Voodoo and hoodoo

Mojo bag

Mississippi Delta bluesman Muddy Waters sang about having his “mojo” working. A mojo is a magical charm bag used in the Voodoo religion, sometimes to cast a spell on another person. Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” (not the same song as “Voodoo Child”), which employed many hoodoo references, was a number one hit in England in 1970. Singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 hit song “I Put a Spell on You” also alluded to Voodoo power. In his live perfor­mances, Hawkins would rise from a coffin with a bone in his nose. Known as the “grandfather of shock rock,” he greatly influenced later rockers such as Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath.

All these singers, and many more, have used imagery from African American traditions that hark back to ancient religions imported from West Africa via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, many people still tend to confuse Voodoo, a religion, with hoodoo, a kind of African American folk magic. So what is the difference?

“Pop culture continually intermixes many African Diasporic traditions and portrays them exclusively as Voodoo. However, most of what is portrayed in books, movies, and television is actually hoodoo. Voodoo is a religion that has two markedly different branches: Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun. Hoodoo is neither a religion, nor a denomination of a religion—it is a form of folk magic that originated in West Africa and is mainly practiced today in the Southern United States,” explains knowlegenuts.com.

Other authors point out that early country blues singers, such as Robert Johnson, relied heavily on references to both Voodoo and hoodoo in the lyrics they wrote. Consider this passage from Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”:

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, ooh
Was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
Until I get satisfied

Is there any wonder why first the blues and then rock ‘n’ roll got labeled “the devil’s music” by white parents concerned with the effect such music was having on their young, easily impressed children? Hendrix had an answer to that question: “Things like witchcraft,” he said, “which is a form of exploration and imagination, have been banned by the establishment and called evil. It’s because people are frightened to find out the full power of the mind.”

Author Charles Shaar Murray examines Hendrix’s use of the term “Voodoo Child” in his book Crosstown Traffic: “Voodoo symbolism and reference resound through the country blues, and through the urbanized electric country blues of the Chicago school…In Hendrix’s case, this is pure metaphor…he is announcing as explicitly as possible that he is a man of the blues, and one who honors, respects and understands its deepest and most profound traditions.”

When discussing trances induced by chanting, praying and/or dancing, it is interesting to compare the behavior found in Vodoo services with that found in Christian fundamentalist country churches, whose congregations are often referred to as “Holy Rollers.” In both cases, practitioners whip themselves into a frenzy, roll around on the floor (or ground) and start speaking in tongues. Old-fashioned Christian revivals featured a big tent with a center pole and a sawdust floor. Voodoo services are also characterized by a center pole, often a totem pole, which plays a central role in that religion.

In Voodoo parlance, “riding” refers to the Holy Spirit coming down the center pole to possess a person who then goes into a trance. Voodoo chants of “Ride ‘em Jesus” then evolved into the expression “right on.” In black Christian churches, the singing of the choir played a fundamental role in creating the right emotional mood and it was the solo singer therein who “belted” out the messages. Many of these soloists, such as Mahaliah Jackson and Whitney Houston, went on to establish successful singing careers as pop artists.

“Blues singers fronting big bands, like Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, copied the way church solo singers belted over the choir. The radio beamed this new ‘shouting blues’ all over black America. It was picked up by country blues singers like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, who had moved to Chicago and used it with their new electrified bands. These, in turn, inspired rockers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones,” writes Debra Devi in the Huffington Post.

So, do Voodoo-like or hoodoo-like trances play a role in blues performances? All one has to do is watch an old video of blues singers like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin go into seemingly trance-like states as they sing or play. Were they high on drugs (both were addicts) or were they feeling the influence of Voodoo or hoodoo? Maybe both?

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “I Put a Spell on You”