Here’s the latest installment of our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author/rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues.
To learn lots more about what your favorite blues songs really mean, grab a signed copy of Devi’s award-winning book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Bluescentric.com. “One of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.” (Reuters)
Foot track magic is a hoodoo practice. It involves cursing someone by a wide variety of methods, such as placing stones in a certain configuration in the person’s path, sprinkling goofer dust or graveyard dirt in his shoes, or placing dirt from his footprint into a bottle. The curse can range from giving the hoodoo’d person bad luck or memory loss to causing incurable disease and death.
In her wonderfully comprehensive online book, Hoodoo in Theory and Practice: An Introduction to African American Rootwork, Catherine Yronwode described foot track magic as “a form of evil work in which a magical poison enters the victim through his or her feet, causing an unnatural illness.”
These practices were common enough in Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s that Delta blues artists made reference to them in their songs, as Robert Johnson did in “Stones in My Passway”:
Now you tryin’ to take my life, and all my lovin’ too
You laid a passway for me, now what are you tryin’ to do?
Interestingly, the most common symptom reported by people who believed themselves victims of foot track magic is painfully swollen legs and feet, a symptom of diabetes.
Yronwode divided foot track magic into two categories:
1) Curses that involve putting goofer dust or something similarly noxious in the person’s path so they cross it or get it on their feet or shoes
2) Curses that involve taking dirt from the person’s footprint or his or her socks, shoes, toenail clippings, or skin from the foot and doctoring them with magic powders or oils.
“One old-style way to cross someone,” Yronwode notes, “is to mix gum arabic, unraveled bits of hemp rope, and sulphur powder or goofer dust, and strew it in their path. This mess will stick to their shoes and work on them for a long time. A shed snake skin placed in an enemy’s path, especially if filled with a ‘killing powder’ like graveyard dirt, is also said to intend sure death to the one who steps on it.”
Robert Johnson – “Stones In My Passway”