NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi There! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m running on ice, as usual.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
Here is a neat trivia question, and I think I know of only one listener who will get this one off the bat. What do the following artists have in common?
Paul McCartney and Wings, Carly Simon, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, Adele.
…and I’ll throw in one more: Sheena Easton. So, once again: Paul McCartney and Wings, Carly Simon, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, Adele, and Sheena Easton. What do all of these acts have in common? I’ll have the answer for you at the end of the program.
So before I start today, I want to put in a little full disclosure. This episode of the show is actually a re-working of an essay I published online a few years ago. So you may not get my usual style. But I was going through some older stuff and thought this was worthy of being part of this program.
A few years ago, HBO aired a series called Treme, which was created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer. Baltimoreans may remember David Simon as the guy who came up with The Wire and Homicide: Life in the Street, both of which were set in Baltimore. Treme, however, was set in New Orleans, and begins about three months after Hurricane Katrina struck that city.
Now, in addition to the music—and there’s a lot of music in that show, even if you don’t necessarily hear most of the songs in their entirety—there are lots of stories going on that don’t necessarily intersect to any great extent. Among all this music, a specific phrase keeps popping up in lyrics. The phrase is “Jockomo feena nay”, which most people associate with the song “Iko Iko”.
The song “Iko Iko” was written and released in 1953 by James Crawford and his band The Cane Cutters, and at the time was just called “Jockamo”. The song didn’t go anywhere, chart-wise, until 1965, when the Dixie Cups turned it into an international hit. The song had been recorded numerous times by that point, but it was their version that actually caught on, and perhaps that’s partially because of the loose style and minimal instrumentation they gave to it. But it turns out that there’s a reason for that miminalist effort.
The Dixie Cups were a black female trio out of New Orleans who were discovered at a talent show by singer and producer Joe Jones, the guy behind the song “You Talk Too Much.” The Dixie Cups were Barbara Hawkins and her sister Rosa, and their cousin Joan Johnson. In 1964 they scored a Number One hit with “Chapel of Love”, and they were looking for their next big single.
So one day while sitting in a New York City recording studio, the girls were doing some overdubs, which meant that the musicians had gone home for the day. They started to goof around, and they began singing “Iko Iko” while accompanying themselves with a chair, a drumstick, a Coke Bottle and an ashtray. That they were just fooling around explains the nonsense lyrics that don’t match up with Crawfords, such as “my grandma said to your grandma”. But producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller liked what they heard and, later on, they got the band to record a proper musical track. Having said that, the final product still doesn’t have a lot added to it. Eventually Crawford filed a lawsuit against the Dixie Cups and their label, Red Bird Records. Now, given that both artists were basically pulling their own variation on cultural materials, and that the phrases “Iko Iko” and “Jockamo Fee Na Nay” appear in lots of other recordings by lots of other artists, it was kind of a weird thing to get tangled in a lawsuit over. And after two years, Crawford finally settled for a percentage of performance royalties, and the individual members of the Dixie Cups share the songwriting credit with Crawford on later covers of the song.
Now I’d heard it many times in the song “Iko Iko”, of course, and as long as I’ve heard the song I figured that it was a bit of nonsense lyric, a chunk of filler; kind of like singing scat in jazz. Or, as my high school friend Joe put it recently, “I just thought it was a cool song!” Joe was the guy who turned me on to The Doors. Yeah, he was that guy in high school.
But as I started hearing the lyric popping up in other songs, it slowly dawned on me that this phrase might actually mean something. So I did some research, from which you now get to benefit. Everybody wins!In addition to being a great dramatic show, Treme also has the advantage of being educational. One of the things I learned is that, come Mardi Gras, there isn’t just one parade in town, the way there is on, say, Thanksgiving in New York City. It’s more like a whole series of them all over town, and they go on forever. The whole city is a parade. Among the paraders are the Mardi Gras Indians, who are actually several groups (which call themselves “tribes” or even “gangs”) of African-American Carnival revelers. They dress up in very elaborate outfits that are heavily influenced by Native American ceremonial garb. There are nearly 40 of these tribes, and most of them belong to one of two groups identifying themselves as “Uptown” or “Downtown” Indians. Once dressed, they will march out on the streets on Super Sunday, which for them is the Sunday prior to the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19). About a hundred years ago, competing tribes who encountered each other in the street could conceivably erupt into violence, however this has generally reduced to verbal taunts about the quality of each others’ costumes. But as a result of this violence, certain paraders were given specific roles. The first one out is the Wild Man, who wears a horned hat and literally acts wild. His job is to clear the crowds in advance of the others. (This character wasn’t seen in Treme because he’d died in the storm; we did see his memorial service.) The Spy Boy goes out next, and literally spies out to see if other tribes are in the area. Next comes the Flag Boy, who is always in visual contact with the Spy Boy. The Flag Boy literally carries the tribe’s flag, and is the standard-bearer of the group. Last is the Big Chief, who always far outdoes the others in costumed elaborateness.From all this we get the story behind Iko Iko.
The song itself is about a collision between two Mardi Gras Indian parades, during which the Spy Boy threatens to burn the Flag Boy’s banner.Part of the problem of deciphering the phrase “Jockomo feena nay” is that all spellings are approximate, and that there are numerous interpretations. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead once said that “Jockomo” derives from a Swahili word meaning roughly, “If you don’t like it, that’s your problem”, or possibly even “Go to hell”. Some have theorized that it’s a corruption of the name “Giacomo”, which they then suggest is Italian (or French) for John or Joseph. Unfortunately, it’s Italian for “James,” so that’s clearly wrong.
The fact is, the words have been used for so long that they’ve become more or less meaningless, since the original words have been swallowed up in time and repetition and garbling. The two strongest theories that follow from this take a broader meaning from the phrase itself rather than an attempt to break down individual words. Thus, “Jockomo feena nay” can mean (loosely), “It doesn’t matter what the Big Chief says” (i.e. “it’s all good”), or, perhaps more appropriately—especially in context of the song—“Don’t mess with us”.
Awhile back, Drew Henshaw from OffBeat Magazine interviewed and asked him about “Iko Iko”. During the interview, Crawford said:
“It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. ‘Iko Iko’ was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. ‘Jock-A-Mo’ was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” …a phrase everyone in New Orleans knew.”
Henshaw then said, “Listeners wonder what ‘Jock-A-Mo’ means. Some music scholars say it translates in Mardi Gras Indian lingo as ‘Kiss my ass,’ and I’ve read where some think Jock-A-Mo was a court jester. What does it mean?”
To which Crawford replies: I really don’t know. And then he laughs.
So now, if you’re like me, you’re even more confused than you were when you thought it was just a nonsense lyric. But here’s the thing: New Orleans is a melting pot of people and languages, with the French, the Africans, the Native Americans, oh, and a smattering of the English language as well. And these have all melded together into a stew where few people understand the literal meaning, but they understand perfectly the sentiment behind it.
Ah, well. Jockamo feena nay.
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what these artists had in common: Paul McCartney and Wings, Carly Simon, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, Adele, and finally Sheena Easton. I thought about adding Shirley Bassey to the list, but then I thought that would give it all away, because the answer is James Bond.
Paul McCartney and Wings performed the theme to Live and Let Die in 1973, and it spent three weeks in the Number Two slot in the US, and went to Number Nine in the UK.
Carly Simon brought us “Nobody Does it Better,” the theme to The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. It was written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, and was the first Bond song whose title doesn’t match that of the movie.
Tom Jones has a real old school sound in 1965 with Thunderball, which was the producers’ third attempt at a theme song for that film. The story goes that Tom Jones got woozy holding the final note and fainted in the recording booth.
Duran Duran’s 1985 theme to A View to a Kill was largely nonsense, but it still managed to have a connection to the film’s plot. AND, it was the first Bond theme to go all the way to Number One in the US.
Adele’s theme from Skyfall, was released at seven minutes after midnight, or 0:07 in military time, on October 12, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the franchise. It was Number One in many countries but topped out at Number Eight in the US.
And finally in 1981, Sheena Easton not only sang the theme to For Your Eyes Only, she actually appeared on-screen during the opening credits, the first artist to do so. And just for the giggles, let me add that there’s a track on Blondie’s album The Hunter titled “For Your Eyes Only”, which was in fact written for the film, but when the producers went for a different tune, Blondie pulled out of the project altogether.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to Whip It, whip it good.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.