as I have stated, in a previous essay "The English Music Hall
Connection" that it was probably the link with the Blues which was the
farthest removed from Africa, then this one is arguably the closest to
that continent. Indeed, in the areas of hoodoo and conjurers there are
obviously overlaps. But traditionally these latter phenomena have been
associated only with West Africa and to a lesser degree, Cuba. I intend
to show that there was a parallel tradition amongst rural communities in
Britain up until at least the turn of the century, lasting well into the
tradition goes back to medieval times when magicians and witches
abounded. The latter concept of course was unknown in Africa
[See Addendum below].
Another phenomenon which has strong
European ties is that of the hell hound. I will be looking at a variety
of examples in Britain which inspired Mississippi Blues man Robert
Johnson, to record his famous "Hell Pound On My Trail" in 1937;
which evokes an almost "Satanic" atmosphere. The motif is almost unique
in the recorded Blues of the pre-war era (1920-1943).
I maintain that many superstitions,
beliefs and customs were transported from the British Isles over to the
southern U.S.A. in the nineteenth century, and earlier. Some underwent
modifications or even a reversal! But there are many instances that
appear in black culture almost intact. For example, on the subject of
traditional signs of Christmas in the 19th. century in the English
countryside, Margaret Baker reports "Northern farmhouse servants chose a
slow-burning log, for while it burned they had ale and cider with their
meals."(1). This was referring to the yule-log blaze on Christmas Eve.
Baker adds "the custom was carried to the southern United States by
English settlers and the slaves searched the woods for the greenest logs
they could find to prolong festivities." (2). Thus revealing one of the
possible means of transmitting superstitions from Britain of earlier
times to the Blues in the Deep South in the first years of the 20th.
century. I will be citing examples in the Blues and in working-class
black culture of the U.S. (from whom the Blues originated) which show
direct influence in their superstitions and beliefs from this side of
the Atlantic, and were also carried to the southern U.S.A. in much the
For whatever reasons, it seems that to
varying degrees "rural people have always been superstitious."(3). The
reason, for the most part, why British beliefs had such an impact on the
Blues, lies in the socio-historical fact of colonization and the
subsequent isolation of much of the rural South from mainstream America,
which was hell-bent on industrialisation. Not only the adopted language
of slaves, seventeenth century English but often British societal
concepts helped to forge a strong non-African link with the Blues.
© Copyright 1992 Max Haymes
Addendum: Witches not known in Africa
Of course the witch was/is
present in West African cultures and more usually as a 'witch doctor'.
In Nigeria 'Witches (amazu) and wizards (ogbama) have ... animal
counterparts, and so assume the forms of owls, lizards, vultures, and
numerous species of nightbirds. (p.278. 'Drums & Shadows'. Mary Granger.
(Ed.) [Forgotten Books.] Rep. 2007. 1st. pub. 1940). See Lucille Bogan,
Ma Rainey, et al. for blues that include these animals. This is from a
quote used by Granger in 'Law And Authority In A Nigerian Tribe'. C.K.
Meek. [Oxford University Press. London. N.Y.] 1937.
Nevertheless, my original
statement had in mind the European concept of an old woman with broom,
etc. being a witch. Ones in W. Africa generally appear to have been
males. Whereas in the 19th. Century in US - certainly in New Orleans -
voodoo doctors were usually women."
Max Haymes 1st.
||Baker M. p.85.
||Paine L. p.103.
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