With the exception of Christmas, Mardi Gras has inspired more great music than any other holiday celebrated in North America. Much like their Christmas counterparts, Mardi Gras tunes tend to be goofy, catchy and unaccountably joyful. Just as Christmas records represent a break from the year-by-year grind of make-or-break chart contenders for pop musicians, Mardi Gras records give Louisiana artists a chance to escape their signature sound and try something eccentric.
Here are my eight favorite Mardi Gras songs:
The roly-poly R&B singer Al Johnson is the epitome of a one-hit wonder, but, oh, what a hit it was. The rollicking, irrepressibly giddy single, released on a local label in 1960, became such a perennial that every spring he gets plenty of gigs under his current name, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. The song has also been recorded by the ReBirth Brass Band and the Wild Magnolias.
The Hawketts were just a bunch of kids from New Orleans’ Booker T. Washington High School who recorded this novelty song in 1954. As simple and short as it was, it boasted one of those mind-worm choruses that you just can’t get out of your head, and it has been played at Carnival-time every year since. The song has been recorded by Buckwheat Zydeco, the Meters and Zachary Richard, but the insouciance of the original version by The Hawketts (led by a 16-year-old Art Neville) has never been topped.
The definitive album of Mardi Gras Indian music is 1976’s The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which found the tribe of that name backed by their relatives and neighbors in the Meters and the Neville Brothers. This album made “Brother John,” “Indian Red,” “Hey Pocky Way” and “Big Chief Got a Golden Crown” Mardi Gras standards in New Orleans, but the song released as a single was “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront,” a description of the street fights that sometimes resulted from encounters between rival tribes on Carnival Day. It’s also the best example of calypso music’s influence on New Orleans music.
This is another song assembled from bits and pieces of Mardi Gras Indian chants, in this case by the four members of the Meters, New Orleans’ version of Booker T & the MGs. It has been recorded by the Meters, the Grateful Dead, the String Cheese Incident and Herbie Mann, but the best version is the Neville Brothers’ 1981 version.
Many people have claimed a songwriting credit on this song, which almost certainly has been around longer than any of the claimants have been alive. An African-American street chant in New Orleans for generations, it became a surprise hit for the city’s female trio the Dixie Cups, produced by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller in 1965. More than a few people noticed the similarity to Sugarboy Crawford’s 1953 R&B hit, “Jock-a-Mo,” but Crawford himself admitted that he’d cobbled his song together from various Mardi Gras Indian chants. The song has been recorded by the Neville Brothers, Larry Williams, Buckwheat Zydeco, Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead Warren Zevon and Dave Matthews. My favorite version is on Dr. John’s 1972 Gumbo album.
Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd had more Mardi Gras hits than anyone, including “Big Chief” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” “Go to the Mardi Gras” is a 12-bar blues driven by a head-spinning syncopation, an invitation to the Zulu Parade, the one African-American parade during segregation days. The tune has been recorded by Cowboy Mouth, Jo-El Sonnier, Fats Domino and several times by ‘Fess himself, but his 1960 single is the definitive version.
Earl King, New Orleans’s best-ever songwriter, wrote this about the head of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and when it came time for Professor Longhair to record the original, hit version, ‘Fess was struggling with the vocal, so King laid down the robust vocal and whistling, while ‘Fess stuck to the piano. The song, with its dizzying piano riff and second-line rhythm, has since been recorded by Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Widespread Panic and King himself, but the original is still the best.
Cajun music has produced far fewer Fat Tuesday numbers than New Orleans, but there is no Mardi Gras song more gripping than this one. A droning, minor-key fiddle theme is set to a bouncy two-step, and the singer declares, in Cajun French, “The Mardi Gras riders are on their great journey, all around, all around the town; they come but once a year to ask for some charity, even if it’s a skinny chicken.” This unforgettable song, sometimes known as “La Danse de Mardi Gras” or “La Chanson de Mardi Gras,” has been memorably recorded by Beausoleil, Wade Fruge and Cedric Watson, but the best version was by the Balfa Brothers.