When millions of Africans were forcibly transported to America as slaves between 1500 and 1900 they lost their freedom, but their spiritual and magical beliefs survived in blues music…
In 1526 a ship arrived off what is now South Carolina. In control of it were five hundred French men and women looking to found a new colony. Also on board were one hundred Africans – their slaves. Because the Africans had black skins and worshiped many gods, not just one, they were considered sub-human and were exploited in much the same way as a pack horse would have been – if not worse.
Not only did they lose their freedom, but white society in the New World did its level best to take away their spirituality too. The white slavers believed it was God’s will that they Christianize their heathen charges.
Striped of their homeland and heritage, the Africans were understandably demoralized. So it is no surprise that they secretly worshiped and honored their gods. If nothing else, it gave them comfort. Quoted in Newbell Miles Pickett’s “Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro” (1970), a Mrs Channel gives an account of life in Louisiana during the slave trade. She observes:
On this plantation there were about one hundred and fifty slaves. Of this number, only about ten were Christians. We can easily account for this, for religious services among the slaves were strictly forbidden. But the slaves would steal away into the woods at night and hold services. They would form a circle on their knees around a speaker who would also be on his knees. He would bend forward and speak into or over a vessel of water to drown the sound. If anyone became animated and cried out, the others would quickly stop the noise by placing their hands over the offender’s mouth.
By the end of the 18th century, this form of African paganism was firmly entrenched, and had become known as Voodoo (or “Vodun”) in New Orleans and as Hoodoo in the rest of the American South. It became a kind of secret society, which extended through the slave population and among the free black Americans as well. A message could be sent from one end of New Orleans, for example, to the other in a single day without one white person being aware of it.
As Lyle Saxon wrote in “Fabulous New Orleans” (1928):
It is said that a Negro cook in a kitchen would sing some Creole song while she rattled her pots and pans, a song which sounded innocuous enough to any white listener, but at the end of the verse she would sing a few words intended as a message. [A servant in another household] would then sing the same song and her voice would be heard by servants in the house next door. In this way, by means of a song, news of a meeting of a Voodoo society would be carried from one end of the city to another and upon the appointed night Negro men and women would slip from their beds before midnight and would assemble for their ceremonies.
Another key factor in the rise of Voodoo and Hoodoo in the American South was the bayous – the swamplands of Louisiana. It was in these wild and desolate areas that the people forcibly taken from Africa were reunited with their gods and spirits and were able, at least for a short while, to free themselves from the slavers’ bondage.
What’s more, it was these stolen moments of spirituality that gave birth to the words and music that became blues, jazz, Creole and Cajun. And it was the music that kept Voodoo alive when the white authorities became aware of it and did everything in their power to suppress it.
From 1775 onwards, Catholic missionaries did the rounds of the plantations to turn black Americans away from their heritage and white ladies formed committees and trooped through the streets of New Orleans to try and wipe it out. The police even set up special night watches to stem the tide of what they described as “Negro superstition.”
None of it worked. In fact, around 1820, the leaders of the Voodoo cult came together to elect a “Voodoo queen”, who would represent the Grand Zombie, or Great Snake, an important spirit in the religion. The chosen queen was Marie Laveaux, a young free woman of color, born of Louisiana Creole parents. By all accounts she was an extraordinary individual, displaying piercing intelligence and insight, and evident psychic powers.
“She was considered to be clairvoyant,” says Ina Fandrich, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “And she manifested herself in many places at once. There were miraculous healings attributed to her. She could bring back unfaithful husbands.”
Laveaux also wielded an enormous amount of power in New Orleans, unheard of for a woman of color during those times. Both blacks and whites were in awe of her. Many sought her out to help them with such things as returning lost lovers, removing hexes, and bringing luck at gambling. Even today, over 120 years after her death, people flock to Laveaux’s final resting place seeking favors; in fact, her grave is said to be the second most-visited in the United States, trailing only Elvis Presley’s.
After Marie Laveux’s death, however, black spirituality was hit with a determined assault by Christianity to win converts. It worked – mainly because black Americans were sold the idea that becoming Christian would make them bona fide American citizens. At long last they would belong. The upshot was many unwittingly sold their culture “for a lot less than twenty six dollars and a handful of beads,” as one commentator put it.
The main survivors of the mass conversion to Christianity were the root doctors, who were professional sorcerers. They divined the future, concocted medicines, worked spells, gave advice and made charms to ward off evil and to bring good luck.
In America, the root doctor was known by various names: wood doctor, fetisher, two-facer, witchcraft woman, hoochie coochie, and goofer doctor.
The truth was, even the newly converted Christians would go running back to the root doctor for a consultation if circumstances were extreme enough, and if their pastor was offering little more than advising them to put their trust in God.
Faith in the root doctor is still common today. Some might dismiss this as mere superstition. But it could be argued that the very survival of Voodoo and Hoodoo is a testament to the fact that such methods work.
“This means,” says Melville Herskovits in “The Myth of the Negro Past” (1941) about the root doctor, “that the devices employed by these specialists [i.e. charms and spells] have fulfilled their function to the satisfaction of their clients.”
Voodoo and Hoodoo have always been one of the main subjects of black American folklore. They crop up in the stories of Brer Rabbit and in the “conjure” tales collected by Charles W. Chesnutt around 1900.
But it was blues music that carried the mythos of Voodoo and Hoodoo through the 20th century. Blues songs are literally saturated with the bluesman’s belief in Hoodoo. This is why the black Church singled out many blues lyrics as proof that the blues was “the devil’s music.”
The faithful were warned not to listen to the blues and were sternly reprimanded if it was found out they did. Preachers called blues performers tramps, drunkards, and immoral vagabonds (well, they often did drink and ride the railroads like hobos).
None of this stopped black Americans congregating in the “jook joints” (the southern shack equivalent of a night club) to listen to blues performers pump out their riffs and holler their heartfelt lyrics.
Magic was always quite literally in the air at blues performances. In his “Louisiana Blues”, for example, Muddy Waters tells of heading to the Voodoo and Hoodoo capital to get a spell, known as a “mojo hand”, to improve his luck with women:
I’m goin’ down to New Orleans
Get me a mojo hand;
I’m gonna show all you good-lookin’ women
Just how to treat yo’ man.
One of the best-known Hoodoo songs is Willie Dixon’s “Hooche Coochie Man” in which the Hoodoo man’s fate is predicted:
They gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born,
“You got a boy child comin’
Gonna be a son-of-a-gun!”
I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got the John the Conqueror [a famous Hoodoo root]
I’m gonna mess with you!
On the seventh hour
Of the seventh day
Of the seventh month
The seventh doctor say:
“He was born for good luck.”
And that you see:
I got seven hundred dollars
Don’t you mess with me!
Because I’m here,
Everybody knows I’m here!
I’m the Hoochie Coochie Man.
The whole world knows I’m here!
Bluesmen often had colorful names. This was no mere artistic contrivance. It had roots in Voodoo and Hoodoo and right back to the old shamanistic practices of Africa, where names were considered to have power. In his essay “The African Presence in Caribbean Literature” (1973) Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite explains that:
The word “nommo” (or name) is held to contain secret power. People feel a name is so important that a change in his name could transform a person’s life.
Faith in the secret power of the name is the reason why blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, and Howlin’ Wolf changed their names. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it was an act of magical transformation.
Root doctors took on new names for the same reason. They would adopt animal names such as Dr Fox, Dr Crow and Dr Snake. Like the African witch doctor, they assumed the name of the bird or beast from which they draw their power. Taking on a new name was a way of shaping personal destiny.
The most famous “Hoodoo bluesman”, however, was Robert Johnson, whose songs “Crossroads Blues” and “Love in Vain” went on to be covered by many famous bands, like Cream and the Rolling Stones.
According to legend, when he started out he was – at best – an average guitar player, performing around the jook joints in the Southern States of American during the 1930s. He then disappeared for a time. On his return, he was transformed.
“He was so good!” said fellow bluesman Son House. “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open.”
Rumors circulated that Johnson had traded his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar expertise. Not only had he suddenly become a brilliant musician. But he had gained extraordinary charisma – to the point that his performances often moved a crowd to tears. Not surprisingly, his career took off.
This legend lies at the heart of the blues and the musical forms that came after it, such as rock and rap – it is where the saying “the Devil has all the best tunes” comes from.
But behind the Faustian pact mythos lies the Hoodoo lore of the crossroads. In Southern black communities during Robert Johnson’s time, it was a commonly held notion that you could go to a crossroads and meet the Devil.
This concept has its roots in the African belief that a guardian spirit inhabits the crossroads. The Yoruba tribes of Nigeria call this spirit Eshu, while the Fon of Dahomey call it Legba.
This spirit is the intermediary not only between the supreme deity and the gods, but also between humans and the gods. This is why, in all African-derived religions worldwide, the crossroads deity is always first to be honored and called upon in any ceremony.
The crossroads deity is also a trickster. An unpredictable character, whose jokes and tricks are normally mischievous and benign, but do sometimes turn malicious. This aspect of the trickster is no doubt why the Christians, when they arrived in Africa, associated him with the Devil.
The blacks who were taken to America as a result of the slave trade retained the demonic appellation, particularly in the Southern States. But for them, the Devil wasn’t the evil terror of Judeo-Christian belief. On the contrary, he was a tutelary spirit, who could teach you both physical and mental skills.
Even his trickster nature served a teaching function in that it showed that being unpredictable and doing the unexpected were, in fact, creative and effective approaches to solving problems.
Many people are surprised to discover how deep the roots of blues music go. It is quite unlike modern pop and rock music in terms of its depth and feeling. It is a truly real form of music.
Just like traditional folk music in Britain, it holds the kernel of magical rites that go back to antiquity. When Muddy Waters used to sing “I got my mojo working” he wasn’t making some vague allusion to sex, as most people assumed (including Jim Morrison of The Doors), he was talking about a spell or charm he’d had made up by a root doctor.
How much modern music can be described as truly magical, in this way?