Over fifty years ago a song of seemingly nonsense scat in Creole patois became an international hit, and the subject of several lawsuits claiming authorship. Known as Iko Iko, it was originally named Choc-o-mo by the author, James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, in the early 50s. His record company misspelled it as Jock-a-mo.
The song tells a story about two warring tribes of Mardi Gras parade Native Americans. These parades have a tradition going back to the early 19th century. There were about 38 different tribes in the New Orleans area and they fought brutally and often. As they became more involved in the parades, they channeled their energies and hostilities into outdoing each other in costumes, songs and dances. The song tells of a chance meeting between a "Spy Boy", who ran ahead of the tribe, and a "Flag Boy", who was in the middle of the tribe and waved communications to the chief.
The most interesting theory regarding the lyrics is that they came from an extinct Native American language used for trading, called Mobilian Jargon, that was largely composed of Chickasaw and Choctaw, and used in the Gulf Coast region by the tribes, African-Americans, and European settlers. In Mobilian Jargon "jock-a-mo feeno" meant "very good".
However, others think the lyrics were influenced by West African languages. "Ayeko" is a popular chant still used today in West African meaning "well done". These peoples were part of the slave trade and ended up in Haiti, which for many was a way station to Louisiana (they also brought voodoo culture). The fact that "Yaquimo" was a common Taino name helps this theory.
James Crawford's recording was a local hit, but didn't do well nationally. In 1965, a girl group called The Dixie Cups were in a studio recording in New York City. During a break, and just killing time, they sang a song they remembered their grandmother singing, while beating ashtrays with drumsticks. They were unaware that the recording tapes were running, and once bass and drums were added, the song was released as a 45 rpm single. Iko Iko reached No. 20 on the Billboard charts.
Since the girls didn't know the origins of their grandmother's song, they were given songwriting credits. James Crawford sued, and in 1967 they settled out of court. Crawford was denied ownership and authorship of Iko Iko, but was awarded 50% royalty for public performances, including radio.
In the 1990s, The Dixie Cups found another group of people claiming ownership. Their ex-manager filed a copyright registration in 1991, and successfully licensed the song outside of North America. The Dixie Cups sued their ex-manager and won by a unanimous verdict in 2002.
The song has been performed by artists all over the world, including the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and Buckwheat Zydeco, as expected of New Orleans-based performers. Even the Grateful Dead, Warren Zevon, Cyndi Lauper, and other diverse artists have recorded it.
Here's the original words as written by James Crawford:
My grandma and your grandma were sittin' by the fire.
My grandma said to your grandma, I'm gonna set your flag on fire."
Talkin' 'bout, hey now! Hey now!
Iko, iko un day
Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-ne,
Jock-a-mo fee na-ne.
Look at my king all dressed in red
Iko, iko, un day
I betcha five dollars he'll kill you dead,
Jock-a-mo fee na-ne
My flag boy and your flag boy were sittin' by the fire.
My flag boy said to your flag boy, "I'm gonna set your flag on fire."
See that guy all dressed in green
Iko, iko, un day
He's not a man, he's a loving machine
Jock-a-mo fee na-ne