Mardi Gras Indians On Recordings

For well over a century and a quarter Mardi Gras Indians have been a staple during Carnival and in the musical pantheon of New Orleans. But their recording history was much more recent and still relatively sparse. In spite of the relative paucity of recordings, they touched so many productions and people in the New Orleans music business.

Mardi Gras Indians (or Black Masking Tribes) are African-American social organizations in New Orleans. They suit up in elaborately colorful costumes as an homage to Native Americans. Tribes march (or parade) through their neighborhoods three times every year:

• Mardi Gras (Day)

• the night of St. Joseph’s Day – March 19th

• Super Sunday – generally, the third Sunday in March, closest to St. Joseph’s Day

Their tradition goes back to at least the 1880s with the formation of the first documented tribe, the Creole Wild West.

The Sounds of the Tribes

As they march, the tribes accompany themselves with percussion that has evolved to mostly drums. Although tambourines, cowbells, and other percussive instruments still play a part. They perform call-and-response chants that are the heart of their experience. Surprisingly, it took a long time for their traditions to be recorded. Even then the first recorded references to Indian traditions were by professional musicians and not by the Indians themselves.

Mardi Gras Indians On Recordings

The first documented recording with an Indian reference is “To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa” made in 1927 by Louis Dumaine and his Jazzola Eight, one of four field recordings of the band that RCA Victor made. However, the title is the only thing about the recording that reflects Indian culture. The song itself is an instrumental with a melody and form derivative of other popular songs not at all suggestive of Indian chants.

The First Recordings

Not until 1950 did the legendary New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew record “Carnival Day”, the first recording to actually reference Mardi Gras Indian chants. The song includes a litany of Carnival (“Mardi Gras”) references unrelated to Mardi Gras Indians but starts with quotes from the chants. The rhythm of “Carnival Day” is very evocative of a slightly later Carnival staple called “Mardi Gras Mambo”, recorded in 1954 by the Hawkettes featuring Art Neville on vocals.

In 1953, New Orleans guitarist and banjo player Danny Barker was still living and working in New York City and recorded four Indian related songs. Much of these actually are Indian chants set to music, the first documented time that occurred:

My Indian Red

“Corrine Died On The Battlefield”

“Chocko Me Feendo Hey”

“Tootie Ma Is A Real Fine Thing”

“My Indian Red” was particularly significant because it included a recitation of various Indian tribes. In 1992, Dr. John released an album called Goin’ Back To New Orleans, which was basically his attempt to highlight the history of New Orleans popular music going back to the middle of the 19th century. The Mardi Gras Indian song that he chose to include was his version of “Indian Red”.

Bad Timing

Unfortunately, the Danny Barker records were released as 78s when the industry was converting to long playing records so they experienced very little traction. Even with later re-releases on LP and CD, the songs still have experienced only a small amount of exposure in New Orleans and almost none elsewhere.

Also in 1953, Sugar Boy Crawford released “Jock-A-Mo”, a regional hit on the Chess label. The title is the same as part of one of the Danny Barker recordings. (Crawford said that he spelled the song starting with the letters ‘Ch’ but it was changed on the label.) Both titles reference a common line in Indian chants.

1964 Releases

People who are not familiar with either the Sugar Boy Crawford or Danny Barker recordings might actually know “Jockomo” from when it was released in 1964 by the Dixie Cups (of “Going To The Chapel” fame) and became a national hit under the name “Iko Iko”.

Also in 1964, the Carnival anthem “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair was released. It featured Earl King on vocals and arrangements by Wardell Quezergue, two other legends of New Orleans music. The lyrics are representative of the signifying done by the Big Chief of a tribe. It is still played everywhere in New Orleans during Carnival.

In 1956 Mardi Gras Indians themselves first made it onto record when Samuel Chartres recorded members of the Seventh Ward Hunters, White Eagle, and Yellow Pocahontas for a release on Folkways Records. Songs included:

“The Indian Race”

Red, White, and Blue Got The Golden Band

“to-wa-bac-a-way” (later known as “Two Way Pocky Way”) – essentially the same title as the 1927 Louis Dumaine recording but a much more authentic representation of the Indian sound. 

Mardi Gras Indians on Recordings

Major Commercial Breakthrough

It was until 1970 that a major commercial breakthrough occurred when Indians started recording with musical accompaniment other than percussion. It first occurred with a 1970 single of “Handa Wanda” by the Wild Magnolias. They were backed by a band called the Gators led by keyboardist Willie Tee. The Indians opened for the band at a Tulane University concert and later joined them for part of the set. Quint Davis (of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival fame), the producer of the concert, was inspired by that performance to get the single recorded.

That ultimately led to the albums The Wild Magnolias in 1974 and They Call Us Wild in 1975. After a long recording hiatus, I’m Back … At Carnival Time came out in 1988 followed by other collaborations.

Wild Tribes

Another tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas followed the Wild Magnolias with a self-titled album in 1977. The tribe had been formed by George Landry (Big Chief Jolly) in 1974. He was a former member of the Wild Magnolias and was inspired to record by the Wild Magnolias recordings. For the Wild Tchoupitoulas album, they backed up tribe members with vocals by all four of the Neville Brothers (Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril), nephews of Landry. The backing band was the legendary Meters (“Cissy Strut”), whose leader was none other than Art Neville. The experience with this album actually inspired the brothers to start performing together as the Neville Brothers, a group that lasted sporadically well into this century. While they were together and actively performing the band always closed the main stage on the last day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Beloved In New Orleans

Although Mardi Gras Indians and their music are sparsely represented in recordings and have never achieved major national popularity, their influence is woven into much of New Orleans music, including iconic recordings that are played today, particularly at Carnival. In spite of its relatively sparse presence on recordings, the list of iconic New Orleans music legends outside of tribes that is woven into the recording history is pretty amazing – Danny Barker; Dave Bartholomew; ‘Sugarboy’ Crawford; Quint Davis; The Dixie Cups; Dr. John; Earl King; The Meters; all of the Neville Brothers: Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril; Professor Longhair; and Wardell Quezergue … just to highlight a few.

We want to thank our guide Dave Thomas for this fantastic blog post!

The Savvy Native is a group of experienced local tour guides who were either born in New Orleans or wish they had been.

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