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Hoodoo on Beale Street

Updated on April 9, 2018
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Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor of the film, Take Me Back to Beale, a chronicle of 100 years of Beale Street history.

Music, Brawling, and Hoodoo

Often performing on Beale Street,"The Home of the Blues," in Memphis, Tennessee; Ma Rainey was known for her music and for brawling.  She was also said to be a practitioner of hoodoo magic.
Often performing on Beale Street,"The Home of the Blues," in Memphis, Tennessee; Ma Rainey was known for her music and for brawling. She was also said to be a practitioner of hoodoo magic. | Source
This actress is portraying a wily Ma Rainey after she has just thrashed a man on Beale Street with a garbage can top.  Known for her music and for brawling, Rainey was also said to be a practitioner of hoodoo magic.
This actress is portraying a wily Ma Rainey after she has just thrashed a man on Beale Street with a garbage can top. Known for her music and for brawling, Rainey was also said to be a practitioner of hoodoo magic. | Source

What Is Hoodoo?

Hoodoo is a form of folk magic that is rooted in the spiritual traditions of West Africa. A Beale Street, hoodoo practitioner would often make use of roots, animal body parts, or a person's private property in order to work a mojo (cast a spell). The use of roots in hoodoo is what generated terms such as, "She put roots on me."

The graveness and fear that a hoodoo curse can bring are graphically illustrated when the character Celie puts a curse on "Mister," her estranged husband in the movie, The Color Purple. "Mister," who is threatening to hit Celie, hesitates in a frightful stupor as Celie mystically points her fingers at him and utters a sober warning.

The graveness and fear that a hoodoo curse can bring are graphically illustrated when the character Celie puts a curse on "Mister," her estranged husband in the movie, The Color Purple.
The graveness and fear that a hoodoo curse can bring are graphically illustrated when the character Celie puts a curse on "Mister," her estranged husband in the movie, The Color Purple. | Source
The fear of a hoodoo spell can be observed when Celie puts a curse on "Mister," who hesitates in a frightful stupor as she mystically points her fingers at him and utters a sober warning.
The fear of a hoodoo spell can be observed when Celie puts a curse on "Mister," who hesitates in a frightful stupor as she mystically points her fingers at him and utters a sober warning. | Source

From the early 1900s onward, hoodoo was a part of the history of Beale Street, "The Home of the Blues," and Ma Rainey was said to be one of the most popular hoodoo ladies on Beale.

In her song "Louisiana Hoodoo Blues," recorded in May 1925, Rainey makes reference to the use of hoodoo. The lyrics allude to the use of hoodoo magic, including the use of a black cat bone, in order 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

Hoodoo Lady Elizabeth “Kid” Douglas (Memphis Minnie)

Source

Elizabeth “Kid” Douglas, aka Memphis Minnie, was considered by some to be a practicing, Beale Street, hoodoo lady. According to an article 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."

Sometimes a Hoodooist Would Propose to Prophesy the Future

Although they operated mostly in secret and did very little advertising, Beale Street patrons had no problem finding a hoodoo lady or a hoodoo man when they felt like they needed one. Many Beale Streeters actually believed that hoodoo could cure an illness, get rid of a bad husband, or perform miracles. On some occasions a hoodoo worker would propose to prophesy the future.

The video, "Hoodoo on Beale Street," is a re-enactment of the events that occurred when a hoodoo lady on Beale Street would propose to predict the future for her patrons.

Some Beale Street hoodoo ladies would propose to predict the future for their patrons.
Some Beale Street hoodoo ladies would propose to predict the future for their patrons. | Source

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.

This reenactment portrays Ma Rainey arguing with and giving a humiliating thrashing, with a garbage can top, to a man who allegedly cheated her in a dice game.  A "flower lady" and other Beale Streeters look on in amazement.
This reenactment portrays Ma Rainey arguing with and giving a humiliating thrashing, with a garbage can top, to a man who allegedly cheated her in a dice game. A "flower lady" and other Beale Streeters look on in amazement. | Source

A "mojo" refers to a magic charm, talisman, spell, or magical charm bag that is associated with the use of hoodoo.

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)

Mother of the Blues and Possible Beale Street Hoodooist

Born in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886, Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, 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 great influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith.

This re-enactment portrays a rambunctious Ma Rainey (right) and Bessie Smith (left) causing a ruckus on Beale Street.
This re-enactment portrays a rambunctious Ma Rainey (right) and Bessie Smith (left) causing a ruckus on Beale Street. | Source
Ma Rainey (left) befriended Bessie Smith (right) and showed her the ways of the music, entertainment industry.
Ma Rainey (left) befriended Bessie Smith (right) and showed her the ways of the music, entertainment industry. | Source

On 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 rambunctious woman known for beating up men and possibly casting a hoodoo spell or two.

Ma Rainey was a rambunctious woman known for beating up men and thought to be a user of hoodoo magic.
Ma Rainey was a rambunctious woman known for beating up men and thought to be a user of hoodoo magic. | Source

Hoodoo Is Not Voodoo

Ma Rainey may have practiced hoodoo, but hoodoo is not voodoo. Although many hoodoo practices are used in voodoo, hoodoo and voodoo are not exactly 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 root workers or conjurers. The hoodooist uses magical charms called mojo bags, or jack balls. To cast a spell (work a mojo); the hoodooist may also use magical powders, herbal cleansing baths, candles, or lamps. Hoodooist often pray to Jesus and God the Father and read from The Holy Bible.

Voodoo (Vodou) has its roots in Haitian religion. The principle 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 venerating the spirits that assist him. The main 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." A mojo is a term that comes from African-American Culture. It refers to a magical charm bag that is used in hoodoo. "To work a 'mojo', the hoodooist would use the magic of snake root, devil's shoe, or seed of earth wrapped and sown in red flannel. Some used flower, sugar, cologne, and lumps of coal wrapped in simply a red rag" [Yancy-Gunn, Take Me Back To Beale, Book II (During The Red Ball)].

To work a 'mojo', the hoodooist would use the magic of snake root, devil's shoe, or seed of earth wrapped and sown in red flannel. Some used flower, sugar, cologne, and lumps of coal wrapped in simply a red rag.

— Yancy-Gunn, Take Me Back To Beale Book II (During The Red Ball)

Blues artists, such as Ma Rainey or any laymen, who were serious about getting their mojo to work properly, would more than likely incorporate some or all of the items mentioned here.

Snakeroot

Source

White snakeroot:

  • 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 leaf has 3 main veins that can be seen on the underside.)
  • The roots are fibrous, coarse, and shallow.

Devil's Shoe String

Source

Devil's Shoestring:

  • Grows in North America.
  • Is in the honeysuckle family
  • Is used medically as anti-spasmodics, (especially to ease menstrual cramps)
  • Has whole long roots that are used in hoodoo

Seed of Earth

Source

Seed of the Earth:

  • Is a quest item
  • Is needed for a quest

Aspand Seed

Source

Aspand Seed:

  • 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

Red Flannel

Source

Red Flannel:

  • 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 small bags for filling with spell ingredients


Gris-gris

Source

A gris-gris is used in hoodoo and voodoo. According to Wikipedia 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 endyclopedia

The gris-gris:

  • 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

Although they both make use of the mojo; hoodoo and voodoo are not the same.

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 in order to get a hoodoo, mojo to work. A. Schwab is an interesting, 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 through the 1960s, Beale Street was an area were mostly black people, of various socioeconomic status, lived, worked and played. Ma Rainey, as well as Memphis Minnie, could have easily and inconspicuously obtained their hoodoo, mojo paraphernalia from the beloved Memphis institution of A. Schwab.

Those who dare, can venture inside of the A. Schwab store on Beale Street in Memphis, TN and find many of the things necessary in order to get a hoodoo, mojo to work.
Those who dare, can venture inside of the A. Schwab store on Beale Street in Memphis, TN and find many of the things necessary in order to get a hoodoo, mojo to work. | Source

A. Schwab on Beale Street Has a Mojo

A
163 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103:
163 Beale St, Memphis, TN 38103, USA

get directions

Hoodoo Lady or Not

Hoodoo lady or not, Ma Rainey was one of the most important figures in the development of the genre of music known as the blues. "The Mother of the Blues" was among the first to perform the blues on stage and to produce recordings of the blues.


Hoodooist or not, Ma Rainey's greatest legacy is that of a stellar musical career that will continue to serve as a foundation for many popular artists to come.

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 greatest legacy is that of a stellar musical career that will continue to serve as a foundation for many popular artists to come. Rainey passed away in Rome, Georgia on December 22, 1939 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 53.

Ma Rainey's music continues to live on through recordings, new renditions, and reenactments. For those who dare to venture and find it, the hoodoo that Rainey may have practiced also continues to live on Beale Street.

What Do You Think?

Do you think that Ma Rainey really practiced hoodoo?

See results

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/

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

© 2015 Robert Odell Jr

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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 

      7 months ago from Australia

      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.

    • Muchsuccess profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Odell Jr 

      7 months ago from Memphis, Tennessee

      Oztinato,

      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.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 

      7 months ago from Australia

      Robert

      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.

    • Muchsuccess profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Odell Jr 

      7 months ago from Memphis, Tennessee

      Thank you Oztinato. As you can see, Beale Street has a very colorful history.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 

      7 months ago from Australia

      Fascinating article.

      How do you do that voodoo that you do so well?

    working

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