Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Iko Iko"

By David Dodd

Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, 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! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

“Iko Iko”

Listening to the new Dave’s Picks (#12, November 4, 1977, at Colgate University) on my way home from work today, I listened as the drummers settled into the familiar Bo Diddley beat out of their drum solo, but at a more laid-back pace than usual. I was curious to hear what would come next (I make a point of not reading the song list before I put a new CD on…just like I don’t read book jacket flap before I read a book—I want to be surprised), and I was very happy to hear Jerry launch into “Iko Iko.”

This was only the band’s fourth performance of “Iko Iko” aka “Aiko Aiko,” and the trademark aspects of the interaction between band and audience hadn’t yet settled into place. The tempo is 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. I think, in the hands of the Grateful Dead, any tempo, any groove became eminently danceable. (I used to challenge myself to try to stand still and just listen at shows, but really—that was impossible for me. The music literally shook me into dance, every time.)

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 Deadheads. 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.

The lyrics to “Iko Iko” have been rigorously and extensively dissected, with multiple variants, on a variety of sites over time. There’s an excellent and thorough piece of work about the song on the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site. (http://www.whitegum.com/~acsa/songfile/IKOIKO.HTM)

Suffice it to say that the song originated in New Orleans, 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 from that site, credited to Adam Wasserman:

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 performances as they played out at Dead shows, namely, the notion of a large crowd singing lyrics in another language.

American Deadheads and rock and roll fans 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 (despite the fact that any German fourth grader speaks English pretty well…). This song turns that around on us, the spoiled listeners. And does it have any effect?

Over the years I heard a lot of speculation about the meaning of the lyrics to the song we 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 English patois—functioned more as a musical instrument. They washed over us.

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

In the Grateful Dead song universe, I love the way “Iko Iko” ties in with other songs. “Ruben and Cherise” comes to mind every time I hear the song, and the fact that “Man Smart (Women Smarter)” has an almost identical feel to it bring that one into the circle, too. New Orleans and Louisiana and the bayou appear occasionally in songs ranging from “Peggy-O” to “Dire Wolf” to “Truckin’.”

I’m so glad this song was covered by the band—it brought a certain something into our Deadhead culture that was missing, though probably no one knew it was missing.

A final note: even though the song is generally credited as “traditional,” the song was composed by New Orleans singer James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in the early 1950s, according to Dr. John.

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Joined: Jul 20 2007
IKO IKO

Its a great tune. I often wonder at the first if it will be Iko or Woman Are Smarter. I named by Lab Iko. Great dog.

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Joined: Oct 15 2016
Rhythms

I think, for some passages I have heard, of the Dead's IKO, that they have such wonderful rhythms going. Just to hear those fleeting passages, makes it worth it, to me, that they attempted IKO IKO. I suppose I am a "passage" listener to the gd. To me, there are so many cool sounding moments and fragments, I will value the moments, the fragments, as much, possibly, more, than a whole song. That's me, in practice, for now, I guess. Thank you..

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Joined: Oct 15 2016
Rhythms

I think, for some passages I have heard, of the Dead's IKO, that they have such wonderful rhythms going. Just to hear those fleeting passages, makes it worth it, to me, that they attempted IKO IKO. I suppose I am a "passage" listener to the gd. To me, there are so many cool sounding moments and fragments, I will value the moments, the fragments, as much, possibly, more, than a whole song. That's me, in practice, for now, I guess. Thank you..

jamessoai's picture
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Joined: Sep 17 2009
The eye and the spelling of "AIKO Aiko" & How I started it.

In '76 the drummers had The eye of Horus on their bass drums, I think it was the Orpheum Theatre, here in San Francisco. I had a snapshot of it. Flash forward to the night before the closing of Winterland, I had an extra ticket that I sold to a friend of a friend. In turn the grateful friend of my friend gave me a tape from Egypt. I saw the song Iko Iko and said what the hell is Iko Iko? I pronounced it Icho Icho( Like the fish disease)And in one of those empirical flashes of nonsense, I decreed that it should have an A in front as in Aye Aye Captain. The next night at the New Years show I showed them a card I inked up with those now familiar letters. At the Golden Hall in November of '79 we flew down to San Diego and the band was given Aiko cards at the airport. Phil asked me if this was a request I just grinned at him. The next thing we knew There were stickers and t-shirts and out of control. In Ventura in '84 we even heard a chick calling her a baby named Aiko. Just because I drew a card with an Eye of Horus and intentionally misspelled the song title. It still blows my mind to this day

slo lettuce's picture
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Joined: Jul 20 2012
June 25, '92...

Soldier Field

2nd set opener...

James Cotton and Steve Miller "help out" on Iko-Iko

sweet fancy Moses did we ever melt and dance!

......those wonderful fuzzy memories ;-)

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Joined: Dec 4 2012
No Dead Cringe

It's worth mentioning that Dead covers can make you cringe. I think of Bob's early attempts at the venerable Walking Blues and Donna's attempts at You Ain't Woman Enough. There are others. I used to think we'd heard enough versions of Rev. Davis's If I Had My Way until the Dead renamed it and made it their own.

Goddamn it, the Dead covered the American songbook and succeeded gloriously, though with glitches. They weren't afraid to cover an Iko Iko or The Race Is On or anything, bring it on! They were having fun out there and managed to capture all of us into that fun.

Sure, a band like DDBB can make the Dead look like Herman's Hermits when they play this. I just heard the Doctor's version on the radio too. But the Dead went for it and I love it when they break into this song. On Dave's Picks 12 it makes me giggle to think of the look Jerry must have given the drummers when they're about to launch into NFA and Jerry shakes his head no and says, "Iko."

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Joined: Nov 1 2010
Hey now, Y'all; Way down

Hey now, Y'all;

Way down south in New Orleans, when used in the street patois of da Mardi Gras Injuns, Jock-I-mo-fee-na-nee means "kiss my ass", as in "if you don't like what da Big Chief say, you can jock-I-mo-fee-na-nay". BTW, the MGIs "sew" year round to make "new suits" of beads and feathers; ergo "every year round Carnival time, I wear a new suit". Too bad Mickey could never quite nail this beat (LOL); ask the Dirty Dozen!

mustin321's picture
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Joined: Aug 12 2011
Hey Now!

I 2nd Jerry's "handprint" as a sign.

Also, has anyone else tried to learn this on guitar and sing it at the same time?

A lot harder than it sounds! To me at least...

One Man's picture
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Joined: May 17 2011
What the Big Chief Say

I dunno. I remember being intrigued when I first heard Iko Iko on a bootleg from '77. As time wore on and I heard versions from closer to the source, I became more cynical about the Dead covering it. Those early versions are still tolerable to me, and a nice surprise sometimes, but the later ones make me cringe. The worst of this came one night in 1987 in Oakland when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band joined the Dead for a rendition that tried to meld their two styles of playing the song, and failed miserably. Well, it was more like a battle where DDBB wedged their style into the mix and ultimately won, after an ugly musical fight. I began to think that the Dead had no business playing that song, and I still think that.

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Joined: Dec 3 2012
Bob's verses

The link says, "On 14 June 1985, Bob Weir sang a couple of verses..."

But Iko Iko wasn't played that date, does anyone know the correct reference? In addition, I recall a version of Man Smart, Woman Smarter when Bob did a couple of [standard] Iko lines, anyone know that date off hand?

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