low-income black men who spend an entire year to “dress pretty” (their handmade Indian suits can weigh over 100 lbs.) and prepare for the big day.  After the big chief has decided upon their route, they wander through the neighborhoods, dancing and singing tribal songs that are loosely based on African dialects and Creole patois.

When two tribes meet (and this is what I would like to see someday) they begin a symbolic fight, with drum beats and taunts between the two chiefs about the “prettiness” of their suits.  Symbolic these days anyway. Up until the late 1960s if two tribes ran into each other there were actual battles with knives and guns.

And that’s what this song is about. Written by James Sugar Boy Crawford in 1953 and entitled “Jock-a-mo” it tells the story of a “spy boy” (a lookout sent ahead of the tribe) who comes across a “flag boy” (a standard bearer) for another tribe and threatens to “set the flag on fire.”  Crawford claimed that it was based on the taunting chants between Indian chiefs when they encountered one another, “Iko Iko” being a victory chant and “Jock-a-mo” being a battle cry.

According to Dr. John (Mac Rebbennack), who has released a popular version of his own “Jockamo” means “jester” (there are also voodoo connotations) and  “…the tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and … get juiced up there getting ready to perform. …(now) there’s a freeway where those grounds used to be.”

And that we know first hand.  Of course the most popular version is this one with slightly different lyrics by the Dixie Cups, which hit Number 20 on the Billboard Charts in 1965. Already famous for “Chapel of Love” the trio from New Orleans’ Calliope housing project had heard their grandmother sing the song and were “clowning around” with it using drumsticks and ashtrays during a recording session in New York.

Although they didn’t realize it, the ever-canny session producers, Leiber and Stoller had the tapes running and after adding bass and drums released it as “Iko Iko”.

 LISTEN TO THIS SONG & HAPPY VALENTINES DAY – Thursday 14 February

 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.”

Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Look at my king all dressed in red

Iko, Iko, un-day

I betcha’ five dollars he’ll kill you dead

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 My flag boy and your flag boy

Were sittin’ by the fire

My flag boy told your flag boy

“I’m gonna set your flag on fire.”

Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

 See that guy all dressed in green?

Iko, Iko, un-day

He’s not a man

He’s a lovin’ machine

Jockamo fee na-n?

 Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!

Iko, Iko, un-day

Jockamo fee-no ai na-n?

Jockamo fee na-n?

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