© Copyright 2000-2011 Alan White - All
While I have always been aware of hoodoo in the blues, via references to ‘mojos’, ‘black cat bones’ etc., I didn’t realize just how many more obscure (or less obvious) allusions existed within the genre. Not until I read Hyatt’s massive works: “Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork” (see Notes). A lot of blues phrases which seemed ‘muddied’ (to me at any rate) suddenly become crystal clear. This is true of many blues singers from the 1920s & ‘30s, but I will focus on Blind Lemon Jefferson. It should be borne in mind that knowledge of the blues as far as Mr. Hyatt is concerned, seems to amount to zero (he is a white man from New York city).
1. A male informant in his early 80s from Hampton, Va., related c. 1937 that “When I was a little boy (in 1860) I was praying an old-fashioned prayer the colored people used to pray. They went to the graveyard to get their souls converted. I went and prayed on a man’s grave that was buried that day and I heard him moving and knocking on the coffin. I never paid no attention.”(p.36.) (1). This now makes sense of one of the verses Lemon uses in his “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”:
Verse 5 “Have
you ever heard a coffin sound? (x3)
Hyatt noted that “The knocking or beating on the coffin, once a common expression, survived in a few love divinations also about extinct.” (ibid 3). McTell offers a more ‘normal’ explanation:
I’m gone to come no more,
Blind Willie is probably referring to the first few shovelfuls of dirt to hit the coffin at the conclusion of a burial service. Thus giving more than one meaning (a favourite device amongst blues singers as we know).
2. Hyatt says elsewhere “Traveling lights are sometimes spirits of the dead”(5). An informant in 1930 from Wilmington, N.C., said: ”My mother said, about three days before she died, she saw a light in the room and this light kept going around the room. She followed it all around the room with her eyes. We asked her what she was loosing at. She said she saw this light. When anybody in the family was going to die, my mother would always see a light in the room - then she knew there was no hope for them.”(6). A venerable white lady in Wortham, Texas told me that 2 or 3 days before the news of Lemon’s death hit town, that Classie Jefferson (Lemon’s mother) saw a night light” in the house and knew that her son was dead. (7).
3. In St. Petersburg, Fla. (c.1936), “Dey say a witch is a ole woman - say it’s when a woman lives to be years old an’ say she takes, gits to whare she’ll come out ‘er hide. She’ll come out ‘er skin, say at night when she gits ready to go out to do her devilment, say she’ll git out ‘er hide an’ then she’ll go out necked with dis heah skin off ‘er. Say den, when she go out, say she kin go through yore keyhole anywheres - jump in de keyhole an’ come in to whare yo’ is.”(8). The object of the witch (male / or female) is to ride the person all night long until “You get so poor you can hardly live.” (9). Blind Lemon’s line:
“I feel like jumping through the keyhole in your door.” (10)
obviously reflects this particular witch/voodoo phenomenon. Also used by Furry Lewis (“Falling Down Blues”), Blind Percy (“Fourteenth Street Blues”), Lee Green (“Southern Blues), amongst others. Other reports of the keyhole rite come from Maryland and Virginia.
4. Hyatt includes several examples of hoodooism and snakes on p.p.66-73. One informant from Richmond, Va.(c.l937) told of a spell which forecast his forthcoming court case and resulting light fine of some $18.00 for “cutting a fellow”. This was in 1912 and he consulted a voodoo lady called Mrs. Bright. The preliminary ritual runs as follows: Mrs. Bright “She says, “Now” says, “now, I will tell you what to do,” say, “you bring me five brand new one-dollar bills the day of your trial, and a brand new pocket handkerchief, and wear a black hat,” she says”, and I will tell you just what the judge is gon’a do with you”. And in each corner of the room - she had a black snake in this corner and a black one in that corner.
...In the opposite corners., and each one of ‘em came and put their heads - each head on each one of my legs and ah kinda got frightened. She says, “Don’t bother, they won’ t hurt you”. So they laid there. (probably Charters’ “common field snake” which is non-poisonous) Then she read the cards.”(11). The man got off with a fine of “eighteen dollars and something”.(12).
In the middle 1930s in Waycross, Ga., a woman had been “hurt” by having a frog put in a tobacco sack with pins in its back along with some of her nails from her fingers and toes, plus some “frog bread” (a celery-like plant that grows wild “in de woods”). The frog, still alive, was sewn in to the woman’s mattress: “after it was ‘fixed’ - an’ as dis frog would jump, she would fits right after one another. An’ she wus jest wizlin’ away to nothin’” (13). So her concerned family took her to “a ole ‘doctor’, Mr. Marlborough.”(14). The latter went to the woman’s house and got the frog out of the mattress (still alive’.). It would then head in the direction of the people who had put this spell on the woman in the first place. The ‘doctor’ also got some hoodoo material out of this mattress, ”bluestone, stuff de color of ‘graveyard dirt’, etc. and he put it all in the yard and burnt it. He said “Now, when ah burn dis stuff, when ah say,’ strike a match to it, ”say,” hit gon’a burn like fire in all colors it gon’a be”... He said, ”It gon’a be a snake come heah an’ dis snake he is gon’a venture to bit her” - a great long black one. He sot dat stuff afire an’ it wus a long blacksnake come runnin’(sic) up an’ he did his best tuh make it tuh her but he kilt it -.. . So he burnt dat up. He say, “in three days’ time from dis day, de ones who done it, dey will leave outen de roof of dat house .“ De ole lady name Charlotte an’ her daughter wus named Mamie, an’ dey would be wanderin’ from place to place.” (15).
Blind Lemon’s “That Black Snake Moan” takes on a definite hoodoo slant along with the obvious sexual symbolism. Further to this there is a blacksnake root which is used both for protection and ‘hurting’ people. As Hyatt says in hoodoo “everything depends upon intention”.(16). Also, for making a ‘hand’ or mojo to get a job, there are several perfumes on the market, including ‘Blacksnake Perfume’
5. Yet another classic Lemon recording would seem to have this “twin-aura” of sexuality and hoodooism. In 1929 he cut “Bed Springs Blues”. The opening verse could allude to fear as well as sexual ecstasy:
somethin’ to tell you, make the hair rise on your head. (x2)
and anxiety rather than desire in his closing lines:
blame me mama for talking out my head;
Sometime around 1907 in Norfolk, Va. a young woman was lodging with “my best friend” (Julia) just prior to getting married. But it turned out this friend was anything but. She attempted to separate the couple in order to have the man for herself, by using hoodoo. By placing a ‘hand’ under the woman’s bed, caused her to have a large swelling on her knee: “I had on my knees something de shape of a egg, dat you would bury you finger in - you know it would give.”(19). Julia evidently intended for the married woman to have sores around her vagina or “all of her private parts”.
The married woman went to a hoodoo doctor who had a large crystal ball. After bathing her feet he showed her a ‘picture’ of Julia in this ball with her arms “spreaded”, in front of the woman’s husband. “Dis woman was standing between me and my husband like this… So, she was just between us - she trembled just like a leaf.. .I says to him, I says,” Well, why is that (trembling)?” He says, “She is very nervous - I’m sending it, turning it back to her.” (20). (i.e. the spell) It turned out successfully, as Julia’s husband/man left her (“she was just so offensive”) and so did all the lodgers. 3 months later,” And she died all alone.” (21).
Robert Johnson sang of his fortune-telling girl-friend:
is a little Queen of Spades, an’ the mens will not let her be;
About 6 weeks later, Charlie Pickett cut his “Trembling Blues” (De 7762):
I’m tremblin’, Lord, I’m tremblin’, Lord, I won’t tremble here no
Pickett might have been inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” for the next verse:
rose, rose this mornin’, Lord, I rose feelin’ for my shoes, babe;
Johnson, in turn, liberally ‘borrowed’ from Blind Lemon. On this occasion, from his “Dry Southern Blues”. The oral transmission process going back through Son House and an unrecorded Clarksdale singer who knew all Jefferson’s records (and sang them!) whose name was Lemon!. (& see BLJ paper p.p.28-29).
6. Matches figure in the world of hoodoo also. One spell to find out if a woman is to marry a man, is to put some matches in the man’s shoes “an’ place ‘em undah de head of yore bed...”(25). The informant crossed the shoes “jes’ lak a T” and “yo’ put three matches in each shoe.”(26). A Charleston, S.C. resident told of a ‘hand’ to be worn around the waist for protection from other voodoo spells. This ‘hand’ consisted of alder, gunpowder and some ‘graveyard dirt’. The latter had to be purchased from a fresh grave with “three dimes and three matches and three new pins,”(27). Yet another method/reason was “If yo’ walkin’ by yo’ self at night, jes’ stick ‘em back of yore ear - de matches. Dey say dat will keep anything from scarin’ yo’ .“ (28). That is to say, 2 matches are used. Another informant, from Memphis, told of a cure for severe headaches, or at least the personal appearance of the one who ‘fixed’ you. By crossing “nine matches an’ yo’ put ‘em diff’rent places - jus’ diff’rent places in yore home,” (29). While someone from New Orleans advises an actual headache cure. “You see, you take a red match-...and you take a blue one.”(30). By crossing them like an ‘X’ “and you wear it in your hair for nine days and then your headache begins to pass off.” (31). [Mind you, Paul, if I had a headache lasting 9 days I think it might be more like a hospital case!] C.1938, a hoodoo man from Algiers, La., told Hyatt in New Orleans:” If yo’ have a notice to move - if yo’ have a notice tuh move an’ yo’ jes’ cannot pay yore rent an’ if yo’ kin git chew a crawfish. Git chew a live crawfish an’ wrap him all ovah three safety matches. Take an’ tie him, jes’ tie him enough so he cain’t back up backwards an’ forwards, an’ turn him loose into yore house. Yo’ understan’, yo’ see, an’ dat crawfish goin’ all roun’ an’ he kin not git out, he cain’t git in no hole or crack. An’ if yo’ keep dat crawfish in dere until dat crawfish dies, yo’ll stay right wit dat landlord. He cain’t move yo’.“(32)
There are also a couple of variations on how to kill a person by using matches to make a small coffin which is then buried outside the house of the would-be murderer. Apart from this last example, in all spells or ‘hands’, only a few matches (from 2-9) were necessary. Part of Lemon’s most famous verse:
“I ain’t got so many matches, but I got so far to go.”
now seem to have a slightly more sinister ring.
7. Blind Lemon’s line quoted from “Lonesome House Blues”:
“I got the blues so bad, it hurts my feet to walk”
also invokes results of a hoodoo spell or ‘trick’. In Vicksburg, Miss., c.mid-30s, a man’s ex-girl friend envied his wife and so the girl friend got a ‘root doctor’ to “hurt” the man’s wife. The root doctor gave her a little green bottle “about fo’ inches tall” containing’ some sort of liquid. This the ex-girl friend buried beneath the wife’s front door steps (they lived next door to each other). So when the man’s wife “When she came out, she came down the steps, and as she came down the steps, why something caught her - a pain caught her in the leg and drew her legs up and she couldn’t walk”. ( 33). Around 1922, a man in Hartsville, S.C. was similarly “hurt” and took his case to a root doctor. “I tole him mah right feet (sic) was swell up four times big as (normal) - mah leg up to mah hip. I had to drag it.”(34). And another informant, c.1937,related the condition of a “cunjured” woman in Orangeburg County, S.C. “I have known a woman who had a swelling from her knee down - from her knee down she was miserable. It hurt her, it kept her in terror until she got so she could not walk. Finally, when the people had tried everything they knew to rub with and to bathe her legs with, her foot continued just to be swollen in such a nature of misery until she could not bear any weight on it.”(35). It was only’ after following the directions of a ‘hoodoo lady’ involving cooked red ants and the patient’s urine, that the latter recovered (“In four days she could walk”. (36). Lemon’s line quoted in this instance, of course, appeared in many blues: including “Falling Down Blues” by Furry Lewis (again!.). Mo’ later!!
1. Hyatt H.
“Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork”. (2 volumes). Harry Middleton Hyatt. Western Publishing, Inc. Hannibal, Mo. (Rep.). 1970