My spy boy told your spy boy
Sitting on the Bayou
My spy boy told your spy boy
I’m gonna set your flag on fire
Talking ‘bout hey now (hey now)
Hey now (hey now)
Iko iko ah nay
Jockomo feena ah na nay
Jockomo feena nay.
—“Iko Iko”, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, 1953
I’ve really been enjoying Treme, the series created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer. Locals 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. In addition to the music—and there’s a lot of music, 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.
(And let me just say that in doing some of the research for this piece, I accidentally spoiled myself for the most recent episode, which is still in my DVR and I haven’t seen yet. I’m going to blame you for that, for the time being.)
Among all this music, a specific phrase keeps popping up in lyrics. For the slower-witted among you, it’s “Jockomo feena nay”. 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. Anyway, he gets a pass because of this.) The song “Iko Iko” (as noted above) was written in 1953 by James Crawford, and at the time was just called “Jockamo”.
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. Most people know the version by the Dixie Cups, but it turns out that they were mostly just fooling around and didn’t realize they were being recorded. The producers added backing tracks and bam! Instant hit. But this is why the lyrics they’re singing don’t make a whole pile of sense (“My grandma said to your grandma…”). 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”.
As it happens, offBeat Magazine interviewed Crawford in 2002 and asked him about “Iko Iko”. During the interview, he said:
Crawford: 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.
Interviewer: 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?
Crawford: I really don't know. (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.
Ah, well. Jockamo feena nay.