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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. (

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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KoreaUltimate's picture
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?

.5 mi from tucson's picture
Joined: Feb 17 2012
don't forget

the highly stylized aiko aiko + eye of horus graphic representations that seemed to incorporate an ace of spade motif as well which appeared in the late 70s (earlier?/later?) on the lots. that image added a whole new layer of mojo and mystery to the song.

Joined: Aug 2 2013
hand single

What about the Jerry handprint?

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
when I was in high school or thereabouts

the Dixie Cups, who were somehow connected to the Nevilles, had a hit single with it, which is where I knew it from when the band first played it.

ggdead's picture
Joined: Aug 20 2010
Iko Iko

here's some notes on the song I posted in a few years back -- liner notes from Dr. John's Gumbo and from a Sugar Boy Crawford album.

From: (Grant Gouldon)
Subject: talkin bout Hey Now! Iko Iko origins
Keywords: Iko Aiko
Date: 19 Jul 91 17:26:19 GMT

Here is some info on the origins of Iko Iko (my preferred spelling :-)
first from the liner notes from the Dr. John album - "Dr. John's Gumbo"

Iko Iko
This song was written and recorded back in the early 1950's by a New Orleans singer named James Crawford who worked under the name of Sugar Boy & The Cane Cutters. In the original group were Professor Longhair on piano, Jake Myles, Big Boy Myles, Irv Bannister on guitar, and Eugene 'Bones' Jones on drums. This group was also known as the Cipaka Shaweez. The song was originally called 'Jockomo' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockomo means 'jester' in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second time' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone now because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras. getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.

[liner notes by Mac Rebenack (dr. john)]
Dr. John's Gumbo is an aligator records re-issue of an Atlantic album copyright 1972 produced by Jerry Wexler and Harold Battiste
(an absolutely essential record!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
AL 3901
Aligator Records & Artist Management, Inc.
Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660

and now, from the liner notes of Sugar Boy Crawford

James Crawford was born in New Orleans on October 12, 1934. He grew up on Lasalle Street in the uptown section of the city. James Crawford was born in New Orleans on October 12, 1934. He grew up on Lasalle Street in the uptown section of the city. This neighborhood was the home territory of many of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes whose percussive rhythms and chants were to have a strong influence on Sugar Boy's style. By the time he was 12 years old he had taught himself to play piano by listening to greats like Paul Gayten and Fats Washington at the Dew Drop Inn where he had to sneak in the back door since he was underage.

By 1951 he had formed his own band composed entirely of his classmates and neighborhood friends. This band included Dave Lastie, Edgar "Big Boy" Muyles, Irving Bannister, and Warren Jake Myles. Their first gig was at the Shadow Land Club on Washington Avenue. Their fame grew quickly and they soon had a regular Saturday morning show hosted by Doctor Daddy-O on radio station WMRY. They named their instrumental theme "Chapaka Shawee" which were the only words of Cajun French they could remember from early childhood. Since the group did not have a name Dr. Daddy-O dubbed them the Chapaka Shaweez. Their first recording session for Aladdin Records took place at the J&M studios on November 23, 1952. The one release from that session, "No One To Love Me" did not sell at all but has since acquired legendary status among R&B collectors not only because of its extreme rarity but also because of Sugar Boy's crying monologue at the end of the song.

Sugar Boy's first Checker session took place in 1954: "When I did that first record I Don't Know What I'll Do Leonard Chess gave me a five dollar bill. That was five dollars for the whole band, not five dollars each. And we were happy because we didn't know what was going on. We went a couple of blocks away and bought us some red beans and rice and got us some wine and that was it. In fact, I didn't know the record was going to be released. Nobody did, really. We made that record in the studio of radio station WMRY. We used to rehearse after hours at the station. One day Leornard Chess was in there and he said he'd like to hear something that we had made up. So we did a couple of numbers and when we finished he said "I might have a surprise for you." And he gave me five dollars. So I thought maybe he was coming back later to record me, but about a month later the disc jockey, Ernie The Whip, called me to come to the station. I went there and he had my record I Don't Know What I'll Do. And I hadn't even signed a contract." It was at this time that the name of the band was changed to Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters because Chess did not like the name Shaweez. "Sugar Boy" had been a childhood nickname but "Cane Cutters" was an invention of Leonard Chess.

Terry Pattison, Contributing Editor Living Blues

c/o Center for the Study of Southern Culture
University of Mississippi,
University, MS 38677

The album is a double album, with Jockomo coming in at 2:27 very interesting version, and a real rush to hear the original!

All songs written by James Crawford, Published by Arc Music, BMI Produced by Leonard Chess

Jockomo was recorded in 1954

Sugarboy Crawford
Chess Jazz Master Series
copyright 1984
Chess Records, a division of Sugar Hill Records, Ltd.
96 West Street
Englewood, NJ 07631

Joined: Feb 3 2011
Composer and title spelling

James "Sugarboy" Crawford had the earliest known recording (1954) of "Iko Iko," released as "Jockamo," but he didn't write it. It was an old Mardi Gras Indian chant. His adaptation is great, though. As to the Deadhead alternate spelling, it's from a Rick Griffin page from the heyday of "underground comix." Also, it's "krewe," not "crewe."


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