“What is the meaning of Tipitina?”
That’s a question that Tipitina’s music club and Foundation workers get asked again and again. It’s a good question, and no one seems to have an authoritative answer. So I decided to find out for myself.
Tipitina’s (the music club and associated Foundation) derives its name from the song “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Roy Byrd, “Fess” to his fans). Byrd wrote and recorded the song in 1953 for Atlantic Records. It featured a rumba-derived bass line and a right hand that careens from lilting tinkling to frenzied hammering. The song was a local hit in the 1950s, and eventually appeared on the 1972 “New Orleans Piano” LP.
At first glance the verses appear to be about a woman named Loberta who likes to party. The choruses seem nonsensical, with no obvious connection to the verses.
Tipitina tra la la la
Whoa la la la-ah tra la la
Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla
Tra ma tra la la
Hey Loberta, oh poor Loberta
Girl you hear me calling you
Well you’re three times seven, baby
Knows what you want to do
Say Loberta, oh poor Loberta
Girl, you tell me where you been
When you come home this morning, honey
You had your belly full of gin
I'll say hurry, hurry, come on Loberta
Girl, you have company waiting for you at home
Why don't you hurry little Loberta girl, hurry
Don't leave that boy alone
Tipitina tra la la la
Whoa la la la-ah tra la la la
Tipitina, hoola malla walla dalla
Tra ma ti na na
Come on baby, we're going balling
We're gonna have ourselves a good time
We gonna hoola tralla walla malla dalla
Drink some mellow wine
©1954 word and music by Roy H. Byrd & Cosimo V. Matassa.
The chorus consists of ‘Tipitina,’ an apparently-coined word, a bunch of ‘tra la la’s, and this enigmatic line ‘oola malla walla dalla.’ Writers including Will Flannery, and interpreters as noteworthy as Dr. John, translate that phrase as “little mama wants a dollar.” By some accounts Fess may have sang it that way on occasion.
If little mama wants a dollar, she’s presumably involved in some type of economic transaction. One can speculate about nature and purpose of this exchange; it’s not difficult to imagine Longhair’s protagonists in various shady dealings. But maybe it refers to something more innocent.
My first stop on this quest was 501 Napoleon Street, New Orleans’ legendary shrine to Professor Longhair, Tipitina’s uptown music club. After rubbing the head of the Fess sculpture, I dashed up the stairs and accosted Nancy Romano, the club’s general manager, and Mary von Kurnatowski, co-owner of Tip’s since 1996.
Mary and Nancy said they’d heard Tina was the name of a bartender at a joint Fess used to frequent. She might have provided other goods or services, in addition to pouring drinks. Fess’ song was urging the listeners to tip Tina. Tipping Tina connects nicely with little mama wanting a dollar. A reasonable explanation, but admittedly based on third-hand information, so I kept digging.
Loberta is a weird name, like a faux-Japanese pronunciation of ‘Roberta’. Loberta crops up one other time, in 1959 as the title of a song by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns. Clowns vocalist Bobby Marchand was reportedly leaving the group, so a Marchand sound-alike named Frankie Ford was recruited. The track was retitled “Roberta” and released as the B-side of the “Sea Cruise” single, another Huey Smith composition which launched Ford’s career.
Ace records owner Johnny Vincent allegedly told Huey Smith that the Clowns didn’t need another release at the time, they already had a lots of sides out, so the record was credited to Frankie Ford. Taken in the context of the time, a period when black R&B artists were driven from the market by white pop crooners, this looks like a case of Vincent relegating the African-American composer and band to obscurity, so as to focus on the white lead singer.
But that all came six years later, and has no apparent connection to Longhair’s composition, beyond the name. Fess’ 1953 Loberta is an enigma. The narrator of the song is talking to Loberta, asking if she can hear him calling, asking where she’s been. He tells Loberta to hurry, someone’s waiting for her – probably the narrator himself – and then enjoins her to go "balling.”
It’s a tight little story line. The narrator gently chastises Loberta for coming home in the morning with a “belly full of gin.” He, or somebody, is impatient to take her out again. It’s fairly straightforward, until the final couplet, “We gonna hoola tralla walla malla dalla / Drink some mellow wine.” He’s clearly suggesting some kind of activity, punctuated by wine drinking, but what exactly is “hoola tralla walla malla dalla?” At the next-to-last possible moment, Fess has jumped back down the rabbit hole. Maybe it’s Mardi Gras Indian talk, bastardized Creole French, or heavily-coded ghetto slang. Maybe it’s complete nonsense, a red herring meant only to amuse and confuse.
And what about the relationship, if any, between Loberta and Tipitina? Are they the same person? Are they even in the same story line? The genius of this song seems to lie somewhere between its apparent simplicity, and cryptic impenetrability. The closer one looks at it, the less sense it makes. In the first verse, “Well you’re three times seven, baby / Knows what you want to do” it’s impossible to know whether he’s singing you’re (you are) or your (possessive). Is he saying that Loberta is three times seven, presumably meaning she’s twenty-one years old? Is he referring to someone else, perhaps himself, as “your three times seven baby” i.e. her twenty-one-year old lover, or maybe even her adult child? One apostrophe can make a lot of difference. Lacking any definitive printed version of the lyrics, the line remains ambiguous.
It’s much easier to tease out the meaning of “Come on baby, we're going balling.” The dictionary says balling is a vulgar term for sexual intercourse. A ball is a type of formal dance party; having a ball means experiencing good time. One might thinly interpret the phrase to mean ‘we’re going partying’ but it seems more likely that Fess would have intended all meanings.
Loberta sounds like a fun chick, she likes to drink and stay out all night. We’re led to believe that she’s sexually active... But is she Tipitina? Text analysis has brought us no closer to an answer. In fact I’m more confused, but I’m just getting started…In the next installment I talk to Longhair’s daughter, about volcanoes and amputees.