Friday, July 9, 2010

My Search for Tipitina

“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.


  1. Great sleuth work... and a very cool story!

  2. According to Billy Delle, noted New Orleans Music Historian and WWOZ show host. Fess told him directly that the song came while Fess was working at a music store in the quarter, after his day job as a janitor for the school board. and Tip-a-Tina was a young girl who was afflicted by "folidimide" and born with a birth defect that caused her to walk on he tip toes. She was a street person in the quarter and Fess would see here and play the tune as she came by the music store to pan-handle each day

  3. Thanks for that, Big D! I discuss this - and debunk the "folidimide" thing - in Part 2 of this story, which I posted today. Read On!

  4. My favorite part is the Jimmie Rodgers broken yodel tra la la la. The 3x7 thing, is that a reference to Craps, street gambling? Rolling a natural 7 3 times in a row? Professor Longhair has a song about ballin', "Ball the Wall". In his song, "Walk those Blues Away", he says "If you're in love with a woman / and she don't understand / boys don't get angry / just sell her to another man / and just go walking, walk your blues away". Pimp walk. That should provide a big clue to the meaning of the verses in "Tipitina" that no one will say aloud. With his Rhumba Boogie style he is still reinventing Jelly Roll Morton and the early Storyville players, who played in brothels. And he makes it mystically powerful.