I can’t make it through Fat Tuesday without listening to this nonsensical song at least a hundred times.
Iko Iko is a much covered tune that tells of a parade collision between two tribes. The song, under the original title “Jock-A-Mo,” was written in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (love that name) in New Orleans.
The story tells of a Mardi Gras Indian “spy boy” encountering a “flag boy” for another tribe. He threatens to “set the flag on fire.”
In the early days of the Mardi Gras Indians, “masking” and parading was a time to settle grudges between tribes.
Sugar Boy’s song immortalized this violent history in Iko Iko. In the late 1960s, Tootie Montana (Chief of Chiefs), fought to end violence between the tribes.
He said, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.” Today the Mardi Gras Indians mainly argue only over the “prettiness” of their suits.
Sugar Boy gave a 2002 interview with Offbeat Magazine discussing the song’s meaning. What do the lyrics actually mean? Sugar Boy says, “I really don’t know.” It appears that linguists and historians are stumped as well and a variety of origins have been proposed, suggesting that the words may come from a blend of cultures. They could be Mobilian Jargon (an extinct Native American trade language), Louisiana Creole French, Haitian, or West African.
Voodoo practitioners also recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. Setting fire to a flag is a way of cursing someone. The song also mentions a man dressed in green who either has a change in personality (whoa) or is in some way not what he seems to be.
“Jock-a-mo” was the original version of the song “Iko Iko” recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. Their version came about quite by accident. They were in a New York City studio for a recording session when they began an impromptu version of Iko Iko, accompanied only by drumsticks on small studio ashtrays. Y’all go stomp your feet, kick up your heels and catch some beads. Laissez les bon temps rouler!