Longdog Library: Ain’t No Witch – Hoodoo and the Blues

By John Linford Grant

Never let it be said that the Longdog Library is limited in its scope. For example, you might not know that it includes sundry volumes on hoodoo and conjure-work, kept carefully surrounded by a circle of Hot-Foot Powder. I’ve always had an abiding interest in the Cunning Folk of Europe, the hedge-wizards, wise women and others, often Christian (though not always), who could be called upon for protection against curses, hexes and blights. In the US, whilst Wicca, historical witchcraft, and voodoo or vodun, are fascinating in themselves, the real roots that interest me there are those of hoodoo, which is something different.

“Because sometimes I’m waitin’ at the crossroads, but I does it how I choose,” said Mamma Lucy. “I ain’t one of your mamalois, Voodoo girls or Sant-eria ladies, liftin’ their skirts when you come callin’, neither.”
—  
John Linwood Grant, ‘Tales of the last Edwardian’

Historically, as with many of the Cunning Folk, the guiding principle for most hoodoo was belief in God and the Bible. Where Caribbean and New Orleans spiritual movements blended Catholic saints with African belief systems, a lot of hoodoo folk were Protestant in one form or another. Voodoo and hoodoo get confused, but they ain’t the same.

You might call hoodoo a dominant blend of African beliefs, with threads of European herb and symbolic lore pulled in as well. Much conjure-work links back to Ewe and Fon lore from West Africa. If it was a predominantly black road, it didn’t automatically exclude whites, because it slowly blended with folklore from European immigrants, especially Germanic ones. It came from the big slave plantations, but it spread into communities through freedmen and women, and had resonances for many poor and disenfranchised people. It absorbed elements of Native American herbalism, and became its own thing. Root-work is one other name, from the use of medicinal or magical roots and herbs.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the black novelist and folklorist, wrote a study of Afro-American folklore, including discussion of hoodoo, root work and conjuration in her 1935 collection of tales, ‘Mules and Men’. One crossover example is ‘The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses’, a magical text allegedly written by Moses, passed down as hidden portions of the Old Testament. A grimoire, a collection of magical incantations and seals, the text circulated in Germany from at least the 1700s, passed through immigrants such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and entered both white general folklore and black Christian hoodoo.

One of Manly Wade Wellman’s books

The writer Manly Wade Wellman also slipped in to my mind when I came across a copy of  ‘Pow-wows, or The Long Lost Friend’. This book crops up in a number of Wellman’s stories. This is another genuine ‘grimoire’ from the 1820s, by one Johann Georg Hohman, and was originally called Der Lange Verborgene Freund.

“Bind,” he said to someone over me. “Bind, bind. Unless you can count the stars, or the drops in the ocean, be bound.”
It was a spell-saying. “From the Long Lost Friend?” I asked.
— 
M W Wellman, ‘Vandy Vandy’, (1953)

‘The Long Lost Friend’ is a mixture of spells, charms and remedies for everyday use. Like the Books of Moses, it initially entered hoodoo through the Pennsylvanian Dutch and other groups of Germanic origin. It crossed relatively easily into hoodoo because it also puts Christianity in the driving seat and emphasis belief in the Bible as core. ‘Pow-wows’ was added to later editions, in reference to real or supposed Native American practices.

“The book has remained quite popular among practitioners of Hoodoo… James Foster noted that many shops in Harlem and Brooklyn stocked The Long Lost Friend in 1957.”
–Daniel Harms, ‘The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire’ (2012)

And if you write about hoodoo from around the early 20th Century, you can’t avoid the blues. You also can’t avoid Aunt Caroline Dye. Despite her association with hoodoo, Caroline Dye was a psychic, a fortune-teller –  there’s less evidence of her performing root-work, setting up actual spells. People went to her for readings, and they went in their thousands.

Aunt Caroline Dye

She was born to enslaved parents in Jackson County, Arkansas – or in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There are different versions, both of her origins and her death. The earliest suggestion of her birth is 1810, which seems unlikely, and the more accepted one is in the 1840s. As Caroline Tracy, a name which seems to have come from her family’s original owners (a phrase which should never have had to be typed), she married Martin Dye of Sulphur Rock, some time after the American Civil War.

Called “one of the most celebrated women ever to live in the Midsouth”, she is said to have died September 26th, 1918 (which would have made her 108 years old – or, more likely, in her seventies). She is buried in Jackson County. Caroline Dye was supposed to have the ‘second sight’ even when she was young, but became famous for being a seer after the Dyes set up home in Newport, Arkansas, around 1900. 

Despite the dates above, others such as catherine yronwode of luckymojo.com have compiled evidence that suggests Caroline Dye may have been around longer. One of the problems is that there are mentions of her in music which suggest she was alive in 1930, when Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band recorded their song about her. This details Dye’s hometown as Newport News, in Virginia, but the song’s music and a verse was lifted from the band’s 1927 song Newport News Blues, so that was probably just convenient (or locally popular).

Others have spoken as if she was around until 1936-37. This may have been the general remembrance of a notable figure. It may even have been complicated by the tendency for famous ‘names’ in fortune-telling and hoodoo to be adopted by later practitioners. So there may have been a second ‘Caroline Dye’, no relation but using her reputation.

Dye was ‘the gypsy’ in the 1914 song “The St. Louis Blues,” according to W.C. Handy, who wrote it.  He later names her directly, in his 1923 song “Sundown Blues.”

For I’m going to Newport
I mean Newport Arkansaw
I’m going there to see Aunt Car’line Dye
Why she’s a reader
And I need her
Law! Law! Law! She reads your fortune, and her cards don’t lie.
I’ll put some ashes in my sweet Papa’s bed,
So he can’t slip out, Hoodoo in his bread

In 1937, Johnny/Johnnie Temple named her again in his Hoodoo Woman song:

Well, I’m going to Newport,
          just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
Well, I’m going to Newport,
        just to see Aunt Caroline Dye
She’s a fortune teller, hooo, Lord,
        she sure don’t tell no lie

She also crops up in “Wang Dang Doodle,” (1960) by Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor. This is a curious song about rowdy merry-making. It borrows from black oral history, including lesbian nicknames of earlier times. The original reference to Fast Talkin’ Fannie, for example, used a word other than Talkin’.

Dye would read futures and make predictions. Her most commonly quoted method was using cards, as in Handy’s lyrics. It’s said that she wouldn’t help in romantic matters, though, and told people that they should sort their own love lives out. She did offer to find lost people, lost cattle and other items through reading her deck, or through her visions.

“Going to go see Aunt Caroline” became a common saying among black people of the time, and as she grew famous, she became respected by many whites as well. She reportedly died a landowner with substantial fortune. In the 1960s, Will Shade from the Memphis Jug Band spoke of her having wider powers. He said of her:

“White and Colored would go to her. You sick in bed, she raise the sick. Conjure, Hoodoo, that’s what some people say, but that’s what some people call it, conjure.”

Interview by Paul Oliver, ‘Conversation with the Blues’.
“Seven Sisters ain’t nowhere wit’ Aunt Caroline Dye; she was the onliest one could break the record with the hoodoo.”
— ibid

The Seven Sisters were supposed sisters in 1920’s New Orleans. As usual, controversy surrounds their nature. Some say they were genuine sisters, others that they were just seven women working together, and it’s even been claimed that they were one woman in different guises. The name also crosses concepts of seventh sons and seventh daughters being special. And as with Caroline Dye, they were well known for their psychic abilities or clairvoyance.

They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
They tell me Seven Sisters in New Orleans that can really fix a man up right
And I’m headed for New Orleans, Louisiana, I’m travelin’ both day and night.
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
They tell me they’ve been hung, been bled, and been crucified
But I just want enough help to stand on the water and rule the tide.

As to hoodoo itself, apart from mid-century and later commentaries, it’s interesting to read earlier writers. One source is Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858 – 1932), an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, his parents being ‘free persons of color’ from North Carolina. His position was odd – Chesnutt was legally white in some States, black in others. In a shameful time of Jim Crow laws in America, many state had a ‘one drop’ rule, which meant that even if you had only a single grandparent or great-grandparent who was black, you could be discriminated against. North Carolina adopted ‘one drop’ legislation in 1923. Chesnutt’s paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder, and he would have had other white ancestors. Despite his outward appearance, he identified as African American, and never chose to be known as white.

Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Here’s a passage from his essay ‘Superstitions & Folklore of the South’:

“Conjuration: The only professional conjure doctor whom I met was old Uncle Jim Davis, with whom I arranged a personal interview. He came to see me one evening, but almost immediately upon his arrival a minister called. The powers of light prevailed over those of darkness, and Jim was dismissed until a later time, with a commission to prepare for me a conjure ‘hand’ or good luck charm, of which, he informed some of the children about the house, who were much interested in the proceedings, I was very much in need. I subsequently secured the charm, for which, considering its potency, the small sum of silver it cost me was no extravagant outlay. It is a very small bag of roots and herbs, and, if used according to directions, is guaranteed to insure me good luck and ‘keep me from losing my job’. The directions require it to be wet with spirits nine mornings in succession, to be carried on the person, in a pocket on the right hand side, care being taken that it does not come in contact with any tobacco.”
Modern Culture, volume 13. 1901

His collection ‘The Conjure Woman’ (1899) is available on-line, and also includes the full essay http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11666

There is one problem with writing about hoodoo, by the way. It’s difficult to get right, and yet sometimes difficult to get wrong. People did make up ‘spells’ to suit them. There are so many variants, and styles of traditional conjure-work can be personal to a practitioner, or peculiar to a geographical area. The terminology varies across the States, and some branches came from passed-down pamphlets, others through family word of mouth.

So be careful, now.

One of John Linwood Grant’s Mamma Lucy stories, “Hoodoo Man,” is in the 18thWall Productions anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists, curated by Nicole Petit. His new collection A Persistence of Geraniums & Other Worrying Tales is available on Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Technology becomes the teacher.

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