This is 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. 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. Also available on Amazon Kindle. “One of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.” (Reuters)
Robert Johnson sang about a hellhound on his trail. A hellhound is the devil’s bloodhound — a supernatural dog that guards the gates of hell. Robert Farris Thompson traced the hellhound legend back to the Bakongo people, also known as the Congolese. He reported in Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy that in Bakongo culture “between the village of the living and the village of the dead there is a village of dogs.” These dogs are believed to be able to find any person who has run to escape punishment for a crime. They are also seers who can see into the future.
The hellhound is as big as a calf and shaggy, with eyes that glow like burning coals. In Greek mythology, he was Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades.
Afro-Cuban charms called minkisi, involve combining many ingredients in a large three-legged iron pot. Some such charms include the body of a black male dog, in order to grant the user of the charm a dog’s acute sense of smell and tracking ability.
The hellhound differs from the supernatural black dog also referred to in blues songs. Black dogs, or “shucks,” protect travelers, although they also sometimes forecast their doom.
A hellhound, on the other hand, is hunting you down. Robert Johnson expressed the terror of being chased by the devil’s bloodhound in “Hellhound on My Trail.” He described being pelted by blues falling down like hail as he ran, knowing the beast was closing in.
I got to keep moving
I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail
blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on worrying me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
“Hell Hound on My Trail”- Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson – “Hell Hound on My Trail”