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!)
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.