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Musical Dialect – Jock-a-Mo

13 Nov


In Mark Twain’s renowned bildungsroman Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain begins the novel with a disclaimer that reads:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

Twain’s quest of dialectic accuracy is, as he explains, painstaking, and any biography of the man would suggest that his ear for language was only rivaled by his perfectionist intransigence, a trait that made his texts all the more wonderful. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jim, an escaped slave, speaks to Huck, the book’s protagonist, in the “Missouri Negro Dialect,” a rich (and hard to understand) patois that is most similar to Creole.

Tomorrow, my students will learn about dialects and how they shape Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so, because dialects are on my mind (and because I have already mentioned Creole), I figured a post on  “Iko Iko (Jock-A-Mo)” would be germane.


The story of this revered Mardi Gras piece (that has since been covered by musicians from Dr. John to The Grateful Dead to Aaron Carter – I kid you not) starts with Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters, who unsuccessfully released the song as “Jock-A-Mo” in 1953. The song was popularized more than a decade later when The Dixie Cups released it as “Iko Iko” and scored an international hit; Sugar Boy (James Crawford) sued and got songwriting credits. If you don’t think you know the song, listen. You know it, right.

The song has reached the level of musical ubiquity, as it is the classic New Orleans tune. It also features a chorus that is a completely different language. A chorus that has been sung by many karaoke listeners and mispronounced and misphrased; I do it all the time. Actually, this is the first time I have learned what in the heck is said in the chorus of this song; I have usually just relied on my flawed ear and equally errant pipes. What is the chorus?

Hey now! Hey now!
Iko iko wan dey
Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey
Jock-a-mo fi na ney.

And, of course, because nothing is easy in the world of old dialects, there are several opinions of what this means. Well, every word after the “Hey Now”; we are confident in our translation of those welcoming words. Let’s start with where these words come from.

According to a Mental Floss article in a “2009 article in the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat,” the author showed the song to a “local linguistics professor” in Ghana who concluded that the song’s famous chorus was borne from a West African language. A linguistics professor in the U.S., however, concluded that the lyric is from a “mixture of Yoruba and French Creole.” Creole is a combination of European and African dialects, and Yoruba is spoken in Nigeria. Thus, both linguistics professors were close.

What do the lines mean? We don’t know for sure, but here is one thought from American Blues Scene:

Iko! Iko! is Akout! Akout! (Creole)
“Listen! Listen!”

Iko! Iko! An Day is Akout! Akout! An Deye (Creole)
“Listen! Listen! At the rear”

Jocomo Fee No An Dan Day is Chokma Finha an dan deye (a mixture of half Native American, half Creole)
“It’s very good, at the rear”

Jocomo Fee Nan Nay is Chokma Finha – Ane (a mixture of half Native American, half Creole)
“It’s a very good year!”

And, yet another translation from the U.S. Linguistics Professor.

Iko! Iko! is Enòn, Enòn!
“Code Language!”

Iko! Iko! An Day is Aiku, Aiku nde.
“God is watching.”

Jocomo Fee No is Jacouman Fi na
“Jacouman causes it”

An Dan Day is ida-n-de
“We will be emancipated.”

Jocomo Fee Nan Nay is Jacouman Fi na dé
“Jacouman urges it; we will wait.”

Moral of the story? We may never know for sure what the lyrics mean, but it is fine singing them, so, like Mardi Gras, just enjoy!


How Long Do I Have To Wait – The History of “Hesitation Blues”

1 Aug


sam collins 11

sam collins 10

As the pictures above suggest, “Hesitation Blues” is one of those traditional tunes that has been recorded by a slew of artists for the last 100 years. A member Roud Folk Song Index, “Hesitation Blues” is a blues standard, and, true to form, it has been recorded in every which way, from lugubrious to effervescent. The lyric has also been transformed, each performer choosing his/her own verse configuration, the consistency coming with the familiar refrain:

How long do I have to wait
Can I get you now
Or must I hesitate?

Thankfully, for those who love music, the history of wonderful blues classics like “Hesitation Blues” has been tracked, and thus musicians have been able to perform the piece and transform it as the years have progressed. And, you will soon hear a few of these recordings – or you can just skip the history and listen to the song progress through the years by scrolling down. Go on, I wont be offended.

Oh, you stayed! Well, great. Let’s begin. What we know is the original versions of the song were published as two different adaptations, one by a three-person publishing team consisting of Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham, and one by W.C. Handy. The song spread from there, even ending up in Langston Hughes’ poem “Ask Your Mama,” where Hughes provided musical direction in the poem and used the chorus of the song to indicate his frustration with the slow pace of change in the country.

Perhaps the most fascinating story with the song, though, is from the 60s. I wrote about this before – check out that post here – and it is one of those obscure music nuggets that makes you smile. The Holy Modal Rounders, an esoteric folk/blues group in the 60s, recorded a version of “Hesitation Blues” in 1964, and, in one of their verses, the band used the lyric “psycho-delic” to describe feet, shoes, and blues. This was the first time anyone used the term psychedelic in a recorded song. Neat, right? In the liner notes, the Holy Modal Rounders thanked Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers, a band that recorded the song with the quintessential pre-1940s blues title of “If the River Was Whiskey.” In fact, Charlie Poole, who played the banjo in the string band that shared his name, succumbed to heart failure at 31 years old after a 13-week drinking bender (yes, 13 weeks). He recorded “If the River Was Whiskey” in 1930, and, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I bring it to you now.

That’s a jig in every sense of the word. Some of you are probably thinking, “oh, this song!” The song, like most recordings of it, is rather absurd. The singer is born here, raised there, doesn’t really know where he is and what he is doing, but he is clearly tired of waiting, which is a theme you better get used to. All in all, this is an excellent version, fulfilling the need for good ol’ fashioned folk. It’s not surprising the Holy Modal Rounders were inspired by Poole because their version sounds similar. Let’s check out a few more versions recorded at around the same time.

Jim Jackson’s guitar features a simple up-down strumming pattern that creates a rhythm that at times almost seems out-of-place with the song. That said, the Jackson’s version is certainly more rhythmic than others, and oddly enough, it kind-of sounds like the beginning of “I Need Never Get Old” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — ok very loosely.

Ok, how about one from Crying Sam Collins. Do you get why he was called “Crying”? That’s one bluesy falsetto. I can’t understand a lot of what he is saying, but I get the chorus, and that’s the essential portion. Collins’ version evinces why “Hesitation Blues” is such a fascinating song. Every version, Collins’ included, sounds different. It spawns uniqueness.

One more version – my person favorite. Here is Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk, performing “Hesitation Blues.” As you will hear soon, Ronk performs the piece with an almost lethargic rhythm, his nasally voice spurting out the lyric with a crooner’s confidence.



Wish Irene a Goodnight – Evolution of the Song

14 Mar

Lead Belly

Think about how many times Irene has been wished goodnight in song? I can safely say that it is more than any other typical name. “Goodnight Irene” is one of the most popular  American Folk standards. It’s catchy repetition and melody is musically pervasive. Start singing this piece and people will join you. It’s as if it is hardwired in our mental music libraries right with “This Land is Your Land.”  We have heard scores of versions of “Goodnight Irene,” but if it weren’t for the man in the picture above and musicologists Alan and John Lomax then we might have never wished Irene goodnight.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, may very well be the most influential blues musician of the 20th century. His impact on future generations of musicians was unparalleled. “Goodnight Irene” was, like most traditional blues/folk songs, based on a song that predated it that was lost. Lead Belly, though, rearranged the song and put together his ode to Irene, a love he could not have. While in prison, Lead Belly recorded hours of music for the Lomax’s, and “Goodnight Irene” came out of those recordings. It did not gain popularity in Ledbetter’s lifetime, though, and instead became popular when The Weavers’ recorded it a few years after his death.

The Weavers are perhaps most responsible for the folk boom of the 1950s and 60s that spawned artists like Bob Dylan and popularized music from folk pioneers like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.

Clearly, the song has touched competent hands. And, in those hands, it became a staple of their respective performances. The difference between Lead Belly and The Weavers’ versions of “Goodnight Irene” is worth noting. The Weavers initially pick and chose from Lead Belly’s sometimes controversial lyric. For example, the morbidly humorous verse below was not included in the Weavers’ version.

I Love Irene, God knows I do

Love her till the sea runs dry

If Irene turns her back on me

I’m gonna take morphine and die

I can see why the last line of that verse could have sparked some ill-feelings in the time period. They, though, did keep the other suicidal verse (below) so to each his own, right?

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town

Sometimes I take a great notion

To jump into the river and drown

With that all being said, the song is a wonderful classic, and its eccentric lyric and infectious melody stick with us through the generations. Check out one of Lead Belly’s versions and a Weavers’ version of the song.

Many Matches in the Matchbox

4 Sep

It’s often shocking how often you find yourself unknowingly enjoying a modern incarnation of a song that has its roots embedded in the past. Covers are great, but they spawn histories that are often forgotten. The Blues Evolution is The Music Court’s attempt to combine two engaging topics, music and history, and share tales of popular blues songs that were first recorded before the first rock n’ roll song was ever created.

Today’s song of choice is “Matchbox,” a blues song born in the 1920s and covered 30 years later by Carl Perkins (and later the Beatles). It is also a great example of musical telephone, where Perkins was forced to guess on the lyric of the decade-old blues song, thus creating an entirely new song that simply held the original’s foundation. So, if you will oblige, let’s take a trip down the long stretch of road that is blues history.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

It all begins with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Well, kind of. Blind Lemon was just one of the many ultra-talented blind blues musicians who inspired the eventual creation of rock n’ roll, but he developed “Matchbox” because he was inspired by a lyric in a Ma Rainey song. Blind Lemon, who has been called the Father of Texas Blues, was inspired by Ma Rainey – “The Mother of the Blues.” The blues ancestry works much like mythology, it seems. Blind Lemon and Ma Rainey inspired Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and many, many others.

In Ma Rainey’s 1924 record “Lost Wandering Blues,” she sings, “Lord, I’m standing here wondering, Will a matchbox hold my clothes. I’ve got a sun to beat, I’ll be farther down the road.” In a pre-sampling example of sampling, Blind Lemon took that lyric and wrote, “I’m sittin’ here wonderin’ would a matchbox hold my clothes.
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go.” Quite similar, indeed. Blind Lemon’s version of the lyric became more popular, but credit must be given to Ma Rainey as well.

There is Blind Lemon’s high croon and traditional Texas acoustic blues guitar. Gosh, pre-rock n’ roll blues is just awesome, isn’t it? This song was recorded several more times through the 30s and 40s but to no true popularity, though it was through one of these covers that the song was reintroduced to the public.

Thirty years later, Carl Perkins’ father suggested he cover the song in a December, 1956 recording session. Perkins’ father, Buck, was a student of old country music, and several country musicians covered the Blind Lemon song in the 1930s and 40s. He only remembered a few lines of the song. Carl decided to try his luck, and the session pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis (not a bad session pianist!), played a boogie rhythm on the piano. Perkins transformed the song into fast-paced rockabilly…with completely different lyrics.

The line that Blind Lemon adopted from Ma Rainey is still there. It is the only similarity that remains. The song, which Blind Lemon made about a mean woman, became a about a poor boy a long way from home. Here is Carl Perkins performing the song with Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton because we can!

The Beatles, who were inspired by Perkins, had received a request to record a Perkins song, and in 1964 they recorded the song with Perkins himself standing by. Yes, he was invited to the session, and did jam with the band (just not on the track). Ringo was tasked with the vocal responsibilities, and he sang the song while playing his drum set.

From the mother to the father to Mr. Blue Suede Shoes to the greatest band of the 20th century. And to think, I’m sittin’ here wondering if a matchbox will hold my clothes.

The Evolution of the Statesboro Blues

11 Apr

List five of the most famous blues songs you can think of. Was “Statesboro Blues” on your list? It is a mainstay on most lists not only because of its excellence as a song, but also because of its proliferation – i.e. the song was re-recorded by the right people. Even if “Statesboro Blues” didn’t find a spot on your list, it is certainly a staple of blues history and a widely recognized song today. You hear the opening few notes of the riff and hear “Wake up Mama, turn your lamp down low” and you just know you are traveling to Georgia to experience the Statesboro blues. But with whom are you traveling with. The original creator of the famous blues piece, the first modernizer, or the performers with arguably the best version of the song? I think we are in need of a Blues Evolution.

By the way, before I continue, if you are interested in the blues and want to learn more about famous originators check out the list that John Phillips is compiling over at the Real Canadian Music Blog. His Let’s Explore the Blues section offers a deep dive into pre-rock blues (

The best way to explore the evolution of “Statesboro Blues” is to work backwards. Instead of starting in 1928, let’s start 43 years later at the Fillmore East in March of 1971. The Allman Brothers recorded a version of blues piece for their live album At Fillmore East, which is one of the most extraordinary live albums ever released. The song is now a staple during Allman Brothers’ concerts. Why did the song succeed initially? One name. Duane Allman. His slide work on “Statesboro Blues” is some of the greatest ever done by any guitarist ever. It is spine-tingling, goose-bump inducing, holy sh*t how is he making that sound, good. You can listen to it over and over again, transcribe it and play it until your fingers are blue and pulsating, NO ONE will ever play the slide guitar and this song like Duane Allman. Let’s not forget Dickey Betts who also creates a magical tone with his guitar. The riff is heavenly, the blues solo scary good, and the vocals fresh and original. The Allman Brothers makes the song theirs, which is partly why everyone thinks it is their song!

But it’s not. And it is not Taj Mahal’s either, who recorded a modernized version of the song for his eponymous debut album in 1968. The version, slower than the Allman Brothers piece, clearly influenced the Brothers. Taj Mahal’s voice is the strength of his version. I give him a whole lot of credit for turning this song into a late 60s blues piece, but he knocks the piece out with his chops. Listen here:

Will the real Statesboro Bluesman please stand up? Name is Willie McTell, Blind Willie Mctell. McTell was an early 20th century blues singer/songwriter/guitarist, with tremendous skill on the 12-string guitar – fingerstyle and slide (Allman inspiration of course). His music is more Eastern than Delta Blues. It is more ragtimey and his voice is not as granular as the deep south Delta blues performers like Big Joe Williams and Charley Patton.

The original lyric is different from the Taj Mahal and Allman Brothers versions of the song. The covers splice together parts of McTell’s original lyric, a narrative about some family struck with the Statesboro, Georgia blues. One of the most influential portions of the song is McTell’s fast-paced verse progression later in the song which is a bit atypical and certainly much appreciated. Anybody out there have the “Statesboro Blues?”

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