Aside from its food and Mardi Gras traditions, New Orleans is arguably most famous for its influence on the music scene, particularly jazz music. Known as the birthplace of jazz, it shaped the genre for the rest of the country. Like the city, the music of New Orleans is made up of ingredients that give it a flavor all its own. It can’t be found in its genuine state anywhere else – a little like its gumbo.
There are many artists whose names are synonymous with New Orleans music, and their songs have echoed along the Crescent City’s musical streets for decades. Some songs, like James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s “Jockomo,” have been covered numerous times by many artists in their own unique styles, but other artists gained credit for making the songs famous. Each rendition of a song takes on a special character of its own, and its voice echoes that of its era and the character of its cover artist(s). Another song, “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair, was never a chart-topping song, but it inspired the founding of the Tipitina bar, where the esteemed professor could be found showcasing his music for the remainder of his life following the venue’s establishment.
James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford was a New Orleans native who spent his whole life there and wrote the famous Mardi Gras song “Jockomo,” otherwise know as “Iko Iko.” Made famous by the Dixie Cups in 1965, the song had actually been around for more than a decade, as it had been first released in 1953. The song had been written about the Mardi Gras Indians, and some of the lyrics had been used from Crawford’s recollection of their chants. Crawford grew up fearing the Mardi Gras Indians, who have a history of frequent violent encounters that have since ended and have been replaced by rivals chanting at each other. The song was credited to the Dixie Cups for writing it until Crawford filed a lawsuit and fought for his rights to the song. He won, in part, and received partial royalties for it. Since the Dixie Cups’ 1965 cover of “Jockomo,” the song has been covered by numerous other artists in unique and sometimes criticized styles, including Dr. John, Cyndi Lauper, and Henry Butler.
James Crawford’s original recording of “Jockomo” can easily be pinpointed to the 1950s, as the music features a swinging jazz rhythm. It features a saxophone solo, drums, electric guitar, and Crawford’s vocals, which are chant-like, but also have a jazz quality.
The Dixie Cups’ version of the song, the first of many titled “Iko Iko,” is a stripped-down version, consisting of the chanting vocals of the singers and what was reportedly used for percussion, which is drumsticks beating out the rhythm on ashtrays and chairs. The song was recorded entirely by chance and made it onto the group’s album after their impromptu jam session was recorded.
Dr. John’s version of “Jockomo,” like most covers, is entitled “Iko Iko.” This rendition is seen by some as less than well executed. While the jazz style remains, Dr. John creates a sound that might bring to mind a showtune. The vocals are raspier than many other covers, and while it is difficult to hear his words articulated clearly, the lyrics are slightly altered, which is not uncommon for the covers of this song. He incorporates piano, saxophone, and electric guitar into his performance.
Cyndi Lauper’s 1980s cover of the song is also titled “Iko Iko” and incorporates her unique musical style, as well as a “tribal” sound, accomplished by using a great deal of percussion. The use of bongo drums lends an organic sound to the music, and in a live performance of the song, she and others on the stage with her use drumsticks to tap out a rhythm on glass bottles, reminiscent of the Dixie Cups’ use of drumsticks on ashtrays and chairs.
Henry Butler’s rendition of Jockomo is titled “Some Iko.” It starts out with an electric guitar solo and then transitions to a jazz piano solo with background drums before the vocals begin. Butler’s vocals are heavily accompanied by the rambling playing of the piano and the drums, as well as intermittent background vocals reminiscent of gospel singers. The song is very embellished and upbeat.
Each version of Jockomo has a very unique and distinctive style. The lyrics of the original song talk about the Mardi Gras Indians and a confrontation between two tribes during a parade. The references to “spy-boys” and “Queens” refer to the hierarchies within the tribes. Words like “Iko” and “Ida-n-de” are non-English words and are recollections of Crawford’s from the chants he heard them call out. There is question as to the linguistic origins of these words and others , but there are possible translations in West African and Yuruba-Creole. The Creole language is a conglomerate of many different linguistic backgrounds, so there is the possibility that elements of the song are European or Native American as well.
Professor Longhair, as he was known to his audiences, was born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa in the year 1918. When he was still a baby, his family moved to New Orleans, where he subsequently grew up and defined a new era of the city’s music scene. His music has been described as “boogie-rhumba,” combining elements of blues, ragtime, zydeco, rhumba, mambo, and calypso, and characterized by a syncopated piano rhythm. Tipitina is a song that heavily features the piano, played in the Professor’s trademark style, and his equally unique vocals. It has a lot of words that are made up, and the song is really like no other. Professor Longhair died in 1980, but his legacy lives on in his music and that of the generation of musicians he influenced, which includes Fats Domino, Eddie Bo, James Booker, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint. Tipitina and other songs by the esteemed professor can be heard through the streets of New Orleans come Mardi Gras, and all year ’round.
Both James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and Professor Longhair have defined the music of New Orleans with their unique styles and famous songs. The two artists can still be heard in the music of other musicians who came after them, and their work has inspired covers and music venues. These artists have been among the many creators of New Orlean’s voice, which is in a way a living, breathing entity that resides there. Each new generation, influenced by their predecessors, gets to decide how that voice changes.
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