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)
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!
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!