Robert Odell, Jr., is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.
What Is Hoodoo?
Hoodoo is a form of folk magic that is rooted in the spiritual traditions of West Africa. Africans, brought to America as slaves, adopted the herbalism practices of Native Americans and mingled them with their own customs. The added influence of Christianity, Judaism, and European folklore produced what became known as Hoodoo.
A Beale Street, Hoodoo practitioner, would often make use of roots, animal body parts, or a person's private property to work a mojo (cast a spell). The use of rootstocks in Hoodoo is what generated terms such as, "She put roots on me."
In the 1985 blockbuster movie, The Color Purple, the character Celie demonstrates the fear that a Hoodoo curse can bring. She boldly puts a Hoodoo type curse on "Mister," her estranged husband. "Mister," who is threatening to hit Celie, hesitates in a frightful stupor as she mystically points her fingers at him and utters a sober warning.
Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, the First Ma Rainey
Born in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886, Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, was one of the pioneering blues singers to perform the blues on stage and to record the genre. Consequently, she became known as "The Mother of the Blues." After marrying fellow Vaudeville singer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904, Gertrude became known as, "Ma" Rainey. She had a significant influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith.
Hoodoo was a part of the history of Beale Street, and Ma Rainey was one of the most popular (hoodoo ladies). You had to be careful of Ma Rainey; because she could work a 'mojo' on you!
— Yancy-Gunn, Take Me Back To Beale Book I (Before The Red Ball)
From the early 1900s onward, Hoodoo was a part of the history of Beale Street. The street was one of the many stomping grounds of Ma Rainey, who was said to have been a practitioner of Hoodoo magic.
In her song "Louisiana Hoodoo Blues," recorded in May 1925, Rainey refers to the use of Hoodoo. The song lyrics talk about using a black cat bone to secure the affections of a lover.
Roots of Blues -- Ma Rainey "Louisiana Hoodoo Blues" 1925
Going to the Louisiana bottom to get me a hoodoo hand
Going to the Louisiana bottom to get me a hoodoo hand
Gotta stop these women from taking my man.
Down in Algiers where the hoodoos live in their den
Down in Algiers where the hoodoos live in their den
Their chief occupation is separating women from men.
The hoodoo told me to get me a black cat bone
The hoodoo told me to get me a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they'll leave your man alone.
— Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
A Fighter and Feared Hoodoo Lady
Ma Rainey was well known for her musical performances. She was also well known for her fighting. As a pioneering, black, female, entertainer, Rainey had to fight against sexism and racism. She could also physically give a man "a run for his money" in a showdown, brawl. More than a few men who tangled with Rainey not only received a humiliating thrashing but also had to deal with the fear of a Hoodoo lady's "mojo" being worked on them. A "mojo" refers to a magic spell, charm, talisman, or magical charm bag that is associated with the use of Hoodoo.
On the one hand, Ma Rainey helped to make the blues that she sang on Beale Street, achieve worldwide recognition. On the other hand, Rainey was a loud woman known for beating up men and possibly casting a few Hoodoo spells.
Hoodoo Lady or Not
Hoodoo lady or not, Ma Rainey was one of the most influential figures in the development of the genre of music known as the blues. "The Mother of the Blues" was among the first to perform blues music on stage. She was also one of the first artists to produce recordings of the blues.
In 1935, Ma Rainey opened and ran three theaters in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia; the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre.
All in all, Ma Rainey's most significant legacy is that of a stellar musical career that will continue to serve as a foundation for many famous artists to come. Rainey passed away in Rome, Georgia on December 22, 1939, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 53.
Lillie Mae Glover, the Second Ma Rainey
At the tender age of 13, Lillie Mae Glover decided that she was ready to make her own life choices. Lillie had a passion for singing the blues. To pursue her love of blues music, her young mind produced the notion that the only option was to leave home. Lillie Mae's father was a preacher. A blues singing daughter would only disgrace the family. Glover ran away from home in 1920, joining the Tom Simpson Traveling Medicine Show. Making Memphis, Tennessee, her home, Lillie Mae arrived there in the late 1920s. She loved performing on the city's celebrated Beale Street. Glover loved Memphis, and the town returned the love by crowning her "The Mother of Beale Street."
With several working aliases, Lillie Mae Glover was also called Mae Glover and Big Memphis Ma Rainey. In 1953, when she recorded for Memphis based Sun Records, she used the name Big Memphis Ma Rainey. Glover was referred to as Ma Rainey II after the passing of her predecessor Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett).
Highly-Skilled, Beale Street, Hoodooist
Glover became famous not only for her music but also for being a highly-skilled, Beale Street, Hoodooist. Other performers would often seek Glover's help when they needed good luck work, or mojo hands (charm bags). She seemed to be uniquely gifted at making mojo hands for any musician or customer that knew how to find her. Lillie used inexpensive ingredients such as flour, sugar, or lumps of coal to configure her sought-after hands. She died in 1985 at Tishomingo County Hospital in Iuka, Mississippi, at the age of 77.
Hoodoo Lady Elizabeth “Kid” Douglas (Memphis Minnie)
Born on June 3, 1897, Elizabeth "Kid" Douglas, aka Memphis Minnie, was considered by some to be a practicing, Beale Street, Hoodoo lady. She gives vivid descriptions of Hoodoo practices in her songs that came out in the 1930s. According to an article that was written by Del Rey; "Guitar queen, Hoodoo lady, (and) master, finger-style guitar player, Elizabeth "Kid" Douglas, known as Memphis Minnie, was an intricate guitarist, an astute songwriter, and a stylistic innovator." On August 6, 1973, her waning health ended in a fatal stroke.
Hoodoo Man Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller)
At the turn of the twentieth century practicing Hoodoo was illegal in Memphis. Therefore, Hoodoo workers did very little advertising. Beale Street patrons, however, had no problem finding a Hoodoo lady or a Hoodoo man when they felt like they needed one. Blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex Miller) was purported to be a Hoodoo man. To avoid confusing him with a famous Chicago singer and harmonica player with the same title, Miller became Sonny Boy Williamson II. In 1965, Williamson resumed the King Biscuit broadcast on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Before he was to do the show, on May 25 of that year, he was found in bed in a rooming house. He had passed away of an apparent heart attack. He was between 53 to 68 years of age.
Prophesying the Future
Many Beale Streeters believed that Hoodoo could cure an illness, get rid of a bad husband, or perform miracles. On some occasions, hoodoo workers would propose to prophesy the future for their customers.
The video, "Hoodoo on Beale Street," is a reenactment of the events that possibly occurred when a Hoodoo lady on Beale Street would propose to predict the future for her patrons.
Hoodoo Is Not Voodoo
Ma Rainey may have practiced Hoodoo, but Hoodoo is not Voodoo. Hoodoo contains many Voodoo practices, but Hoodoo and Voodoo are not precisely the same. Hoodoo ascribes magical properties to herbs, roots, minerals, animal parts, and personal possessions. Voodoo (Vodou) is a religion with roots from various African tribal religious practices.
Hoodoo workers (Hoodooist) are also called rootworkers or conjurers. The Hoodooist uses magical charms called mojo bags or jack balls. To cast a spell, which is also called working a mojo, the hoodooist may also use magical powders, herbal cleansing baths, candles, or lamps. Many Hoodooist pray to Jesus and God the Father and read from The Holy Bible.
Voodoo (Vodou) has its roots in Haitian religion. The principal god of the Voodoo religion is "Bondye," an omnipotent and distant god who does not directly intercede in the lives of humans. Voodoo worshippers can only get to "Bondye" by worshiping the spirits that assist him. The primary language of Voodoo (Vodou) is Creole, which is the local dialect of French Haitians.
Working a MoJo
Ma Rainey and other blues artists would sometimes sing or talk about working a "mojo." Mojo is a term that comes from African-American Culture. It refers to a magical charm bag used in Hoodoo. To create a "mojo," the Hoodooist would use the magic of snakeroot, devil's shoe, or seed of earth wrapped and sown in red flannel. Charm bags often consisted of flour, sugar, cologne, and lumps of coal wrapped in a simple, red rag.
To work a 'mojo,' the Hoodooist would use the magic of snakeroot, devil's shoe, or seed of earth wrapped and sown in red flannel. Some used flour, sugar, cologne, and lumps of coal wrapped in a simple red rag.
— Yancy-Gunn, Take Me Back To Beale Book II (During The Red Ball)
Blues artists such as Ma Rainey, Ma Glover, Memphis Minnie, or any laymen serious about getting their mojo to work correctly, would use some or all of the items mentioned here.
- Is an erect, branched herb
- Is 3 feet tall but varying from 1 to 5 feet
- Has slender, round stems and branches bearing pointed, oval, oppositely placed leaves
- Has leaves 3 to 5 inches long and petioled and sharply toothed on the margins. (Each blade has three central veins on the underside.)
- The roots are fibrous, coarse, and shallow.
Devil's Shoe String
- Grows in North America
- Is in the honeysuckle family
- Is used medically as antispasmodics, (especially to ease menstrual cramps)
- Have whole long roots used in hoodoo
Seed of Earth
The seed of the earth:
- Is a quest item
- Is needed for a quest
- Is an herb seed used in hoodoo folk-magic, spell-craft, and occultism
- Is also called Esfand, or Harmal
- Is burned on charcoal to bring blessings (and to rid children of "the evil eye")
- Is utilized by modern Muslims
- Is the traditional fabric for hoodoo and voodoo gris-gris bags
- Was used to make small bags for safekeeping small items
- Was used to make little bags for filling with spell ingredients
A gris-gris appears in hoodoo and voodoo. A gris-gris:
- Is also spelled grigri, (sometimes also spelled 'gregory' or 'gerregery')
- Is a voodoo amulet originating in Africa
- Is believed to protect the wearer from evil (evil djinn) or brings luck
- In some West African countries is used as a method of birth control Gris-gris (talisman) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Originated in Dagombha, Ghana
- Originally was adorned with Islamic scripture
- Was frequently worn by non-believers and believers alike
- Was also found attached to buildings
A Hoodoo Mojo on Beale Street
Those who dare, can venture inside of the A. Schwab store on Beale Street in Memphis, TN and find many of the things necessary to get a Hoodoo, mojo to work. A. Schwab is a fascinating, nostalgic, and historical venue where customers can relish in the "country store" atmosphere.
Established in 1876 by Jewish immigrant Abraham Schwab, the A. Schwab store is the only original business remaining on Beale Street.
From the late 1800s to the end of the1960s, Beale Street was an area were mostly black people; of various socioeconomic statuses, lived, worked and played. Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey II, and Memphis Minnie could have obtained their Hoodoo, mojo paraphernalia from the beloved Memphis institution of A. Schwab.
A. Schwab on Beale Street Has a Mojo
Their Music Lives On
The Music of Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett (Ma Rainey), Lillie Mae Glover (Big Mama Ma Rainey/Ma Rainey II), Elizabeth "Kid" Douglas (Memphis Minnie), and Alex Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) continues to live on through recordings, new renditions, and reenactments. For those who dare to venture and find it, the Hoodoo that these artists may have practiced also continues to live on Beale Street.
What Do You Think?
Take Me Back To Beale, Book I (Before The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives
Take Me Back To Beale, Book II (During The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives
The Color Purple. Dir. Steven Spielbergg. Perf. Danny Glover, Desreta Jackson, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, and Whoopi Goldberg. Amblin, Guber-Peters, WB, 1985. Film.
Roots of Blues. (1925). Louisiana Hoodoo Blues. Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey aka Ma Rainey
Rey, D. (n.d.). Memphis Minnie Guitar Queen, Hoodoo Lady and Songster. Retrieved, from http://memphisminnie.com/
Products, D. E. (n.d.). Welcome to Dr. E. Products and Hoodoo/Rootwork Services. Retrieved, from http://conjuredoctor.com/
Yronwode, C. (n.d.). HOODOO, CONJURE, and ROOTWORK. Retrieved from https://www.luckymojo.com/hoodoohistory.html#hoodoois.
Kail, T. (2016, November 2). Roots under Beale: The Significance of Beale Street to Memphis Hoodoo History. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@tonykail/roots-under-beale-the-significance-of-beale-street-to-memphis-hoodoo-history-56cdb714be18.
Oliver, P. (2001). Williamson ‘II’, Sonny Boy. Oxford Music Online. doi: 10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.41397
© 2015 Robert Odell Jr
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on January 08, 2018:
Yep I play one of Piano Red's pieces:
"Atlanta Bounce" which I splice into a boogie arrangement of "It's a long way to the top" by ACDC and then return back into Red's Atlanta Bounce. It goes for ten minutes+ with ad libs.
It works well and also educates people about where ALL rock n roll came from.
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on January 05, 2018:
Teaching yourself boogie woogie and barrel house piano to a professional level is quite an accomplishment.
Speaking of barrel house, you may want to read about and listen to the music of John "Piano Red" Williams, an African American albino who played "piano blues" on Beale Street in Memphis, TN between 1930-1980.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on December 28, 2017:
When I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties there was a lot of old movies on t.v. and every time I saw black actors and musicians I was transfixed. At age 24 I heard my first authentic blues album crossroads and almost went into a trance.
Since that time I taught myself boogie woogie and barrel house piano to a professional level.
The early black musicians are a pantheon of music gods to me.
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on December 27, 2017:
Thank you Oztinato. As you can see, Beale Street has a very colorful history.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on December 27, 2017:
How do you do that voodoo that you do so well?