Sounds of Sunday: Mississippi Hoo Doo Man

I wound up looking up what exactly Hoo Doo is. That turned out to be a huge question answered very effectively by catherine yronwode and her piece entitled HOODOO, CONJURE, and ROOTWORK: AFRICAN AMERICAN FOLK MAGIC. She hits all the bases of history, influence, methods of practice, and it makes for a very long but fascinating read. Go read the thing when you have time. Until you have time, read my blog entry.

Hoodoo is how it’s written there, so I’ll stick with that, same as I’m not capitalizing her name. (For all I know she prefers not to, like e.e. cummings or k.d. lang.) She packed this thing with more than a hundred years of history and detail so I can’t really do it proper justice in a sum up.

Hoodoo is a real mix of African folklore and beliefs and borrowing whatever it can use from American Indian herbalism to European folkloric traditions. Both whites and blacks in America practice this, though she doesn’t offer up stats in terms of actual numbers of practitioners. It goes by a lot of names by those who practice it, though, usually terms that describe what part of the hoodoo method they’re using.

Other regionally popular names for hoodoo in the black community include “conjuration,” “conjure,” “witchcraft,” “rootwork,” and “tricking.” The first three are simply English words; the fourth is a recognition of the pre-eminence that dried roots play in the making of charms and the casting of spells, and the fifth is a special meaning for a common English word.

Later on in the piece she goes into detail about all of those, and more. She describes all the methods and tools of the trade, history of the practice and where it all originated.

Theories differ on the origin of the word. One theory posited offers a Spanish/Jewish angle but another more popular theory gives it to Irish sailors and their wacky Gaelic. A lot of sailors in the 1800s were African American and were mingling with the Irish all the time. Added for interest: Ghost ships were called “hoodoo ships”. (It’s also been a term applied to any ship with horrible luck like the Charles Haskell from 1866 and the HMAS Melbourne in the 1960s.)

She makes a point of mentioning that hoodoo should not be considered a different pronunciation of Voodoo. The terms are not interchangeable. They are separate branches of the same folk magic tree but have been confused by many who don’t practice it, are White, or just don’t care about getting their facts straight when they talk or write about it. It gets confused with a lot folk traditions from around the world and she explains the differences for every instance of confusion. After all that she reports on the “European, Spiritist, and Kabbalist Influences” on hoodoo over the years.

I like the bit about the marketing campaigns in the 1940s. Quack artists Advertising geniuses tried to capitalize on the popularity of these folk remedies, get-rich-quick schemes and the cosmetic magic of looking beautiful without having to be born beautiful.

A typical Chicago Defender display ad from 1945 shows a happy man gathering in a pile of bills, coins, and money bags. The copy reads in part: “Can you use money? Let me show you how easy it is to get quick money! Happy days ahead if you act quick! …Men and Women wanted everywhere to be AGENTS for Sweet Georgia Brown Hair Dressing Pomade, Hair Helper, Skin Brightener, Bleach Cream, Face Powder, Perfumes, Incense, Curios, etc.” (This was a Valmor ad, so the cosmetics came first. If it had been a King ad, the curios, incense, and powders would have come first, followed by the cosmetics.)

Sellers of the product would then do home treatments for the buyers, offering psychic readings and utilizing whatever roots and curios were in their catalog.

However, i shall not belabour the point, because i think the case is proved: Hoodoo is not strictly an “African survival” phenomenon. It is also not a religion per se. It consists of a strong core of African folk magic admixed with American Indian herb lore, European folk magic (much of which pre-dates Christianity), and Jewish Kabbalistic magic. It is, in short, as African — and as American — as the blues and jazz.

I add the link as was given in the article, a comprehensive run down of blues music and their hoodoo references for your reading and listening pleasure.

Less pleasurable, a news article from 2011 where a Florida hoodoo man’s rituals at a grave site shocked and horrified the mother of the man buried there. Dr. Cristos Kioni chose Jonathan Bernard Davis’ grave because Davis had been a valued member of the community of Cocoa, Florida and Kioni wanted to use his spirit power to help one of his customers get over an illness caused by some curse or spell put upon her by somebody else.

Kioni had been in a Pentacostal seminary prior to getting involved with the hoodoo witchcraft and ultimately left the church behind to practice.

“A lot of my clients tell me they’re tired of the same dried-up sermons every Sunday. They see the pastors profiting, but they’re not profiting. They’re struggling and doing everything the church tells them to do, but organized religion is just not giving them the answers,” he said.

The atheist and skeptic in me thinks science and the study of brain power and the placebo effect would give them some answers, but I suppose there’s something more satisfying about letting bird blood do the “talking” rather than a smartypants…

Each to their own, sadly.

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