Interview Date: November 23, 2011 @8pm EDT
Special Guest: Syl Johnson (part 2) – this Chicago Blues/Soul man has been making his style of music for 60+ years. Starting off as a Blues man when he was a teenager; Syl Johnson later morphed into making Soul music for Twilight and Hi Records. Born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago; Syl Johnson is as good as they come. Famous for some of the most touching and soulful music ever; songs like "Concrete Reservation" and "Is It Because I'm Black." He has been part of the Chicago Blues Scene from the beginning, playing and associating himself with some of the top blues people of all time; people like Magic Sam, Junior Reed, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Billy Boy Arnold, Freddy King and many more. He is now been re-discovered by the new hip-hop scene with a vengeance and is now one of the most sampled artist of all time. What more needs to be said? He's a man that strikes the hearts of the individuals...In this podcast we talk about Magic Sam, Wu Tang Clan, How he first starting singing, the story behind twilight and twinight Records and his recent smash hit "Different Strokes" which has been sampled at least 134 times.
Blues Folklore - Getting Your Mojo Workin'
The story of Robert Johnson's deal with the devil is pretty well known, or one of those variations it comes in. Apparently, at first he was only a mediocre musician. He disappeared from town for a while but returned later possessing an absolute mastery over the guitar. Stunned by the remarkable change, people who heard him afterwards assumed he must have made a pact with the devil. Johnson didn't deny it. In his songs, he sings about meeting the devil at the crossroads; (at highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (although, there's some debate--there's always some debate)). He lived recklessly, and reveled in the attention of women. He died at the age of 27 most likely a victim of poisoning from a jealous husband, making him one of the first in the 27 club. If you're into the blues, or anybody that was influenced by him like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Eric Clapton, then you're probably aware of the legacy. If you've only heard of him, but not his music, you really should give him a listen, and pay attention. When he sings of the hell hounds on his trail, it sounds as if he believes it.
Maybe less well known today is Peetie Wheatsraw, born nearly a decade before Robert Johnson on December 21st 1902. He enjoyed greater success than Johnson in the days in the 1930's. Not a shy personality, he unabashedly made references to a deal with the devil and called himself "the Devil's Son-In-Law" and "the High Sheriff of Hell, and sang songs about drinking, gambling, easy women, and murder. He definitely was not averse about the playing “the devil's music,” which the blues was called before rock and roll came about and drew a fervour (although to some, the devil's music is anything but gospel and hymns.) Johnson seems to have been influenced by Wheatstraw, one reviewer even goes so far to call Johnson's work derivative of his. Although, it should be noted that Johnson could play a wide variety of styles while Wheatstraw's style was more limited. He died from a car crash on his birthday, December 21st 1941 at age 39.
But fear not, the intent of this article is not to be morbid, or preach religion and right conduct to you, rather the aim is give an introduction into the folklore of the blues. For those who don't know, Louisiana is specifically, and the Southeastern United States are generally, influenced by the cultural and religious ties of the African people, to be frank, who were taken there as slaves to the New World. And though it was often policy to mix the Africans to contribute to the weakening of the cultural and tribal ties, those Africans with a closely related connection or background, and those who lived in areas that outnumbered Europeans kept more of their traditions, although many of the aspects were muted or disguised. Many were rendered to obscurity.1 It's ugly history, but it's true. And the influence these old preserved traditions have had on music are nothing less than monumental. Honour and respect are made more readily these days to the sources, and references are made to the history and influences of musical style, the instruments, etc. But what gets neglected, disguised, and dismissed still to this day are the religious beliefs and influences of the cultures.
The folklore (to settle on a term) that carries on in the blues is certainly rich. Blues singers were believed to have powers over women to bed any they wanted. Ask Muddy Waters or Mick Jagger what they think about that. I Got My Mojo Workin' is a popular song sung by Muddy Waters, and Lightnin' Hopkins sings about looking for a mojo hand. Blind Willie McTell references mojo in some of his songs. So what's mojo? What's a mojo hand? Obviously it's an important thing. But depending on who you ask, the answers you get may only cause you more confusion. The answer is elusive, and rather than admitting that they don't know, you may get many different replies from people trying to disguise their ignorance than trying to give you an honest answer, or admitting their ignorance; for when you ask someone, “What's mojo?” what you're really doing is exposing their depth, or more accurately, lack of coolness; for what you're really asking in that simple question is “What is the magic (or intangible quality) that the forefathers and inspiration of the bands that heralded an era of revolution of freedom and love and free expression speak of?” If you're a boomer, you'd think it would be required knowledge; music played a such a pivotal point in their revolution. But even considering the revolution of the boomers and their adherence to it's ideals, it may really be asking too much about what would be considered pagan ritual in the eyes of the general public in God-fearing nations. It's a taboo subject, and most people might have chosen not to delve into subjects that are frowned upon in "polite" communities. But it's fun to ask people and see the discomfort it produces when they've just been met with the realization that they're at a loss to explain a core belief in the music they admire-- for some, music being the aspect on which they've anchored as a cornerstone of their personality for decades. Ultimately, the so called authority on the subject would be a hoodoo doctor. But they don't seem to be in ready supply. While generally understood in these days to mean sex-appeal or confidence, the term and meaning is rather ambiguous.
The following descriptions are taken from The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore for your edification.
Mojo: Mojo is a rather amorphous term applied to a charm object associated with voodoo or to all of voodoo as it is known by some contemporary African Americans. In this latter sense, mojo is synonymous with voodoo, hoodoo, fixing, tricking, and rootworking. It may be a term applied to an abstract term of magic, powers, influences, or very specifically to a love potion or amulet. The System and/or objects of mojo operate in many aspects of African-American belief systems. Infatuation and infidelity are often attributed to mojo. Good, or ill fortune may be similarly ascribed the influence of mojo. Likewise illness and cure and general luck.
Some people seek advice on securing an effective mojo (charm) or realizing favourable mojo (good fortune). For such advice, the council of a mojo doctor or hoodoo doctor is sought. In some modern African-American communities, these councillors are called more generally spiritualists, psychics, or readers.2
Hoodoo hand/Mojo hand: A bag in which various charms and mojos are kept to perform specific functions; for example, a “curing hand” contains material to heal a specific disorder, a “love hand' contains the necessary ingredients to bring your lover to you, and so on. The hoodoo hand is generally worn on one's person and may contain such items as a rabbit's foot, fish scales, snake skin, and so on. Hoodoo hands may be used for malevolent purposes as well. A “killing hand” typically contains hair or fingernail pairings from the person one wishes dead, together with such items as needles and pins and graveyard soil.3
Rootwork: Also called root conjuring, rootwork is the practice of using the roots of various roots and plants as amulets and charms to counteract ailments brought on by malevolent spells or curses. Rootwork was traditionally common among African Americans in the rural South. Root doctors--the practitioners of rootwork--may also use roots to cast spells, a practice sometimes called rootin'. Both cures and spells may be effective by mere sight of the root (especially powerful is St. John's Wort, called John the Conqueror root), or by chewing a bit of the root, or by drinking the liquid yielded by boiling certain roots.4
The making, activation, and maintenance of a mojo hand aka gris-gris bag have some variations, but follow general principles. Most references state the use of flannel, but some use leather. The articles vary greatly, but this depends on the goal in mind. After the articles are collected, then the bag must be breathed to life by use of smoke or breath, next, the bag needs to be “fed” with a liquid. Mention of bodily liquids are mentioned, and I'll leave it at that. One website I came across peddled mojo hands. I will have to talk to Jason about supplying our own.
N.B. This article could have been more in depth, but was affected by the voluntary blackout of websites in protest of the SOPA and PIPA bills. There were more than just Wikipedia. While maintaining our neutrality, hopefully it has caused an effect on you concerning the nature of censorship. If you enjoyed the article, realize that your edification has been stifled, but if the bills pass, I suppose that's something that you'll have to get used to.
-Guthrie Alan Corwin
1 Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1976) pp1-2
2 Axelrod, Alan & Oster, Harry with Rawls, Walton. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. (New York, NY: Penguin. 2000) p342
3 ibid p255
4 ibid pp414-415