For years I’d hear references in blues songs to things like “mojo” and “John the Conquaroo.” But what the hell did they mean? I did a little research once upon a time but then thought, hey maybe you don’t know either. Herewith, like Miles, I run the voodoo down.
“Voodoo is a religious belief which combines African, Caribbean, French and other national traditions, and while it is mostly based in Haiti (and is considered an official religion) it has deep roots in New Orleans, Louisiana, where almost 15% of the population admit to practicing it.
Voodoo was brutally repressed by slave-owners, yet its powerful beats, ethics, and aesthetics endured. Since New Orleans has a distinctive place in blues and jazz; and (sic) we draw the origin references to voodoo from it.” – Speakin’ the blues blog.
So what – as Robert Klein once asked – is a mojo anyway? Wikipedia’s bloodless description says this:
“Mojo, in the African-American folk belief called hoodoo, is an amulet consisting of a flannel bag containing one or more magical items. It is a ‘prayer in a bag’ or a spell that can be carried with or on the host’s body. Alternative American names for the mojo bag include hand, mojo hand, conjure hand, lucky hand, conjure bag, trick bag, root bag, toby, jomo, and gris-gris bag.
The term mojo is now commonly used in the English language to mean one’s personal talent or gift. For example, a person might say that they are “getting their mojo on” when trying to get the attention of a possible mate.” (Even if the mating is only for a little while.)
Muddy Waters (they say) heard a 1955 song called “Hands Off” by bluesman Jay McShann and then based his 1956 version of “Got My Mojo Workin'” on that upbeat jump blues. Despite Muddy’s name appearing on the label in the picture, the song was indisputably written by a guy named Preston “Red” Foster.
Interestingly, there is a whole lawsuit around this song but it’s not Muddy vs. Foster but rather some woman who claimed authorship. The legally inclined will find much to amuse you here as the court’s dry recitation makes the Wikipedia description sound like Woodstock.*
So who or what was John the Conqueroo? Again, I can’t improve upon Wikipedia: “John the Conqueror is a folk hero from African-American folklore. He is associated with a certain root, the John the Conqueror root (aka St. John’s wort), or John the Conqueroo, to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic.
Conqueror root is used as one of the parts of a mojo bag. It is typically used in sexual spells of various sorts and it is also considered lucky for gambling. It is likely that the root acquired its sexual magical reputation because, when dried, it resembles the testicles of a dark-skinned man.
Because of this, when it is employed as an amulet, it is important that the root used be whole and unblemished. Dried pieces and chips of the root are used in formulating oils and washes that are used in other sorts of spells.
Muddy Waters mentions him as Johnny Cocheroo or Conqueroo in the songs, “Mannish Boy” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” In “Mannish Boy” in the line,”I think I’ll go down/To old Kansas too/I’m gonna bring back my second cousin/That little Johnny Conqueroo” and in “I’m your Hoochie Coochie Man: as “John De Conquer Blue”.”(If you think of these things – especially Mr. Conqueroo – as a sort of natural aphrodisiac with mystical powers you wouldn’t be far wrong – ME.)
Lastly, what about gris-gris? (gree-gree.) In voodoo, gris-gris resemble “charms or talismans which are kept for good luck or to ward off evil. Originally gris-gris were probably dolls or images of the gods, but presently most gris-gris are small cloth bags containing herbs, oils, stones, small bones, hair and nails, pieces of cloth soaked with perspiration and/or other personal items gathered under the directions of a god for the protection of the owner.”
Dr. John’s (born Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, 1940, New Orleans) first album (1968) was titled – wait for it – Gris-Gris. “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” is some spooky, murky shit:
They call me, Dr. John, The Night Tripper
Got my sizzling Gris-Gris in my hand
Day trippin’ up, back down by you
I’m the last of the best
They call me the Gris-Gris man
Got many clients
Come from miles around
Running down my prescription
I got my medicine, to cure all your ills
I got remedies of every description
(Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya)
If you got love trouble, got a bad woman you can’t control
I got just the thing for you
Something called control in the hearts get together drops.
If you work to hard and you need a little rest
Try my utilize rub put some on my drop fix and jam,
Put some in your breakfast.
To this day if you visit New Orleans, you can buy all kinds of voodoo stuff at more than one shop. Frankly, Voodoo is kinda touristy in NOLA pretty much in the same way that Salem, MA keeps the crowd coming in by peddling witch-related shit.
And there are people – I think mostly women – who appear at night in places like Jackson Square and tell your fortune. Or maybe even arrange to sell your soul at the crossroads. Having been to NOLA several times I can advise you that it can get very spooky down there at night. You have been warned.
Oh, and for good measure. This guy.
*Voodoo, which evolved in Haiti, a former French possession, takes its name from the French “vaudois”, practitioners of the Waldensian (Christian) heresy which arose in France circa 1170, and endured in remote areas of the Piedmont well into the 19th century. Animatism, or the attribution of soul-like qualities to objects and things, which is what MOJO is, is part of the religious heritage of all races. – A tidbit from the Court’s decision.
Sources: Speakin’ the Blues blog; Wikipedia