Chapter III -
British Superstitions and The Blues
superstitions about the Hell Hounds were not the only ones to cross
Atlantic and re–appear in some guise in black folklore. Although I
have labelled these superstitions 'British", many could be identified in
other parts of the world in various adaptations and differing versions.
It is just that the colonial period in the U.S.A. was not only dominated
by the English language, but by the customs, beliefs and superstitions
from the mother country. For example, the speech of the inhabitants of
the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida. "... retains the flavour of
the language of Elizabethan times," (1). Since "The great majority of
the earlier settlers in the swamp region were English."(2), theirs would
be the dominant culture and African slaves would have been more strongly
influenced by British versions of superstitions, as well as retaining a
vestige of their own. Around the Suwannee River basin, English–speaking
people had "... migrated from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, ... They
brought with them indentured servants ... and Negro Slaves." (3). The
isolation of the Okefenokee Swamp ensured that its population changed
very slowly, not only regarding language, but also old ways and beliefs.
Much the same could be said for the mainly rural South in the states of
Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana and
Tennessee. These were the main spawning grounds of the Blues singer,
some time in the later part of the nineteenth century.
It is no
accident that a blues quoted by a then–radical blank writer included
do people believe in some old signs?
Why do people believe in some old signs?
You hear a hoot owl holler, someone is surely dyin'."
will break a mirror and cry, 'Bad luck for seven years',
Some will break a mirror and cry, 'Bad luck for seven years'.
And if a black cat crosses them, they'll break right down in tears."
lists some depth omens collected in the Welsh Border counties: "a dog
howling in the night, a cock crowing between dusk and midnight; an owl
screeching or hooting;" (5). The broken mirror is one of the widest
spread superstitions in Britain while interestingly the black cat belief
is reversed in the U.S.A., at least in working–class black circles. This
could be a reflection of the belief on the continent, that the black cat
"... is ill omened"(6). However, I am more inclined to agree with Paul
Oliver that "The social position of Blacks was as often reflected in
their folk beliefs as in their fear of black articles,"(7).
first death omen concerning a dog's howl is reiterated by Hole
"... few can hear a dog howling without a tremor when there is illness
in the house. Dogs are supposed to be able to see the Angel of
Death"(8). My father (b.1910) was quite familiar with the superstition
where if a dog howled at night it meant a death will soon occur in the
immediate vicinity. These beliefs reappeared. in the Southern states,
little changed, "Deah's two suns uh det. Ef duh dog holluhs
aw a owl holluhs,"(9). In 1935 "Casey Bill" Weldon sang:
you hear a dog a-howlin', mama, an' he was howlin' all
you hear that dog a-howlin', mama, he was howlin' all night long.
Well that's to let you know, sweet mama, well well, that somebody's
time ain't long"(10).
is a distinct impression that the singer is going to take a hand to
ensure the superstition runs true to form:
well, I hear that dog a-howlin', he was howlin' round your door,
Well well, I hear
that dog, a-howlin', he was howlin' round your door.
When you six feet in the ground, sweet mama, well well,
that dog ain't gonna howl no more."(11).
Gillum, a harmonica player, who had recorded prolifically before World
War II, reflecting his popularity, continued his career until 1950.
Three years earlier he included a title describing various
superstitions. Some of them obviously mirrored
society's environment; but mixed with these were others from British
shores, including the howling dog:
don't want my rooster, crowin' after the sun go down,
I don't want my rooster, crowin' after the sun go down.
Don't bring peanuts in my house, it will make a pumpkin turn
touch me with your broom, don't let my lamp get low,
Don't touch me with your broom, don't let my lamp get low.
Don't let the dogs start to howlin', 'cos somebody have got
don't want my brother to put his bare feet in my shoes,
I don't want my brother to put his bare feet in my shoes.
Somebody stole my rabbit foot an' I've got the Suspicious Blues."
following decade, famous Chicago Blues singer, Howlin' Wolf referred to
the dog omen in his usual menacing vocal style:
the dogs all howl, all over the neighbourhood,
Well the dogs all howl, all over the neighbourhood.
That is a true sign of death, baby, that ain't no
Chester Burnett, refers to 'My right hand itches, I'll get money for
which also comes from British superstition.
'Jazz' Gillum mentioned his 'rabbit foot' in his closing verse. In the
Blues, "As in English folk-lore the rabbit foot is a powerful charm for
protection,"(14). This belief goes back to at least the seventeenth
century in the British Isles. In Pepys there are several references to
folk-beliefs which seem to indicate some sort of resistance on the part
of the Diarist, to Cartesian themes, by then currently doing the rounds!
On the 20th. June, 1665, he records one of several entries which
mentioned his hare's foot: "Mr. Batten in Westminster hall ... showed me
my mistake, that my hares-foot hath not the joint to it, and
assures me he never had his cholique since he carried it
about him. And it is a strange thing how fancy works, for I no sooner
almost handled his foot but my
began to be loose and to break wind; and whereas I was in some pain
yesterday and tother day, and in fear of more to-day, I became very
well, and so continue."
the last day of the previous year, Pepys is worrying about
his unusually good state of health: "But
great loss to know whether it be my Hare's foote, or taking every
morning a Pill of Turpentine, or my having left off the
a gowne."(16). The hare's foot must be the precursor of the rabbit's
foot, still popular in parts of society in the 20th. century. In
that many people in England "still carry an old potato or a hare's foot
as a preventive of rheumatism."(17). As
Gillum indicated, the rabbit's foot transferred to the U.S.A. There it
became adopted by the Blues singer. In the
part of this century, in the South particularly, there were many
travelling minstrel shows, circuses and medicine-shows. These often
featured Blues singers, as an addition to the entertainment or to
attract customers for the sometimes dubious 'wares'. The most famous was
the "Rabbit Foot Minstrels" in which one of the finest vaudeville-blues
singers, 'Ma' Rainey, gained. some valuable experience prior to her
recording debut in 1923. Three years later, Blind Lemon Jefferson,
greatest of the Texas rural Bluesmen, recorded his "Rabbit Foot Blues",
and in the following year Hattie Hudson made "Doggone My Good Luck
Soul", a sardonic blues about superstitions generally. After claiming
she is going to put a 'gold horse shoe' on her door and referring to
other good luck charms, Ms. Hudson takes a side-swipe at religion as
well as the old British belief:
cool little rabbit, you can hop all in my yard,
Doggone my good-luck soul, Heyyy--hop all in my yard.
I ain't goin' to take your feet nor fill your head with God." (18).
view was a-typical. The more usual attitude in black communities is
included in a report in 1888. "A rabbit-foot kept in the vest pocket, or
worn as a charm about the neck, will ward off evil, and will, also
bestow great strength upon its keeper."(19).
Returning to Pepys
once more, in the last entry quoted, he referred to a
Turpentine". This was on December 31st 1664 and an earlier entry
indicates he had been taking turpentine pills for the
year! "But the Doctor's discourse did please me very well about the
disease of the Stone; above all things extolling Turpentine, which he
told me how it may be taken in pills with great ease."(20). That was on
New Year's Day and on the 17th July, he was still having trouble with
'the Stone', going back to his doctor who "... showed me the manner of
eating Turpentine; which pleases me well, for it is with great
centuries later, Mrs. Violet, who was, born in West Yorkshire in 1897,
gives the following recipe, which she still swears by today (1984).
Two--pennyworth of medicated turpentine
--------"-------- of aniseed
--------"-------- of balsam of sulphur
bad backs: a few drops on a teaspoon in some sugar, and get it down you.
That's good stuff."(22). And another more potent recipe, again for the
Spirits of wine (brandy, more or less)
One dram of each
shaken in a
bottle -- take twenty to thirty drops on sugar. That
was a pretty strong un'!"(23).
was one of the by-products of timber from the once huge forests in the
U.S. including the 'piney woods' covering areas throughout the Southern
states. The big lumber companies employed workers to extract the fluid
from the trees "obtained by slashing the trunk of the pine tree with a
knife, collecting the tree resin which bled from the wound..."(24).
The resin was then processed. on 'turpentine farms', first, "...
hardened into crude gum, and then putting the gum into a boiler and so
producing turpentine through the process of distillation."(25). This was
one of the jobs, being so unhealthy and at times dangerous as well as
unpleasant, that was normally "reserved" for black workers; indeed
"blacks constituted three-quarters of the entire workforce employed by
the turpentine industry,"(26). So turpentine was very much a part of the
Blues singers' environment, particularly in Georgia, Florida and
Alabama. Blues pianists would travel the circuit of turpentine farms and
logging camps, which were self-contained and mobile. as part of the
entertainment to keep workers from wandering off. Other parts of this
entertainment included prostitutes and hard liquor. As always the Blues
reflect the singers' environment, and in 1929, the ubiquitous Memphis
Jug Band recorded "I Can't Stand It" which commences:
"Now what are you gonna do, when your troubles get like mine?
Take a mouth full of sugar and drink a bottle of turpentine."
"Oh! now I can't stand it, you hear me say, mama, I
can't stand it,
I mean today."(27).
with some sarcasm, that this custom brought over from England was a
cure-all for personal / social as well as health problems. A duo, in a
more vaudeville-blues vein, calling, themselves 'Pigment Pete and
Catjuice Charlie', took another dig at this industry by singing of the
"joys" of working on "Our Turpentine Farm", recorded the same year.
the foregoing had some practical use on both sides of the Atlantic,
there were other beliefs and superstitions which made the journey over
to America, whose usefulness was less obvious. Yet they persisted. Hole
tells us that "A cock
crowing near a house means a stranger coming,"(28). Archetypal Blues
singer, from the Mississippi Delta, Charlie Patton proclaimed:
"I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my back door,
I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my back door.
'Cause see a stranger comin', he'll flop his wings an' crow."
course refers to a bantam rooster. As early as March, 1888, it was
reported that one of the beliefs from the days of slavery was that the
rooster "keeps a long lookout for coming guests. If he crow toward the
front door, or the back door, you can form some idea of the high or low
degree of the newcomer."(30).
World War II, much of the gospel music performed by blacks sounded not
too unlike their Blues counterpart. Especially the recordings by
street-singing, 'guitar evangelists'. The same instruments, often with
the same musical approach, were used, such as the piano, harmonica, jug
as well as the guitar. Many Blues singers recorded and/or sang gospel
and blues. The main difference being of course the lyrics; one sacred
and the other secular. So it is not surprising to find some interaction
between the two. A superstition from Britain was adapted by a singer who
included both musical genres in his small recorded
output of just four sides. McClintock's "seeds" are the teachings from
the Bible to be spread, via a person's speech and actions, throughout
good seeds every Friday,
good seeds every Friday.
On the mountain, down in the valley,
You gonna reap what you Sow."(31).
Britain, certainly in rural areas, during the nineteenth century (and
probably earlier) gardeners believed that "Potatoes, peas and beans
planted on Good Friday are certain to thrive, for Satan's Power over the
soil is then suspended."(32).
the sowing time was even more critical. "Sometimes Good Friday sowing at
noon precisely was advised ... and about 1858 Canon C.W. Bingham wrote
that he had received from a Dorset cottage garden a Brampton stock whose
excellence was attributed to Good Friday planting"(33). McClintock, in
Atlanta, extended the, sowing time to every Friday and his
'seeds' to the abstract teachings of the Gospel.
gospel item reflects a superstition that was widespread in England
and also along the Welsh border. Namely, to take the pillow from a dying
person's bed so that they may suffer less pain and more, peace in their
last moments on earth. Simpson found that some people thought that "one
cannot die while lying on a pillow or mattress containing pigeon
feathers, turkey feathers or the feathers of wild birds. So when a
person's death agony was unduly long, the bystanders
would sometimes pull the pillow from under him to hasten the end;(34).
While Hole confirms that in 1939, in England "A person lying on a pillow
stuffed with doves' or pigeons' feathers cannot die, and for this reason
the pillow or mattress was generally removed"(35).
In 1927 the
Reverend Edward Clayborn, sometimes known as the 'Guitar Evangelist'
punched his message across with a rasping vocal and effortless slide
"Mother, take the pillow from under my head, Hallelu, hallelu..
Mother, take the pillow from under my head, Hellelu, hallelu.
Mother, take the pillow from under my head, Jesus makin' up my
"'Then you'll need that true religion, hallelu!"('36).
Rev. Edward Clayborn. c. 1926
Intriguingly, this verse is not included in many other versions of this
traditional and very popular gospel number, including the ones by Blind
Lemon Jefferson, the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, and Blind Gussie Nesbit.
The latter coming from Texas, Virginia and North Carolina respectively.
Clayborn is rumoured to be from
Alabama but is otherwise a biographical blank. Alabama
in the 1920's was a harsh land of unrelieving poverty, outside towns
like Bessemer or Birmingham, and 'progress'
moved even more slowly than say in Virginia. Perhaps the retention
of this British superstition represented its last stronghold in U.S.
rural, black communities. Meanwhile, back with the Devil; a square lead
tablet was discovered in 1892, believed to be from the I7th. century, on
the Gloucester/Herefordshire border. It is now in the Gloucester Folk
Museum. Inscribed on the tablet is a curse invoking devilish omens. This
inscription includes "... the name 'Sarah Ellis! written backwards,
symbols of sun and moon, the number '369', and the words 'Hasmodat
Acteus Magalesius Armenus Licus Nicon Mimon Zeper make this person to
banish away from this place and country Amen to be desier Amen"(37). In
the Blues there is much superstitious belief concerning the 'numbers
racket' amongst working-class blacks.
Also known as 'Policy', for as little as I cent you could win
substantial amounts of money, by betting on a combination of
usually three figures. The latter were represented on a spinning
wheel and when the 'policy wheel' came to rest, so the money
was paid out on those numbers. Chiefly run by black
gangsters, many omens appeared and were often incorporated in
Dream Books. The odds against winning more than a few dollars,
needless to say, were, extremely high. This did not deter
blacks, predominantly unemployed males, from spending 'their
last dime' in the hope of that eternally elusive, 'big win'.
of the most potent, and most popular, of the three-figure
combinations was 3-6-9. All the numbers had meanings which were
published in the many Dream
Books (see Fig.2.), already referred to, and claimed mystic
origins. "3-6-9", is the combination for excreta both animal and
human."(38). Although this
combination could be used to verbally abuse someone, it was a
reliable stand by if dreams were not forthcoming:
Fig. 2: Typical Dream Book advert,
featuring another popular combination - 4-11-44
"Now if you wake up in the mornin',
ain't got nothin' on your mind,
Play that ole country number that you
call 3-6 and 9.
Cryin' ohhh! look what the policy wheel have done to me,
Says it done took all my money, ah‑
but still it won't let me be." (39).
cropped up in dozens of Blues including recordings made by Cripple
Clarence Lofton, Albert Clemens, Bumble Bee Slim and Louisiana Johnnie.
Although Simpson makes no further reference to this numerical
combination, it is significant that the "mark of the Beast", in Biblical
terms is 666. This is divisible by 3 as is 3-6-9 which is also a
multiple of this digit; added to the fact that many blues lyrics of
pre-war vintage drew on Biblical sources, mainly from the Old Testament.
Thus indicating an ancient
source for this belief in 3-6-9 by the Blues singer, via British
phenomenon inspired by folk beliefs from Britain is that of the 'Traveling
Man'. As important in the early Blues as 3-6-9, this figure has
parallels going back as far as the sixteenth century in
England and Wales. "The most famous master-magician of the Border
region, the hero of a well-known cycle of anecdotes is the legendary
Jack 0' Kent or Jacky Kent"(40). As with Robin Hood there are various
periods and possible 'candidates' ascribed to an actual person
such a name and reputation. In any event he "... was already famous by
Legend has it that he sold his soul to the Devil while young and as a
result had super powers. One story relates "He had magic horses which
galloped through the air at a fantastic speed ... People at Grosmont
told how he once set
out from there at daybreak to take a mince pie to the
King in London, and got there in time for breakfast, with the pie still
could well be the original inspiration for the heroic figure in the
Blues known as the 'Traveling man'. Recorded by singers such
Jones from Texas and Jim Jackson from Hernando,
Mississippi, it was generally associated with singers from the Piedmont
area; including Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. In 1927, Luke
Jordan from Lynchburg in the latter state put his version on record as
"The Traveling Coon":
"They sent the Travelin' Coon to spring one day, to fetch a pail
I think the distance from the house to the spring, sixteen miles
The coon went there an' 'e got the water alright,
came back stomped toe an' fell down;
He run back home an' got another pail, 'e caught the
it hit the ground."
was a Travellin' Man, he was a Travel-in' Man
He was the travelest man, finest was in the land.
He was a Travelin' Man, he was known for miles around,
He never give up, no he wouldn't give up 'til the police
shot him down."(43).
truncated syntax adding an intriguing 'primitive' feel to the song.
Other verses have the Traveling Man just escaping from the Titanic and 'shootin'
craps in Liverpool' when the ship hit the fatal iceberg. This Traveling
Man might have magical posers but as the refrain. shows he was not
invincible. Reflecting a characteristic of the Blues; that of rarely
straying too far from reality. Like
master-magician, Jack O'Kent, who often out-witted the Devil, the black
hero was also cunning, and kept one jump ahead of a more concrete
'devil', in the form of the white authorities; even after capture and
"They caught the Travelin' Coon at last, and? be hung one day.
All the jurymen asked to Shine, what he have to say,
He say to all the jurymen, 'will you'all bow down in prayer?'
He crossed his legs an' winked one eve, he went straight
up through the air."
was a Travelin' Min, etc, (44).
forms of 'coon' and 'Shine' were common amongst blacks in the earlier
half of the 20th. century, although if used by whites
they became offensive. Jack
O'Kent used magical horses on his 80-odd mile trip to London and in
another version, from North Carolina this time, the Travelin' Man
is the engineer (driver) of an
express train that certainly
possessed magical speed:
'is girl to meet him in Washington,
He gotta get a kiss passin' by,
Told 'er to be at the station, he gotta kiss 'er on the
He stuck his head out the winder, from a lamp Tillie? had to crower?
(crane her neck)
When he stack his head back, the train had covered some track,
An' down in Georgia he had kissed a cow."(45).
least 1O00 miles in the time it took to give his girl friend a. kiss!
would have travelled over to southern U.S.A. either by way
of English indentured servants in the seventeenth century, the original
the plantations before the arrival of cotton and slaves, or by way of
the U.S. Eastern seaports and the transmission of sea shanties. The
latter will be covered in a further unit "Blues At Sea". Whichever the
route, in the Southern states, the Travelin' Man "... aided by
supernatural powers"(46) seems a natural successor to the British
master–magician, in the world of the Blues.
ibid.- p.120. "B.F.T.M."
R.C. & W.Matthews.p.p,1-2.
p.p.141 "Screening etc.
P.p.93. "Songsters etc.
p.p. 214 "Songsters etc.
© Copyright 1992 Max
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