This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
To conjure is to cast a spell, to call upon supernatural powers to help achieve one’s goal. Conjuration was “one of the African cultural survivals very early noted in the New World,” according to renowned linguist J.L. Dillard’s Lexicon of Black English. The conjurer calls upon the web god of West Africa who links earth and sky. Bessie Smith sang to him in “Spider Man Blues.”
African conjure rituals were noticed quite early by nervous colonists. James Grainger’s 1763 poem “The Sugar Cane” described “conjurers” and “Negro-magicians” who carried carved staffs and cast spells to make themselves “secure from poison; for to poison they are infamously prone.”
Grainger was probably describing tribal priests, who were among the Africans imported as slaves into in the American colonies. Although enslaved priests tried to keep African religious practices alive in the new world, these were harshly suppressed by slave owners. Those practices that did survive into the 1800s were camouflaged as herbal “medicine” or “superstitions.”
In Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and Jamaica, in contrast, more elements of West Africa’s Vodun, one of the world’s oldest religions, survived to become the Vodou, Santeria, Candomblé, and Obeah religions, respectively. This happened, in part, because slaves in the very Catholic West Indies noticed the similarity between their tradition of appealing to ancestral spirits to intercede in their favor with God (Vodun) and that of Catholics praying to their saints for similar intercession. They grafted Catholic saints onto their spirit-gods and created new religious hybrids that were able to survive waves of repression and persecution.
In the United States, meanwhile, the term hoodoo emerged in the early 1800s as a catch-all name for African American medicinal and magic practices. Mojos, foot track magic, and other conjuration practices survived to become important elements of hoodoo, which combined herbal healing and spells with aspects of African and European religions, as well as Native American herbal lore.
Grainger described these in “The Sugar Cane” poem:
This o’er the threshold of their cottage hung
No thieves break in; or, if they dare to steal
Their feet in blotches, which admit no cure
Burst loathsome out.”
Dried roots play an important part in hoodoo charms, spells, and healing; hence conjuration is sometimes called “rootwork.” In rural African American communities, the conjurer was a healer for ills both physical and metaphysical. He or she was the root doctor, Doctor Yah Yah, Doctor John, or Doctor Jack.
“Root Man Blues”- Walter Davis
“Snake Doctor Blues”- Jaydee Short
“Spider Man Blues”- Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith – “Spider Man Blues”