Mardi Gras Indian Influence on the Music of New Orleans
Copyrighted 2002 - 2014 by Thomas L Morgan
Listing of Mardi Gras Indian Music Available

It is hard to single out one ingredient in a gumbo and say that is what makes it taste so good; in the same way, it is difficult to isolate Mardi Gras Indian music and culture from the sounds of New Orleans as a whole. So how does a roughly organized community of loosely organized folks who spent the first fifty years of the Twentieth Century in what could be described as dangerous street confrontations effect the culture and music of New Orleans? An answer to that question may be found in the bubbling up of the music and culture of the Indians as it was recorded and embraced by musicians in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Indians have been a part of New Orleans' music and culture for more than 100 years according to some sources and much longer according to others. In many ways what makes Mardi Gras Indians unique is out of sight from most people. Even today there are limited interactions between the Indians and mainstream New Orleans culture. There may be weekly practices at neighborhood watering holes in the fall and winter leading up to Mardi Gras. Even on Mardi Gras Day the unveiling of the year's suit and other activities are limited to the local neighborhoods. Then there are mass appearances on the night of Saint Joseph's Day and Super Sundays and maybe even Jazz and Heritage Festival appearances where the Indians are probably seen by more people but at the same time are completely out of their element.

There are some specific examples in the 20th Century where the titles of the Indian songs inspired New Orleans music and later on more clear examples where their music and lyrics were obvious inspirations. The Creole patois found in the lyrics is rooted in oral tradition and is accompanied by percussion instruments. Most songs are chanted and make liberal use of the call and response tradition. The main song sung normally at the beginning and at the ending of Indian gatherings is "Indian Red," also known as the "Indian prayer." Other titles include "Shallow Water," "Handa Wanda," "Two-Way-Pocky-Way," as well as song reworked from their traditional roots such as "Shoo Fly" and "Little Liza Jane." New songs are added occasionally and older ones reworked to meet the situation.

The first known song to make use of an Indian phrase was Louis Dumaine's 1927 instrumental "To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa." Sadly this version's only resemblance to Indian music is in the title. The song that became known as Two Way Pock Y Way started out with specific dance steps accompaning the beat and lyrics according to former Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, Allison "Tootie" Montana.

Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 Library of Congress recordings gives some insight into what Mardi Gras Indian culture was like at the turn of the Twentieth Century. These recordings were never widely distributed nor even known by the general public, so they certainly did not contribute to spreading any influences of New Orleans Indian music. As to the recordings themselves, Morton reveals that he was once may have been a spyboy, though doesn't mention to which tribe he belonged. He does talk about the Spyboy's purpose in the tribe. He reveals that at that time in the city there were four or five tribes. He also gives examples of a couple of Indian chants and accompanying dances. The text from Allan Lomax's book MISTER JELLY ROLL reveals the Creole spelling as "T'ouwais, bas q'ouwais" and response "Ou tendais," though there have been other representations. One possible translation of the phrase is "I'll kill (tuez) you if you don't get out the way, " with the response "Entendez," or "I hear ya!"

Dave Bartholomew's 1950 Mardi Gras season Imperial release of Carnival Day appears to be the first popular song to make some use of Indian Chants. Bartholomew starts the song chanting about Big Chief Brother Tillman, a well known Chief of the Creole Wild West at that time and then includes the chant Two Way Pak E Way emphasized by the Hum Bah response. The music makes use of the complex rhythms one would associate with the Indians. In an interview Bartholomew talked of being aware of the Indians but never a member himself

Certainly the first popular song published that made liberal use of the Mardi Gras Indian chants was Sugar Boy Crawford's November 1953 Checker recording "Jock-A-Mo." According to a recent interview with Crawford, the original title was "Chockamo," though through a misinterpretation of what Crawford was singing, it ended up being titled "Jock-A-Mo." Crawford says, "It came from two Indian chants that I put music to." "Iko Iko" was a victory chant the Indians would shout. "Jock-A-Mo" was a chant called when the Indians went into battle." Crawford, who grew up in the 1300 block of LaSalle Street, was well acquainted with the many Indian tribes in his area but did not mask as an Indian. To the casual listener not knowledgable about the Indians, a reference to "having some fun on a Mardi Gras Day," sets the stage for the song. The song begins as a confrontation between Mardi Gras Indians might, a face-to-face meeting of Spyboys with one threatening the other by challenging that "I'm going to set your flag on fiyo (fire). The music is reminiscent of an Indian second line but for the most part is typical of the rhythm and blues songs recorded in the Crescent City at that time. The song came out for the 1954 Mardi Gras and according to Crawford "Nobody paid attention to the song..for over ten years." Certainly as it reemerged as "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups, it garnered a much bigger impact.

In the mid-1950s, not the mid-40's as the George Buck (GHB) Release shows, Danny Barker put out four sides of Mardi Gras Indian related material originally on King Zulu Records. Whether Barker was attempting to make a popular Mardi Gras hit from Indian sources is not known but may be the case. With these releases, the Indian prayer "Indian Red" was first recorded as "My Indian Red" with lyrics close to what is sung today. Crawford's "Chockamo/Jockamo" becomes "Chocko Me Feendo Hey". Also included is "Corrine Died on the Battlefield" with the first mention of the "Battleground," an area where many Indian confrontations took place. The fourth song released was "Tootie Ma Is A Real Fine Thing." All of the songs have elements of Indian culture, some more than others. The music on the recordings isn't as raw as Indian music might be described but attempts are made to give the spirit of Indian music in a popular arrangement. Barker certainly was familiar with the Indian culture and as a smart songwriter, he hit on an idea for a session, although the end result never became the Mardi Gras hit that it was intended to be.

Huey "Piano" Smith's 1958 Imperial release of "Don't You Know Yockomo" includes some references to Indian music and culture. The chant of "Two Way Pak E Way" is immediately recognizable but is then used as a throw away response with others such as "Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho," borrowed from Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," "ling ting ting" borrowed from Five Keys recording "Ling Ting Tong" and Smith's own response of "Don't you Know Yockomo." There are no other references to Indian culture, but clever Smith certainly realizes the source for the catchy phrases he is quoting.

Between 1954 and 58, noted author and music historian Samuel Charters spent time recording the sounds of the city for a "Music of New Orleans: Volume 1" LP released by Folkways Records in 1959. In October of 1956, he made the first live recordings of Mardi Gras Indians. His recording of "Red White & Blue Got The Golden Band" was done by members of a number of different tribes including the 2nd Ward Hunters, Pocohantus (sic), 3rd Ward Terrors and White Eagles. Little Red White & Blues was an old-time Indian gang still referred to in many Indian song narratives today, but it is interesting to note that the singers have no clear understanding of what the name meant. The gang appears again in "To-Wa-Bac-A-Way" which appears to have been done on the street at another time. These recordings were never widely distributed and are fascinating to scholars, but their demonstration of the widespread influences of Indian music are minimal.

Next up is the 1964 recording for Watch records of Big Chief written by Earl King. The song features the vocals and whistling of King along with the masterful piano playing of Professor Longhair. The lush orchestration was by Wardell Quezerque with an 18-piece horn ensemble. King has said the lead character in the piece was inspired by his mother, who was affectionately called Big Chief among family and friends. The song's longevity among fans served to keep the perceived reference to Indian culture in public focus.

The Dixie Cup's "Iko Iko" was released on the Red Bird label in 1965 and climbed to #20 on Billboard's charting of R& B songs, in the process becoming the first Indian inspired song to escape New Orleans and make a mainstream appearance. This version is basically the same song that Sugar Boy Crawford recorded though some things are changed. The opening guitars of Crawford's version are replaced by a much more authentic sounding percussion accomplished by hitting two sticks together. The Spyboys of the original first verse become Grandmas, which points more towards a signifying episode than an Indian exchange. The Queen reference is turned into a King and was certainly not written by any New Orleans songster who would certainly say Chief. The second verse shows more understanding of Indian culture as Grandma now becomes a Flagboy. The song has continued in public consciousness by its inclusion in film soundtracks, television shows and commercial advertising. The song "Two Way Pock A Way" was done by the Dixie Cups at about the same time but was pulled from store shelves shortly after release due to graphic lyrics. The accompanying music has much more of a feel of an Indian second line and the recording really resembles the wilder singing at a Mardi Gras Indian practice. Since the release was pulled almost overnight, its impact is negligible.

"Mama Roux" a song with an Indian reference appeared in a 1968 single by Dr. John ( Mac Rebennack) and later on his first Atco album, called "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya." The line, "She was the Queen of the Little Red White & Blue," clearly alludes to the aforementioned Little Red White and Blue Tribe.

The recordings of Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias are clearly the first Indian recordings by Mardi Gras Indians to break out of the city and have the greatest impact. The Magnolias' first recording, produced in a 1970 session by Quint Davis, was a 45 rpm release of "Handa Wanda Pts 1&2." The single was quite popular in the city and fans began to get interested in Mardi Gras Indian culture.This fueled an LP recorded in 1973 and released the following year. It was produced by Phillippe Rault for the French Barclay Records and was licensed and distributed in the United States by Polydor. "Two-Way Pak-E-Way" featured a backing band assembled by Quint Davis called the New Orleans Project consisting of Willie Tee on organ, Brother Earl Turbinton sax and clarinet, Julius Farmer on bass, guitarist Snooks Eaglin and drummer Larry Panna as well as percussionist Alfred "Uganda" Roberts. The album also included for the first time an Indian small percussion group of tambourines, triangles, whistles & bongos. Accompanying Big Chief Bo Dollis as lead vocalist was Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Tribe. With Dollis's powerful voice , Willie Tee's funky organ and the masterful bass licks of Julius Farmer, the Indian group had a perfect rhythm and blues vehicle. The Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians brought their music to the rest of the States for possibly the first time playing five major cities, as they opened acts for Aretha Franklin and Gladys and the Pips as well as performing in Carnegie Hall. One song "Smoke My Peace Pipe" became a solid hit regionally. The Wild Magnolias had established their musical presence, and soon put together another LP entitled "They Call Us Wild" in 1975. It was not issued in the USA until its CD release on Polygram in the early 1990s. The Magnolias made three more albums in the next 25 years culminating with "Life is a Carnival," released by Metro Blue, a subsidiary of Capitol Records. The Magnolias success during this time coincided with the growing success of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which gave many musical fans their first live taste of Mardi Gras Indians. But it wasn't until a release by another Indian tribe, backed by an even more famous band, that Mardi Indian music and culture had its largest impact locally and nationally.

The four Neville Brothers had been involved with the music of the city in some way or shape since 1955. Their favorite Uncle Jolley was a pianist and percussionist who was a big influence on the younger brother Cyril's drumming. Jolley had entertained his nephews early on with stories set to music about his travels as a merchant seamen. In 1966, after settling down in the city, he became interested in Mardi Gras Indian culture and soon was masking Indian. In the spring of 1975, Cyril had been invited to join brother Art's group the Meters. Aaron and his family shared a double shotgun with Uncle Jolley. As the three brothers became more and more involved with the Indian material, they began to see that there was a good possibility for commercial success. They sent for brother number four, Charles, a contract was signed and the stage was set for the 1975 release of of Indian music based on Chief Jolley's tribe, the "Wild Tchoupitoulas." The ensuing LP emerged as one of the great projects to showcase many elements of New Orleans' musical heritage as it brought together Jolley's strong voice, the second line rhythms built around more authentic percussion than in previous releases and the Neville Brother's innate feel for the material. With additions of new songs like "Brother John" and a reworking of the Battlefield theme, the album was embraced by fans and soon national and international touring brought the Indian songs and culture to the world. Its success bonded the Neville brothers together as a musical family and launched one of New Orleans preeminent rhythm and blues groups.

Over the next twenty five years, Mardi Gras Indian music would ebb and flow, but other than the Wild Magnolias' releases nothing approaching any amount of commercial success. Monk Boudreaux's 1988 release for Rounder Records of "Lightnin' and Thunder" by his Golden Eagles was essentially a recording pieced together of a couple of Mardi Gras Indian practices. The 1997 release on Mardi Gras records of the Flaming Arrows revisited the funk influences of the first Wild Magnolias release. There were others including Champion Jack Dupree's 1991 ode to the Yellow Pocahontas tribe aptly titled "Yella Pocahontas" but most notably is Ch'Ching's release of the "Indians of the Nation" CD which featured some of the best singers from different tribes in what may be called the most authentic of the Mardi Gras Indians' releases.

In 1992 Dr. John did a new and wonderful arrangement of "My Indian Red" on the Warner Bros. release of his "Goin' Back to New Orleans" album, where he calls the names of all the current and historic Big Chiefs.

One other release worthy of mention is the 1992 release by saxophonist Donald Harrison entitled Indian Blues. Harrison, the son of a Mardi Gras Indian chief and someone who is very familiar with the music and culture showed that this material could be interpolated into a straight ahead jazz project. Indian music shows its resiliency as it embraces modern jazz changes. The lead vocals on the CD are accomplished by Harrison's father, Big Chief Donald Harrison, who emerged late in his life as a spokesman and teacher of Indian culture. In the spring of 2002, Donald Harrison, Jr., returned to his roots where he masked Indian for Mardi Gras. He is plannning another release which will feature the fusion of Mardi Gras Indian music, jazz and hip-hop.

New Orleans has always pulled from unique institutions whether it is the Brass band tradition, jazz funerals, or Mardi Gras Indian songs. The Indians are certainly one part of the Caribbean element that has fueled all the music from Jelly Roll Morton's "Spanish tinge" through to second line rhythms and the spicy left hand of Professor Longhair and on to the chunk of funk fed to the world by the Meters. There certainly are Indian connections to Congo Square; some of their rituals may be as close to that gathering place as we can get in modern times. Yet for the most part, Indian culture and music still play a small part in the city we know as New Orleans. This may be good. The music and culture can continue to grow and change without the pressures of commercial success. One thing is for certain: the influence of Mardi Gras Indians will continue to be felt and studied as it continues to percolate throughout the fabric of New Orleans' cultural landscape.

Mardi Gras Indian Music and Books

Treme: Music From the HBO Original Series, Season 1
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux
Flaming Arrows
Smiley Ricks - Feathercraft
Golden Eagles
Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday Showdown
Wild Magnolias
The Wild Tchoupitoulas
Mardi Gras Indians by Michael P Smith