Day 394: Who Do Hoodoo?

originally published January 28, 2013

You’ve surely heard of voodoo, but what about hoodoo? They both originate from the same part of the globe, but they’re stems growing from different roots. Voodoo is religion, be it Haitian, Louisianan or West African. Hoodoo is a long distance call to the spirit world. Voodoo is the zesty tonic inside an exotic glass; hoodoo is the spicy salt under the rim that could save you or kill you, depending on the whim of the bartender who served it. Hoodoo isn’t religion – it’s folk magic.

To its devotees, when God looked up the recipe for concocting an Earth in a half-dozen sleeps, He checked under ‘H’ for Hoodoo. God is the original Hoodoo doctor, neither a capital-H ‘He’ nor a capital-S ‘She’. Ever since some time in the 19th century, when Christianity bled its tales of crimson magic into the skulls of rapt hoodoo-lovers everywhere, the Bible took on a new interpretation: one of magic, conjuring, and hoodoo. Moses’ reputation among the Jews gets a whole lot funkier when he is depicted as a hoodoo master.

In hoodoo, the bible becomes a talisman, its psalms and passages acting as vessels of spells and magic. Secrets of the Psalms, a book that occupies real estate on every hoodoo adherent’s shelf, claims that one little corner of the bible holds a particularly chewy slab of magic. Worried about your flight doing a spiral dive into Lake Superior? Have a headache so big you could write Excedrin on it thirty-one times and it still wouldn’t do you any good? Are you getting frustrated that the frequency of your marital relations is more spaced apart than the frequency of lunar eclipses? The Book of Psalms holds the hoodoo key.

The bible will – provided it’s pointing in the correct cardinal direction – provide you with safety and protection, according to hoodoo thought. And because hoodoo pulls from a number of cultures, there are many breeds of stupendous magic squirming through it. The traditional voodoo doll, depicted in any cartoon that tiptoes near bayou country, is an act of hoodoo magic, acquired from New Orleans voodoo, and the traditions of the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa. Contrary to popular belief, the doll simply isn’t an essential notch on the curriculum of voodoo 101.

So when it came down to a choice between penning today’s kilograph about hoodoo or voodoo, the decision was rather simple. Voodoo is mysterious and opaque, like the underside of a silk veil. But hoodoo has stricken me on a level far deeper, far closer to my core than my intellectual curiosity.

Yes, I’m talking about the blues. A number of hoodoo terms pop up in that earthiest of musical styles. Words I’d heard Muddy belt, Ma Rainey wail and even Dr. John pull from his frothy cauldron of gravel-voiced soul. How could I pass up the opportunity to learn what these things really mean?

During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, a new titillating dance called the hoochie coochie became a craze, no doubt knotting a peck of brows as the older folk feared they’d lost their kids to a life of debauchery and sin. But when Willie Dixon wrote “Hoochie Coochie Man” for Muddy Waters in 1954, he pulled upon hoodoo tradition, not sexy dancing, for lyrical inspiration. For instance, one of the boasts made in the song is, “Got a black cat bone.”

A hoodoo believer carries a black cat bone for good luck, for protection against evil magic, for invisibility and romantic success (“is that a black cat bone under your wizard’s robes or are you just happy to see me?”). Some hoodooists will fast before catching a black cat. Once it has been snagged, it must be boiled alive at midnight. Then, the hoodooist will sift through bones to find the right one.

That’s right, there’s only one. Each black cat contains but one bone that holds all the magical efficacy of the beast. Some will taste each bone to find the most bitter, others will look at each through a mirror to see which reflects the darkest.

Or, you could just head to your local hoodoo supply shop and buy one, but those are generally chicken bones dyed black. Not the same.

In Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” he threatens to bring back his second cousin, John the Conqueroo. Turns out that, unless his cousin got really specific with naming their kid, John the Conqueroo isn’t a guy. It’s actually the root of the Ipomoea Jalapa plant, which shares familial relations with the morning glory and the sweet potato. It’s known as High John The Conqueror, John the Conqueror root, or simply John the Conqueroo.

The root can be prodded into one’s pocket or rubbed for good luck whilst gambling, but it’s also used in a number of crafty spells in hoodooism. It was named for an African prince named John the Conqueror who became a folk hero after he was sold into slavery, then lived out his days with an unbroken spirit, pulling off a nifty roster of tricks to evade his masters.

Also, the seeds of some Ipomoea plants can create an LSD-type psychedelic high. Never rule out a buzz when it comes to crafting magic.

Preston Fuller wrote it, but the song “Got My Mojo Workin’” belongs to every teller of the blues, from Muddy to Clapton to Butterfield to B.B. and all points in between. A mojo is a prayer bag, a flannel sack containing one or more magical items, depending on how you want that mojo to work for you.

A snazzier word for mojo is gris-gris, which translates literally as a fetish or a charm. Most hoodooists craft bags of specific colors for specific purposes: a green bag for a money mojo, a red bag for a love mojo. Putting a bag together (usually with herbs, amulets, animal parts and other hoodoo doodads) isn’t like plucking candies out of a bulk bin. A ritual must take place, culminating in the bag being brought ‘to life’ via a breath, a waft of incense, a prayer and often a liquid – alcohol, perfume, water or a bodily fluid. I think one would have to be truly desperate for mojo magic if one were to walk around with a peed-on mojo bag, though.

Many will call hoodoo magic nothing more than silly traditions by people who should know better. Others will back slowly toward the door of this conversation, fearing the dark powers might become focused on them. I fall deep into the dwelling of the doubters, but with an optimistic tweak to my outlook. There’s a part of me that wants to believe in the magic, in the unspeakable channeling of mystery and the divine.

And why not believe that Muddy knew what he was singing about?

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