Outside of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a widely misunderstood tradition. I myself am no expert on the subject and don’t pretend to be. But in recent years, while getting familiar with the music of New Orleans, I have come to appreciate the festival more and more. I will not try to explain everything but if you listen to the songs about Mardi Gras, you can piece together what is going on, which might make the noisy, and colorful expression of joy that is Mardi Gras a little more accessible to you.
Here are my favorite songs about “Fat Tuesday” in no particular order. But I would be remiss if I did not open with:
1. “Carnival Time” by Al Johnson – Al Johnson, since this recording in 1960, has been pretty much officially named Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. It’s not often a guy gets named after his own song. Technically this is not about Mardi Gras, as Carnival is the season of celebration that leads up to Mardi Gras. Carnival is more of a Rio de Janiero thing, while on Mardi Gras, all eyes are on New Orleans. Even so, the song “Carnival Time” is inextricable from Mardi Gras, and Al Johnson is inextricable from “Carnival Time.”
2. “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair – This song is sometimes known as “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” which I think is a little on the nose so I like the other title it is known by, “Go to the Mardi Gras”. On the HBO series “Treme” there was a family who would turn this song on their record player as they left the house for Mardi Gras celebrations (presumably leaving it on repeat all day). For a while after I saw that, every time I left the house I’d start whistling the song’s very catchy opening. This song, too, makes the connection between Carnival and Mardi Gras, and introduces us to the Zulu King and Queen.
3. “Treme Second Line (Blow the Whistle)” by Kermit Ruffins – Speaking of whistling, the whistle is a familiar part of the cacophony of sound that is Mardi Gras but I associate it with the feel of the city itself, having visited and stayed at a hotel where the concierge blew a whistle to hail taxis for people. That’s probably a pretty common thing in other cities but for me it is a New Orleans memory. Ruffins only mentions “Mardi Gras’ in town” in the song. Other than that, this is a typical second line romp. Like most everything Kermit Ruffins does, “Blow the Whistle” exudes a party atmosphere, and there is no bigger party than Mardi Gras.
4. “Mardi Gras Mambo” by the Hawketts – A simple early rhythm and blues song accompanied by a saxophone and bass, it’s fun to sing and easy to learn. It begins and ends with the words “Down in New Orleans” and gives nods to LaSalle and Rampart Street as well as a reference to the Caribbean influence which so richly colors the musical landscape of New Orleans.
5. “Iko, Iko” by Dr. John – “Iko Iko” is probably the most widely known Mardi Gras song though most people don’t have any idea what it is about. As a matter of fact, most people in New Orleans probably don’t know what it is about, entirely. The meaning of the chant “jockimo fee no ay na nay, jockimo fee na nay” (or countless other interpretations) is lost to history though there are countless theories. In any case, it’s a fun song and it preserves the Mardi Gras Krewe tradition of the spy boy and the flag boy, etc., and Dr. John gives the tune a great deal of swagger, as you might expect from him.
6. “We Danced At the Mardi Gras” by Pete Fountain – This is an instrumental by one of the greatest New Orleans clarinetists. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras myself, but for me this song really feels like classic Mardi Gras, before it became known to non-Louisianans as a celebration of booze and other forms of debauchery.
7. “All On a Mardi Gras (Big Bass Drum)” by Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band – I had a hard time deciding between this and another version by Dr. John. So check that one out too. The hook of this song is the Mardi Gras Krewe exclamation “Two Way Pocky Way!” which means “Get the hell out the way.” In fact The Wild Magnolias have another song called “Hell Out the Way.” It’s all an allusion to the days when Krewes came out and prowled the streets of the Crescent City on Mardi Gras morning and if they crossed paths with other Krewes, there might be trouble. Now days, it is all much less territorial and more in good fun, though the tradition itself is still terribly serious.
…and speaking of the Wild Magnolias:
8. “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront” by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias – The Wild Magnolias, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and others, were Mardi Gras Krewes who set their chants to music. Like “All on a Mardi Gras Day” and many others, this one captures the Krewe tradition in action. These recordings are more historical document than music, though they are in fact quite musical.
9 & 10. “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair and “My Indian Red” by Danny Barker – Mardi Gras culture has often been scrutinized for being politically incorrect, culturally insensitive or outright racist. At the very least, it has been accused of being a form of cultural appropriation. But if America itself is a melting pot, then New Orleans is the place where the stew is the thickest. Mardi Gras is French, it is African, and it is Native American just as many of the people down there, and many of the people who made this music, can claim be a mix of such ancestry. And even if they weren’t, they embraced that heritage, whole-heartedly. True, in these two songs there is some language that has gone out of favor in America-proper, but in New Orleans it just is what it is. For me, Danny Barker has the final word on the subject in “My Indian Red” when he sings “We love our Queen. We love New Orleans,” a declaration of reverence for the Zulu Queen and the city itself.
If you are celebrating Mardi Gras on Tuesday, or if you’ve already begun celebrating Carnival, then let me say unto you “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” Let the good times roll!