Charlie Brown

Author, editor, filmmaker, podcaster

Mardi Gras Music: The Secrets Behind The Most Popular Carnival Tunes


One of the most powerful truths about the pervasiveness of Carnival time in New Orleans is that radio stations, even those whose fortunes are welded to the latest teeny-bopper craze, will set aside their regular playlists and include some of the classic songs of rhythm and blues tied to the season.  For a few seconds, manufactured pop music will be overtaken by the funky sounds of Professor Longhair or The Meters and the city’s longstanding traditions will hit the ears of its youngest listeners.


But while the songs themselves are familiar, the stories behind them are not often told.  After being so familiar for so many years, these new details may add some extra enjoyment when it comes time to dance and sing along.


Big Chief


Just like the performances of Duke Ellington mask the fact that Billy Strayhorn wrote “Take The A Train,” the long shadows cast by Professor Longhair darkens the origins of one of his best-known songs.


Written, sung and whistled by Earl King, the song is nevertheless credited to Longhair whose unrivaled piano playing provides the signature syncopation.  King is an anomaly among New Orleans performers.  He is a guitarist in a town filled with piano players, he writes literate rhythm and blues where nonsense jams like “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” reign and he continues to be a musical force where many of his contemporaries died or faded away.  His songs include the classic “Trick Bag” and “Come On” which was covered by Jimi Hendrix.


Because 45 rpm records could only hold songs so long, many songs were divided into two parts.  “Big Chief” is no exception, but whereas Part 1 is usually the A track, on this record it’s the instrumental.  The famous version of the song is Part 2, with King supplying the vocals.  This is also one of the first songs to use the parlance of the Mardi Gras Indians, making references to spy boys and flag boys, to the point where almost every tribe sings this song on Fat Tuesday.


Mardi Gras In New Orleans


The other Professor Longhair song that whistled its way into the Mardi Gras canon is the tale of a man making his first trip to New Orleans.  The blues rumba known as “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” talks about the Zulu parade and where he will stand to watch as the parades go by.


But any traveler going to the corner made famous by the song, Rampart and Dumain, will not see Zulu go by these days.  Back when Fess wrote the song, Zulu was infamous for jumping routes.  But in these tighter days, the parade breaks up on Basin, one block riverside of the corner.


Longhair, whose career was revitalized in the ‘70s, was never afraid to make multiple recordings of his biggest hits.  This song was recorded at least five times in as many decades.  During his final sessions for the Alligator label, released as “Crawfish Fiesta,” young drummer Johnny Vidakovich, who went on to anchor the drum chair in the jazz group Astral Project, was having difficulty laying down the famous beat.  To help the man along, Fess turned him around and beat on Vidakovich’s back so he could learn the pattern.


Iko Iko


When a record producer heard his vocal band The Dixie Cups singing this tune, he immediately brought them into the studio and laid down the song using only drumsticks and bass as a backing track.  It has gone on to be just as popular as their biggest hit “Chapel of Love.”  But the original recording was made under a completely different name.


Recorded by Sugar Boy Crawford as “Jock-a-mo,” this early rhythm and blues mambo also made reference to Mardi Gras Indians and their parading habits.  But while many think the song is nonsense, it actually has a deep meaning transliterated from French.


“Jockamo feen annay” as sung by Crawford is a saying in French that means, “Every day is New Years’ Eve.”  The partying lifestyle that this implicates is a powerful motto for the city of New Orleans that complements the more famous saying, “Laissez les bon temps roulez” or “Let the good times roll.”


Hey Pocky Way


The signature song of the primary New Orleans funk band The Meters is one of the purest examples of the drum pattern known as second line.  Zigaboo Modeliste lays down the rolling, snare-heavy beat that will get most native straight to the dance floor.  Combined with the tale of a young man who won’t dance while watching his sister throw down, it is a paean to the healing powers of the boogie.


But there is also a hidden meaning to the chanted chorus.  Jelly Roll Morton first lifted the words in the ‘20s from the Mardi Gras Indians.  In those days, they were not the partying icons, but feared street toughs whose wild ways usually ended in violence and death.  So the phrase “two-way pocky way,” also a French transliteration, means “Kill everything that gets in the way.”


It is not quite the same feel-good message of The Meters, but thankfully, these aren’t the same Indians anymore.


Do Whatcha Wanna


In the late ‘80s, New Orleans music got a much-needed booster shot when the Rebirth Jazz Band released its own version of a New Orleans motto.  An open call to live life more freely, this brass blowout kick started a new wave of brass bands and also revived the moribund local funk scene.  It was so popular that the local hip hop stations, who were rue even to acknowledge that there was any local tunes at all, had to add it to their playlists because of overwhelming demand.


But what you may not know is that there were competing versions of the song.  While the Boston-based Rounder Records released the album “Feel Like Funking It Up” which contained the song, local distributor Mardi Gras Records issued a cassette-only album of Rebirth tunes.  Both contained “Do Whatcha Wanna.”


While there was no legal battle over the rival versions, Rounder ultimately won out because it could release vinyl and CD versions to radio stations.  But there are those folks who insist the loser was the better cut.


Because New Orleans is one of the few mythological cities in America, filled with unique sets of characters, the stories behind its best songs are bound to be as weird and crazy as the music itself.  But with a few secrets revealed, it is easier to be a part of these great traditions.