New Orleans Mardi Gras tunes get rolled out like Christmas Carols. You may welcome them as harbingers of the rituals and reverie to come, but by the time Fat Tuesday rolls around, you may not be able to stomach another rendition of "They All Ask'd for You."
Even though it’s Carnival time, I summoned enough discipline to choose 10 (with a little stretching that comes with the local custom of Lagniappe, or a little bit extra) of my most tried and true Mardi Gras favorites -- in no particular order. They span a few of the eras, genres and populations that make New Orleans such a beautiful mess. These are the songs I turned to, long before I could watch Second Line parades on the internet or Treme on HBO, when I found myself marooned from Mardi Gras. These may not all be strictly Mardi Gras songs, but listening to them instantly connects me to the chaos of Carnival.
1. “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” by Professor Longhair
The National Anthem, for Mardi Gras, anyway. One of the most beloved and influential musicians of the Crescent City, who would have died in obscurity if not for being "re-discovered" through recordings.
2. & 3. “Indian Red” and “Hey Hey” - by The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
This 1976 record is legendary among fans of funk and New Orleans Music. Big Chief Jolly (actually George Landry) recorded these songs with The Meters as session musicians, a few tribe members and his nephews, the four Neville brothers, doing call-and-response and harmonies. I've been told that the recording encouraged the four Neville brothers to perform together for the first time as a group. It was produced by legendary record producer and musician Allen Toussaint, credited on this record, as he often was for contractual reasons, as Naomi Neville. “Indian Red” is the traditional chant that begins the “masking” on Mardi Gras morning. “Hey Hey” is a little more threatening. It evokes the days when Indian battles used to be violent. I like the idea that the street battles between Indians today are all about bravado and are based on which tribe's costumes are prettier, in the local parlance. I love that: transforming contests of violence into those of beauty.
4. “Let's Go Get 'Em” by The Rebirth Brass Band featuring Big Chief Bo Dollis
The traditional jazz music that began in Storyville clubs and is still played at joints like Preservation Hall has morphed over the years with the street parades of the city to create a young, swinging breed of brass bands. The Rebirth Brass Band being among the greatest. “Let's Go Get 'Em” has Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias tribe playing with the Rebirth Brass Band. In the months leading up to Carnival, the Indian "tribes" hold practices for their chanting on Sunday nights in various holes-in-the-wall throughout the city. They are raucous, spirited affairs with the calls and responses elevating and waning, and lasting late into the sweaty evening. This song has the spirit of a practice, with the added umph of the Rebirth.
5. “It Ain't My Fault” by The Olympia Brass Band, featuring Smokey Johnson
This is one of the standards of the street parade. Every brass band does a version of it, and during Second Line parades and jazz funerals, everyone can sing along with the easy lyrics as they march alongside the band.
6. "Going Back to New Orleans" by Snooks Eaglin
Into every Mardi Gras, season a few moments of pause must fall. "Going Back to New Orleans" by Snooks Eaglin is a sweetly melancholic acoustic Blues that even a throbbing head can bear. I especially like this recording, from Arhoolie records, which sounds as if you're sitting with him on your stoop, or on a porch swing, sipping sweet tea and getting ready for the next party or parade.
7. “La Danse de Mardi Gras” by The Balfa Brothers
I once went to a Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana where this was a standard. The celebrations there are far less debauched and a little more country. Masked men on horseback feature prominently, which is a resonant, if slightly eerie image of Carnival, far from the loud street parades in the city. This song has some of that darkness, thinly concealed by its invitation to joy.
8. & 9. “Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups (Dr John’s version also brilliant) & “Mardi Gras Mambo” by The Hawkettes
I have to include both for capturing a certain era of New Orleans music. I’m a big fan of the novelty songs that came out of Cosimo Mattassa’s studio for Chess Records in the 1940s-60s that pulled from the City’s traditions. Iko was originally from a song called "Jokomo" by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, a favorite in the Drag Show set that wowed the crowds at the dew drop Inn -- and is in its own way the forerunner of the "Cissy Bounce" music of today. It is about two Indian tribes facing off in the streets, yet became a hit far beyond the borders of the idiosyncratic town that knew the Indian Tradition. The Hawkettes featured Art Neville, the band that helped spawn the Neville brothers and became forerunners and four full-on Afros away from The Meters.
10. & 11. “Junko Partner” by Dr. John & “Cabbage Alley” by The Meters
Many locals do a version of Junko Partner, about a junkie with friends on the "Ponderosa", which is local slang for Angola State Prison, one of the most notorious prisons in the country in a state that takes Life Sentences literally. Love this one. The Meters are perhaps the most-sampled band out of New Orleans, but this is a cut I don’t hear so much of, with the "Hey Now Honey Chile" greeting that you still hear on the streets on the city.
12. “Mojo Hanna” by Tami Lynn
A small group of musicians, upset that so many local musicians were being taken advantage of by the record business, tried to make their own music. AFO (All For One) was one of those outfits, run by musicians from some of the most prominent local families. I chose this song from their catalogue, Mojo Hanna by Tami Lynn, because it is by one of few women who had a role in that movement. Plus it's so funky with that B-3 organ and brings to life a Voodoo Queen that here is somewhat cheesy, but part of the New Orleans cosmology at righting a world that has done you wrong. Here, she's consulted to bring back a love gone wrong. Why else would someone mess with black magic unless your man walked out on you?
13. “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” by Mahalia Jackson
And finally, “Keep Your Hands on the Plow”, because after Mardi Gras comes Lent, and there's no better inspiration for seeking solace through 40 days of deprivation than Mahalia Jackson.
I'd also recommend these non-Mardi Gras favorites from the era that carry the uniquely New Orleans rhythm, language and call and response tradition that influenced American Pop at the time:
“Ooh Poo Pah Doo” - Jessie Hill
"Tome Is on My Side" - Irma Thomas version
“Ya-Ya” by Lee Dorsey
Plus, just about anything by Ernie-K-Doe, especially "Hello My Lover". His biggest hits, Certain Girl and Mother-in-Law didn't earn him a lot of money -- as was common in the day for African-American R&B stars, but I find "Hello My Lover" more enduring than the novelty songs.