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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Iko Iko," a thoroughly New Orleans record from a 60s girl group

The Dixie Cups' cover of a traditional song from their hometown stands out from the time's typical pop fare in nearly every way.

Especially in the world of popular music, it's easy to get caught up in the lushest of arrangements, picking apart all the finest details. I should know — many entries in my Senior Year Soundtrack up to this point have left few if any stones unturned in analyzing a sonically complex record. However, sometimes it's nice to take a step in the other direction and appreciate a recording for its simplicity and minimalism.

Today's selection is the simplest I've covered yet, and likely the simplest I'll ever cover. I found it by chance as I was going through YouTube; in fact, I was searching for a big 60s arrangement when I clicked upon it, not knowing how it would sound. From the Ronettes classic "Be My Baby," featuring the late Ronnie Spector, I listened to the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love" before seeing an unfamiliar title in "Iko Iko" ...and hearing an unfamiliar sound profile for the pop music world.

Rather than the Wall of Sound I expected, I heard... a few interlocking layers of percussion, predominantly the sound of drumsticks. It sounded to me like a jam session had been captured and was liked so much that it was put out for release. As it turns out, that was indeed the case, as renowned producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller took an impromptu jam by the Dixie Cups — sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson — cleaned it up, and made it the third single from their 1964 record Chapel of Love. The particular instrumentation used, according to multiple sources, is drumsticks on an aluminum chair, a soda bottle, and an ash tray, with an extra drum added in a later overdub. It's a list of items so ordinary that it impresses me how much character the singing trio were able to get out of them for their backing. There's an approachability to the sound because it can be so easily replicated in various settings... and also because it's a flat-out great rhythm. I'm not surprised it's had a few uses as a sample in hip hop; I had the idea even before I looked it up that its catchiness would lend itself well to the genre.

Lyrically, "Iko Iko" is a cover of a traditional New Orleans song called "Jock-A-Mo," which mostly tells of the traditional clash between two Mardi Gras Indian 'tribes,' who dress in colored attire for the celebration. "Jock-A-Mo" was first recorded in 1953 by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford and his Cane Cutters, who are credited as songwriters on the Dixie Cups' version; like Crawford, the Dixie Cups are also from New Orleans, and their grandmother introduced them to the song. The references to "set[ting] your flag on fire" refer to a voodoo curse arising from the action, with flags being a marker for the groups of Mardi Gras revelers. Other lyrics are of debated Creole and/or Native American origin and meaning, but their effect is certain, as they reflect the spirit of the Mardi Gras celebration and the unique Cajun culture of Louisiana.

I come to "Iko Iko" as an outsider to the traditions it describes, but I am nonetheless fascinated by its various lyrical elements. I wish to learn more about what's behind the lyrics with uncertain meanings, as I am sure many in New Orleans and Louisiana are as well. For now, without that knowledge, I remain most attached to its rhythm, the one thing onto which all listeners can certainly latch.


Postscript — Dr. John: For a very different version of "Iko Iko," I look no further than the late Dr. John, one of the foremost ambassadors of New Orleans R&B and jazz. He cut a studio version in 1972, but I prefer his live cover from the 1995 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, featuring one heck of a backing band.


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