Being a Brief Digression on Voodoo and The Blues

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.*

Spotify link

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.)

Spotify link

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

Hey Now
(Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya)
Hey Now
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.

Spotify link

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.

The True History and Faith Behind Voodoo

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

18 thoughts on “Being a Brief Digression on Voodoo and The Blues

  1. CB is a ‘Voodoo’ guy. I love when Muddy sings his “Little John Conqueroo’ line. Like every song you posted. How about Brian Setzer’s ‘Hoodoo Voodoo Doll’? I can’t remember if it was Muddy or Louis Armstrong that carried a little voodoo pouch. I know Dr John does.

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    1. I wonder how many people over the years have sung about John the Conqueroo and had no idea what the hell that meant. When Berry Oakley sings “We got some black cat bone, we gonna slip it to you” in “Hoochie Coochie Man,” ‘black cat bone” is another lucky charm. But hang on. Wikipedia says they are used in “German-Canadian” practice. (There’s an odd couple.) What are you and Christian hiding?

      Setzer, man he’s great.


      1. I still sing lyrics that I don’t know what the hell they mean. I actually thought Muddy had a cousin named little John Conqueroo.
        The only “German-Canadian”thing I can think of is Oktoberfest. Lots of beer and sausage. Right up your alley Doc.

        Setzer is great. I saw a really good live version of him doing that song. Glad you posted it.


        1. My chiropractor is French. Loves the Beatles. Sang along with the lads whilst still in France as a youth. He couldn’t even understand English and to this day says it doesn’t affect his enjoyment.

          A certain acquaintance of mine who shall remain nameless (but who is very similar to me) backpacked around Europe with a friend some moons ago. He and the friend split up, vowing to meet again in a few months at Oktoberfest. The friend wound up there, awash in beer up to his kneecaps, Our guy wound up in Bordeaux working the grape harvest. He drank quite a bit too much and “bonded” with (literally) the farmer’s daughter over “Exile on Main Street.” Specifically, if I recall correctly, or oops, as my friend says, over the song “Let it Loose.” Those – says our traveler – were the days. Now he’s lucky to get his freak on on his birthday, anniversary and return of Halley’s comet.

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        2. Chergchurgchurg (just learned this. My typed laugh)
          It’s the music/vibe that grabs me but i do enjoy a good lyric. A lot of the time I could do without the singing from certain bands. Like that remake of Live and Let Die.


        3. Nope. I laugh like Precious.
          You know CB doesn’t bash but GNR does that chalk board thing to me. Never really given them the time. Too much other music to listen to. Hows that for a polite reply.


        4. Heh! Maybe I’m just a bigger hard rock fan than you. I can definitely throw any refined taste out the window occasionally. ‘Paradise City’ is a great song.

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        5. I love hard rock like I love country but some artists just don’t make it past the ear wax. I do have an album by Izzy Stradlin who was in that group. I really dig it.


        6. Yeah, maybe Axl has one of those voices. I can’t remember if I ever mentioned my Slash story. I was in a restaurant some years ago. I had to go back and get my umbrella. And standing there just in front of me at the matire d’s desk was Slash with two women on each arm. They were dolled up pretty heavily so maybe ladies of the evening. I had my umbrella. I felt pretty dorky.

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        7. First i heard of the Slash story. You think the ladies would have been hanging with him if he didn’t have a big wallet? Thank Christ you got the umbrella, the bastard would have had that too.
          Yeah that voice is similar to the Canadian band we were discussing. I heard their version of Bob’s ‘Knockin on Heavens Door” on the car radio (what was CB doing listening to the radio?) the other day. I can’t put it into words.

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  2. I‚Äôm a sucker for voodoo… ever since seeing that James Bond flick when I was younger. All that voodoo blues and jazz shenanigans works for me… be it mojo meditations, the rhythms of Dr John or even the outlandish theatrics of Screamin‚Äô Jay Hawkins.


    1. If it’s the Bond flick I’m thinking of, it gave us a great song. (Although that said, I could live without the Guns ‘n Roses versions.

      I did a post on Screamin’ Jay a while back. Search for it.


  3. Oh yeah i knew this was going to happen. After my first comment something was gnawing at me. And it came, Omar and the Howlers. They are all over this. ‘Mississippi Hoodoo Man’. Stay tuned. I’m hitting the sack and i know I’ll be dreaming up a few more.


      1. Omar comes from the Howlin Wolf school (Waits,Captain Beefheart etc). Seen him a few time. Does what he does well. His music is full of all that Hoodoo’ thing. Good clip of him doing this song on Austin City. I have an old poster of his on my wall of fame next to Rachel Welch from that “Prehistoric ‘movie.

        We could go nuts with this category you “dug” up. Springsteen’s ‘Jersey Devil’. I love that cover that you used.


        1. Oh, yeah. ‘One Million Years B.C.’ Think they were using her to sell that? Howlin’ Wolf, yea. There’s a growler.

          I don’t know “Jersey Devil.” The devil made me go to Wikipedia. Its not even a released tune, just some Halloween thing or something. But here’s the good part::

          “Springsteen’s lyrics tell the story of a legendary creature known as the “Jersey Devil”; in 1735 a woman called “Mother Leeds” gave birth to her 13th child, who metamorphosed into an evil creature with bat wings, forked feet and a horse’s head; because of this, his parents threw him in a river where he drowned and now haunts the Pine Barrens in New Jersey.”

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