Voodoo Symbols and the Blues

References to black cat bones, High St John the Conqueror Root (or 'little John the Conqueroo' as Muddy Waters famously sings in his classic track Mannish Boy), mojo hands and more generally 'hoodoo men' and 'hoodoo women' abound in the blues. While many today have become trusty emblems guaranteed to conjure the sort of shadowy mystique that pervades the blues, both as music and as lore, it is important to remember that these references recall objects and practices central to beliefs and superstitions that pervaded everyday life in the south, predominantly for the post-slavery African American populace.

Paul Oliver's The Meaning of the Blues (originally published as Blues Fell This Morning) is a fabulous resource in its own right, and the fifth chapter, The Jinx is On Me, is especially enlightening when it comes to understanding the beliefs and superstitions that underpin voodoo imagery in blues lyrics. Below, I list some of the most interesting examples.

It is of course important to remember that the line between "voodoo proper" and "superstition" is an indelibly blurred one. Voodoo, after being brought by slaves to Louisiana, readily absorbed influences from Catholicism and undoubtedly other Western beliefs and practices - indeed, an interesting subject related to the present one is the similarity and striking alliance that voodoo was able to make with the Catholicism of the slave masters. Voodoo, then - at least in its Louisiana incarnation relevant to the blues - is in its very essence a mixed bag of Christian saints, African Gods, celebratory stories of mythological heroes, and practices and beliefs that govern as well as purportedly manipulate everyday life and behaviours. Therefore, while the present subject of interest is voodoo symbolism in the blues, it must be considered that some of the examples listed may well be contested as belonging to "voodoo proper." The purpose here is simply to present for recreation and study some of the more interesting beliefs and practices that Paul Oliver identified as underpinning the voodoo symbolism omnipresent in the blues. 

1. Dream of muddy or back water: trouble or evil is imminent for the dreamer. If the water is flowing, then the trouble or evil will pass. This dream symbol certainly lends credence to the braggadocious swagger of Muddy Waters' own name, and evidenced in songs such as Hoochie Coochie Man
2. Hearing a hoot owl, the lowing of cattle in the early dark, or a midnight call of a whip-poor-will: someone will die/is dying. The death can be prevented by turning a pocket inside out or by putting a shovel in the fire
3. A rabbit crossing one's path: bad luck
4. A spider on one's shoulder, or a rat running towards you: good luck
5. Being touched by a broom, or one brother putting his bare feet in another brother's shoes are both bad omens
6. Black cat bone: one of the most famous voodoo symbols in the blues, its significance in voodoo is as a charm to bring back a wayward lover. Oliver notes that a black cat bone is a rare and costly charm to obtain. He references Zora Neale Hurston's witnessing of a ceremony to obtain a black cat bone:

Zora Neale Huston attended such a ceremony, having first starved for twenty-four hours, subsisting only on one glass of wine at four-hour intervals. A black cat was captured in the dark after a heavy fall of rain - not an easy task in itself - and hastily taken deep into the woods where in a ring protected by nine horse-shoes a new vessel on which the sun had not been permitted to shine was filled with water and brought to the boil. Into the water was thrown the cat, three times cursed as it screamed in agony. At midnight the remains of the cat were drawn from the boiling water and its bones passed through the mouth until one was found which tasted bitter - the Black Cat's Bone.

7. High St John the Conqueror Root: supposed to bring good fortune in gambling and guarantee sexual prowess. The root itself is from a plant related to the sweet potato, and should be harvested before the 21st September. Named after a legendary African American figure who was allegedly an African prince that rode on a giant crow called 'Old Familiar' before he was captured, sold as a slave, and brought to the Americas. His spirit unbroken, he took on the role of a trickster figure. In at least one version of the tale, St John the Conqueror marries the Devil's daughter, and as such became the prototype figure for the "Devil's son in law" moniker adopted famously by Peetie Wheatstraw 

1. Pin a hair grip to a tree, and a letter will arrive for you the following day
2. Wearing a hat backward counteracts evil
3. If a hair falls from one's head, and a bird uses this hair in the construction of a nest, then insanity will result for the person the hair fell from
4. When there has been a death in the family or household, all the pictures on the walls must be turned so as to face away
5. Sassafras wood must be burned exclusively outside the house
6. A coffin will turn when peanuts are brought into the house
7. If dogs howl or a lamp dims, someone must leave the house
8. Good Luck Dust should be sprinkled on the doorsteps of brothels
9. Goofer Dust: earth that has been gathered from a grave (particularly that of a child). When sprinkled on a pillow, death will be visited upon the victim


Paul Oliver, The Meaning of the Blues, Collier Books: Toronto, 1969