The history and mysteries of the “Mardi Gras Indians” of black New Orleans, I know very little about. Only insofar as they influenced a few R&B records (like “Iko Iko” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe”, for instance).
Time to educate myself. And I focused on a phrase: “Hey Pocky A-way.”
The mighty, mighty Meters recorded a funk tune by that title in 1974, and it was a hit. Later, “Hey Pocky Way” became part of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. But what do the words mean?
Dr. John – a favorite son of New Orleans – wrote about the Mardi Gras Indians in his 1994 autobiography (“Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper”). He described how the various tribes would practice their singing and syncopated rhythms throughout the year... leading up to their elaborate, costumed parades on Mardi Gras.
“To keep an eye out for other tribes roaming around the city on Mardi Gras day,” Dr. John wrote, “a tribe sent out the Spy Boy as a runner. If one Spy Boy bumped into another Spy Boy from some other tribe, they’d have an exchange like so:
“ ‘Om bah way,’ the first Spy Boy might say.
“And the other Spy Boy, if everything was cool and there wasn’t going to be no confrontation, answered: ‘Tu way pocky way.’ ”
Dr. John explains: “This talk was the Indians’ own Creole language, part French, part Spanish, part Choctaw, part Yoruba, and part mystery to an outsider like me. What the first one said basically was, ‘Where yaatt, bro?’ or the like. And the second one said, ‘Everything’s oaks and herbs’ – which means everything’s cool because they had smoke lots of herbs. If the second one responded ‘No om bah way,’ then y’all had problems...”
Let’s stream some audio and learn a bit more. Click the track titles below to listen.
1. “Ungai Hai, The Sign of the Indians” – Jelly Roll Morton
In the extraordinary Jelly Roll Morton oral-history box set, “The Complete Library of Congress Recordings” – recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1938 – Mr. Morton shares his recollections of watching the Mardi Gras Indians in action. And he sings a little “Tu way pocky way.”
2. “To-wa-bac-a-way – The Indian Race” – Mardi Gras Indians with Joe DeGrait
A 1958 LP from Moe Asch’s Folkways Records, “Music of New Orleans, Vol. 1: Music of the Streets: Music of Mardi Gras” features actual Mardi Gras Indians kicking the knowledge.
3. “Hey Pocky A-way” – The Meters
They took it from the streets to the studio... and made a classic piece of New Orleans funk. You can purchase the MP3 from Amazon and iTunes.
4. “Hey Pocky Way” – Grateful Dead
I assume most rock fans were introduced to the tune by the Dead. This version is from the 5-CD live collection “So Many Roads” (downloadable from iTunes).
5. “To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa” – Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight
Now here’s an odd wrinkle. Way back in 1927, the Victor Recording Company went to New Orleans and recorded a few sides by Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight and other local bands. One track (without lyrics) is titled “To-Wa-Bac-A-Wa”... but the melody is familiar to fans of early jazz by another name: “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”
I present it here as a historical footnote. According to the Big Bands Database, the Jazzola Eight was one of only six black New Orleans bands to record during the 1920s. Many marvelous sounds created in that cradle of American culture are lost to us.