The Hoodoo Blues

The Hoodoo Blues

Unsplash/Hannah Cauhepe

Not voodoo—hoodoo. Hoodoo meaning can be found in a variety of practices from “spells timed to moon phases” to “charms, curses, and crossings.”

What’s in a Word?

I can remember the Fourth of July
Runnin' through the backwood bay
I can still hear my old hound dog barkin'
Chasin' down a hoodoo there

—Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Born on the Bayou,” 1969

Search for an online image with the word “hoodoo” and you will find photos of towering eerie sandstone formations in the American West. Suggestive of ancient gods and goblins, the canyon lands are said to be haunted on full moon nights.

The earliest usage of the word “hoodoo” is connected with Irish and Scottish sailors, not African slaves, and may be a phonetic pronunciation of the Gaelic Uath Dubh (pronounced hooh dooh) which means evil entity or spiky ghost. In the mid 19th century, cursed, abandoned “ghost ships'' were called hoodoo ships or were said to have been hoodooed.

But, if you were born on a Louisiana bayou, you know it’s a word for African American folk medicine and the ancestral ghosts and spirits it conjures.

It Is and It Isn’t: Hoodoo Meaning

Although the practice of African American hoodoo is based on survival remnants of various African belief systems, it is not a religion. The misleadings of New Orleans tourism notwithstanding, it is not Voodoo. (Vodou is a Haitian religion cross-bred with Catholicism. Most hoodooists are Protestant Christians.) Over time, it has incorporated practices from other cultures. Irish, Romany, Cherokee, even Chinese, and Hindu symbology have found their way into hoodoo.

Practitioners of hoodoo hold their folk beliefs comfortably alongside their Christianity. The concerns of hoodoo are earthly rather than heavenly goals. Spirits, guides, and ancestors are called upon to help with mortal problems: warding off evil; good luck in gambling; attracting and keeping a lover; cursing or jinxing an enemy; gaining power, courage, money, sex, blessing, physical health, and good juju for life in general.

Cat Yronwode, of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, shares some of her collection of hoodoo blues lyrics. This one, by Bessie Brown from 1924, addresses the age-old challenge of keeping your man:


I'm on the war path now, I'm mean and evil I vow,
Some woman stole my man, to get even I've a plan.
Gonna sprinkle ding ‘em dust all around her door
Gonna sprinkle ding ‘em dust all around her door
Put a spider in her dumplin’, make her crawl all over the floor
Goin’ neath her window, gonna lay a black cat bone
Goin’ neath her window, gonna lay a black cat bone
Burn a candle on her picture, she won't let my good man alone.
Got myself some gris-gris, tote it up in a sack
Got myself some gris-gris, tote it up in a sack
Gonna keep on wearin’ it till I get my good man back
I was born ‘way down in Algiers, I wear conjure in my shoes
Born way down in Algiers, I wear conjure in my shoes
Gonna fix that woman, make her sing them hoodoo blues.

hoodoo meaning Unsplash/Alice Muriithi
Unsplash/Alice Muriithi

Hoodoo Meaning: Charms, Mojos, Divination, and the Crossroads

Hoodoo is a rich and complex collection of beliefs and magical practices. Spells timed to moon phases; charms, curses and crossings; dream interpretation; candle magic; incense; sachet powders; purifying baths; floor washes; symbols and sigils drawn on pathways; potent herbs and roots soaked in conjure oils; silver mercury dime talismans, and prayer bags anointed with sweat, blood or urine; are just some of the methods employed in acquiring that lucky life we’re all after.

Traditional formulae to bring luck and stop “evil conditions” carry names like “Money Stay With Me,” “Essence of Bend-Over,” “Compelling,” “Kiss Me Now,” “Hot Foot,” “Follow Me Boy,” “Law Keep Away,” “Fast Luck,” “Court Case,” and “Fiery Wall of Protection.”

One of the most important tools of hoodoo is the Mojo Hand or conjure bag. Made of red flannel or leather and tightly tied, the mojo bag contains the custom charms and herbs needed by its wearer. Because it is believed to contain the living essence of spirit, it is fed, anointed with substances like Florida water, whiskey, van van oil, or “bodily effluvia”, and worn next to the skin, safely hidden beneath clothing.

Besides prescribing the contents of mojo hands, gris-gris, or tobys, a root doctor or rootworker may employ divination to help his or her client. The oldest form of hoodoo divination, throwing the bones or reading the bones, is a direct survival of a West African system. Tarot cards and palm reading by “Black Gypsies” have also found their way into the tradition.

For divination, “laying tricks,” or spell working, many practitioners make use of what can be called a portable crossroads or circle with a cross inside. The cross-mark is drawn on a cloth or on the ground. This symbol is mirrored in the mystical space of a real crossroad.

Harry Middleton Hyatt, folklorist and Anglican minister, transcribed the words of rootworkers in his 1970 book, Hoodoo—ConjurationWitchcraftRootwork:

“You go to the fork of the road on Sunday morning before day, go there for nine times in succession before the sunrise and make a special wish, a special desire, and whatever you want to do, if it's to be a conjure or to be a bad person, then the devil comes there. First comes a red rooster, then after that the devil sends something else in the shape of a bear and after that he comes himself and takes hold of your hands and tells you to go on in the world and do anything that chew want to do.”

You may recall the scene in the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where a guitar player is graced with talent, fame, and fortune at the crossroads. This is a classic hoodoo story with the exception of the sarcastic description of the devil as white with empty eyes. The devil in hoodoo is based on the African trickster god Legba, who is black-skinned.

The Black and White of It

White neo-pagan practitioners of magic who do not have African ancestry are warned by contemporary Black hoodooists concerned about cultural appropriation to appreciate their traditions from a distance. That is good advice in today’s volatile racial scene.

But Cat Yronwode takes a historical perspective when she says, “Black rootworkers of America have, for as long as 500 years now in some regions, been practicing a syncretic form of … folk magic that makes use of identifiable elements of European Christian and Jewish folk magic, as well as some Native American inclusions. The work of these near and distant ancestors was not purely African, no more than the DNA of their descendants is purely African. To deny the inventiveness, brilliant magical works, or dedication to the practice of conjure embodied in African AMERICAN ancestors is to disrespect them, the lives they lived, and the choices that they made.”

May we all have lucky lives. And good juju.

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