Veteran New Orleans R&B artist James "Sugarboy" Crawford claims to have never gotten any royalties from the song "Iko Iko," despite what can only be described as too many cover versions. There may not be any other song from the New Orleans music scene that has suffered as much overexposure, with the exception of "When the Saints Go Marching In," a situation that is sometimes excused by fussy critics with the thought that somewhere the guy who actually wrote the song in question is living large. That this is not the case with "Iko Iko" is not because the checks have been delivered to the wrong people named James Crawford or Jimmy Crawford, a list that would certainly include a prolific country & western pedal steel guitarist and an even more prolific jazz drummer.
The lack of cash register jingle for the song -- usually attributed to a songwriting quadrangle of James Crawford Jr., Barbara Anne Hawkins, Rosa Lee Hawkins, and Joan Marie Johnson -- comes from its origins in the traditional music of Africa. Some version of the song, a hit for Crawford in 1954 and then again for the Dixie Cups a decade later, was certainly part of the chanting by slaves at Congo Square in New Orleans. When interviewed in the '80s, Crawford said: "I'd heard these chants and liked the sound of them, so I just put a little tune to them. I can't take credit for the words, obviously, but I guess the tune is mine." "Jock-O-Mo" is a similar ditty, considered by some to be interchangeable, but the Crawford songwriting catalog does not consist exclusively of adaptations of slave chants. "Oo We Sugar" and "She Got a Wobble When She Walks" present other aspects of his interests, basically in the mainstream of rock & roll culture.
The meaning of "Iko Iko," like "Louie, Louie," remains a subject for debate and analysis by musicologists. According to songwriter and producer Allen Touissant, the expression developed into local slang for "you can kiss my ass." Crawford says: "I don't think people outside of New Orleans knew what it was all about. But then, to be honest, I didn't, and still don't, have any idea what the words mean." Crawford led a band called the Cane Cutters in the '50s, but later became a gospel performer, suggesting that he might not approve at all of Touissant's interpretation of the lyrics. Singer Davell Crawford is this artist's grandson; grandpa provided some fine vocals on the former artist's 1995 CD entitled Let Them Talk. ~ Eugene Chadbourne