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!
In the African-American folklore system called “hoodoo”, to cross someone means to jinx or curse that person. African crossing methods that made their way into hoodoo involve drawing cross-marks on the ground and spitting on them while verbally cursing the person. The cross-mark poisons the person who walks through it.
Cross-marks typically involve a crossroads sign, such as an X in a circle, but there are many variations, such as three wavy lines, or three arrows. A cross is only supposed to affect only the person whom the hoodoo doctor intends to curse–but if you see something like this scrawled on the ground, it wouldn’t hurt to walk around it.
In the Vodou religion, spirit-ancestor-gods called loa (or lwa) are believed to hang out in the center of a crossroads, because to be able to stand upon a crossroads means one has mastered both life and death. It means one can cross between the spirit world and the world of the living. As Michael Ventura explained in his famous essay on Voodoo and rock ‘n’ roll “Hear that Long Snake Moan”:
For the African, the human world and the spirit world intersect. Their sign for this is the cross, but it has nothing to do with the Christianist cross, which impales a man in helpless agony upon the intersection….[In Africa] the earthly and the spirit worlds meet at right angles, and everything that is most important happens at the spot where they meet, which is neither solely of one world nor the other.
The metaphysical goal of the blues musician, as expressed in the crossroads legend of Robert Johnson, is to experience this meeting of both worlds at the crossroads, touch the divine and bring it back as music.
“Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues”- unknown, recorded by Ma Rainey
“New Someday Blues”- “Sleepy” John Estes (John Adam Estes)
Ma Rainey – “Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues”