The Song Remains The Same? The Evolution of the Mardi Gras Songbook

The splendor of the Mardi Gras Indians’ feathered and beaded suits draws immediate awe when spotted coming down the city’s streets on Carnival Day. The Black Indians’ songs, so full of their history and lore, can often become somewhat lost under the ringing of tambourines, beating of drums and general excitement. Some have been a part of the tradition as far back as anyone can remember, others have been modified through the years while new material has found its way into the tradition.

“Black Johnny—that’s his song,” Chief Donald Harrison Sr. said during an interview some 25 years ago of the Black Indian chant “Hiko, Hiko.” The Big Chief of the Guardians remembered the first time he heard the refrain sung back in 1950 at the P&B Bar. “Hiko” was, in part, inspiration for James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s self-penned 1954 R&B hit “Jock-A-Mo” that was later transformed into the Dixie Cups chart-topper “Iko Iko” and recorded by many others.

Big Chief Tyrone Casby, Aubrey Edwards, photo

Big Chief Tyrone Casy (photo: Aubrey Edwards)

“Black Johnny, that’s who taught me,” says the Golden Eagles Chief Monk Boudreaux, who upholds the traditions while adding to them as a composer, storyteller and superb singer, both on the street and stage. “He never masked Indian but he sang all the Indian songs—could nobody beat him.”

Boudreaux paid tribute to his mentor, who resided in St. Rose, La., on his song “Old Black Johnny” recorded with the 101 Runners. “As the days go on, it changes,” Boudreaux offers philosophically of the variations of the Indian songs. “Everybody has their own lyrics—each tribe and those from Uptown and Downtown. Like ‘Two-Way-Pak-E-Way’—now they do ‘Hey Pock A-Way.’ See, I was doing it the way I was taught when I recorded it [in 1987].”

Big Chief Tyrone Casby of the Mohawk Hunters from Algiers doesn’t see many changes in the songs he and his gang have been singing over the years. “Whatever you were kind of brought up on, that’s what you basically sing, because it still has the same significance.

“It’s almost like Christmas,” he continues. “Christmas carols don’t change. Within the singing, you still have the call and response that can be relative to a situation, an issue at hand, or maybe a costume, or a sewing pattern or something. Lyrics might change, but the style itself is still the same.”

Chief Casby shares one change in particular. Decades ago a popular Indian song, “Sew, Sew, Sew,” which speaks of the annual rigors of crafting new suits, concerned a different topic. “At one point an elderly Indian I knew [was quoted saying] that the word was ‘sore’ because the Indians walked and danced all day, so when they got home they were sore, sore, sore,” Casby explains. “That evolved into ‘Sew, Sew, Sew.’”

Big Chief Boudreaux advises those interested in getting a true grasp of the Indians’ stories to really devote their ears to the mix. “Well, you hear the background clear but you can’t hear the lyrics that are being put out there,” he says. “That’s what made me so frantic, because I didn’t have one of those big voices. You had to get real close to understand where I was coming from.

“Like Johnny told me—when it was Bo Dollis and I—‘People are going to gather around and they’re going to listen to Bo because he has a loud voice, but keep singing because they’re gonna hear you.’”

Boudreaux, who was taken under Black Johnny’s wing while a teenaged member of the White Eagles, has always enjoyed hearing Big Chief Little Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters. “Oh, yeah, Little Charles could hoot—he could go,” Boudreaux says. “He didn’t have that loud voice and you couldn’t see him in the crowd. That’s the way I was. I didn’t scream and holler.”

Chief Casby believes a singer should have, most importantly, a command of the English language—know what you’re talking about and be worldly. Aware that followers of the Mohawk Hunters include children and the elderly, he also insists there be no vulgarity woven into the lyrics.

Some tunes are so highly identified with certain Indians, such as Bo Dollis’ “Handa Wanda,” that they are rarely heard on the street. Almost all the Indian gangs do versions of the folk song “Shoo Fly,” and Boudreaux recalls that Johnny used to sing it as a prison song: “Met that captain on a big white horse / I didn’t know his name but I used to call him boss.”

“Indian Red” will be the first song of Carnival Day as Chief Boudreaux and Chief Casby hit the streets for their 59th and 46th times, respectively. The prayer became popular outside of the Indian culture, most notably through Dr. John’s lively version.

“The youngsters today sing it, ‘We kill ‘em dead,’” Boudreaux says, “but the real lyrics are, ‘You kill ‘em dead.’ It would start off slow, and after the chief went through the lyrics he would up-tempo it, because now they’re getting ready to leave. That’s the way it went.”