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)
The word goofer comes from the Bantu kufua and the Ki-Kongo kufa. Both mean “to die.” Goofer dust (also known as “goober dust”) is powder made from a mix of graveyard dirt and other ingredients, such as salt and powdered snakeskin. It’s used as a curse to kill or harm someone. A goofer bag is a bag of charms that protects the wearer from such deadly spells.
Goofer dust can be administered by placing it in the path of the intended victim. It can also be sprinkled on the victim’s pillow, around the home, or in his or her clothes. Romeo Nelson sang about how to use goofer dust in “Getting’ Dirty Just Shakin’ that Thing”:
Spread the goofer dust around your bed In the morning, find your own self dead
Excerpts from folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt’s seminal study, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, suggest that although some goofer dust was just ground-up bones and dirt, some was indeed made from poisonous substances. An interview subject from Fayetteville, North Carolina, told Hyatt, “Goofer dust is snake haid, scorpion haid, lizard haid- listen, snake haid dust, scorpion dust, and lizard dust. Dat’s whut yo’ call goofer dust. Yo’ git them things an’ yo’ kill em an’ yo’ cut de haids off an’ yo’ dry that. After yo’ dry that, yo’ powder that up. That’s whut dey call goofer dust.”
Another interviewee, from Waycross, Georgia told Hyatt, “Jest a- yo’ see yo’ git a snake- yo’ can take a rattlesnake an’ dry his haid up, pound it up, an’ den yo’ kin go to work an’ use dat as goofer dust. Kill anybody.”
According to hoodoo expert Catherine Yronwode, goofer dust almost always includes graveyard dirt, powdered sulphur, and salt. Other ingredients may include powdered black cat bones, powdered snakeheads or snakeskin, powdered lizard or scorpion, cayenne or black pepper, powdered insects or snails, and dried powdered herbs.
The Ma Rainey tune “Black Dust Blues” hints at another ingredient- the fine, oily black dust around a blacksmith’s anvil. This song is a classic tale of goofering. In it, Ma Rainey sang that after having quarreled with a woman who accused Rainey of stealing her man, she went out one morning and found black dust all around her door. Rainey began to lose weight and “had trouble with my feet.” By the end she couldn’t even walk:
Black dust in my window, black dust on my porch mat Black dust’s got me walking on all fours like a cat
The first sign of goofering is a sharp pain in the feet or legs, followed by severe swelling of the feet and legs and inability to walk. These symptoms, Yronwode has noted, are “identical with those of diabetic edema and diabetic neuropathy.” If the person has truly been goofered, though, a medical doctor won’t be able to help. Unless a root doctor intervenes, the person will wind up crawling on all fours howling in pain and death will soon follow.
“Black Dust Blues” – Selma Davis (music), Ma Rainey (lyrics)
“Getting’ Dirty Just Shakin’ that Thing” – Romeo Nelson
“I Don’t Know” – “Cripple” Clarence Lofton
Ma Rainey – “Black Dust Blues”