The Language of the Blues: GRAVEYARD DIRT

See how grave dirt came to be used as a curse, and how the bleus tied it into our modern vocabulary!

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. 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 “One of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.” (Reuters)

DiggingDirtAmong the Bakongo people of Central Africa, earth from a grave was believed to contain the spirit of the person buried in it. It is a powerful ingredient in magic, therefore, if one knows how to activate the spirit’s energy and harness it. The Bakongo brought this belief to the American colonies when they arrived as slaves, starting in the 1730s, and it survived to become part of hoodoo lore.

By 1730, the Atlantic slave trade was reaching beyond the Senegambia region into Central. Large numbers of people from the Kongo Empire of southwest Africa were sold into slavery and shipped to South Carolina in the mid-to-late 1700s. These people belonged to the large Bantu civilization.

These people, known as Bakongo (for Bantu-Kongo) or Kongo, were mostly used as field hands. Scholars have documented many survivals of Bantu speech, cooking, music, dance, art, and religion in African American culture. Although enslaved Africans were forbidden from practicing their religions or ritual magic, some of their beliefs survived as “folklore” or “superstition.” The use of graveyard dirt to curse someone is one example.

If you want to curse someone with graveyard dirt, you have to “buy” the dirt. This entails getting in touch with the spirit of the person in the grave, respectfully asking to use the dirt, and leaving some form of payment that will please the spirit. This might be money or booze, depending on the person’s desires in life. Since the 19th century, the traditional payment left by hoodoo practitioners has been a silver dime.

Different spirits have different energies, so choose the grave wisely. The choice depends on what kind of spell you want to cast. For a spell to bring something positive into your life, such as a job or love, dirt from a baby’s grave is recommended. If you are casting a spell to make someone fall in love with you or return to you, get dirt from the grave of someone who loved you very much. He or she will help you obtain the love you desire. Dirt from over the heart will be most effective.

If you want to curse someone with an illness, misfortune, or worse, find the grave of a murderer–just be sure you can handle a spell that evil! If you want members of a family to fight and get vicious with each other, obtain some dirt from the grave of a con artist, a rounder, or similar troublemaker. The general principle is that the worse a person acted during the life, the worse his or her spirit can cause someone to behave.

Pick up a copy of  Language of the Blues

“Conjured”- Esmond Edwards, recorded by Wynonie Harris

Wynonie Harris – “Conjured”


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