Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) (3 page)

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)

It makes more sense, then, to talk about the occult imagination rather than the occult purely as a belief system. The occult imagination may express itself as magical ritual, but it is just as likely to express itself as symbolic elements in art. Moreover, the occult imagination is at work when something is perceived as being driven by supernatural purpose, as in the case of a Christian televangelist finding devilish intent in a rock band's lyrics. The ground on which intention and perception get conflated is where culture is created. Rock and roll is the fertile soil where this landscape has flowered and grown in remarkable ways. And it is here the occult becomes a metaphor for resisting customs, for challenging the status quo, and for staking a claim for individuals taking control of their own destinies, often in the face of extreme cultural homogenization. If the occult is a current needing a river to take it to the oceans of the world, then rock is the raging waterway that made it possible. And rock found in the occult imagination a sure spiritual partner that could help it defy convention.

What is needed, then, is a grand story, the story that represents the archetypes that rock so beautifully encapsulates.
Having a story act as an overarching metaphor also helps to steer this examination toward myth and away from metaphysics. While I will need to discuss things like gods and demons, divination and devils, magic and UFOs, I make no claims about the reality of these things, only that they are powerful ideas that persist, and, for reasons I hope to establish, have found a particularly potent mode of expression in rock music. So to guide my hand away from any kind of claim for or against the occult, I will keep one of the great myths close by.


The last thing you want to do is anger the god of madness, but this is exactly what the prince of Thebes had done. Dionysus had come to the great city with his female entourage, the maenads. The charismatic god of wine and ecstasy was in Thebes to avenge the reputation of his mother, Semele, as well as the dismissal of his own divine origins. Dionysus is called the “god who arrives.” No matter how you might try to avoid, ignore, or otherwise banish him, he will appear in your midst eventually. Many years before, Zeus—ever on the lookout for mortals to bed—took Semele as his lover. Semele gossiped with her sisters about her energetic lovemaking with Zeus. If he really was a god, they teased, he should prove it. Semele, embarrassed and maybe a little doubtful herself, begged Zeus to reveal his true nature. He refused, saying that she could not withstand being in the presence of an unclothed divine being. So Semele put off his advances until the frustrated god gave her what she asked. She was incinerated on the spot. But Semele was pregnant, and
at the moment of her immolation, Zeus plucked the baby from her womb and sewed it into his thigh to one day be born as Dionysus.

Semele's family came to live in Thebes where her sister Agave's son Pentheus was king. When Dionysus entered the city, he quickly possessed his aunt Agave and her sisters, turning them into bacchante, wild women who fled from the city into the hills to dance with the maenads, satyrs, and Dionysus himself. The king rebuked them and outlawed the worship of Dionysus. The god himself, disguised as one of his own priests, was promptly arrested. Pentheus mocked him, but over the course of their conversation, the cracks began to show. Pentheus appeared to be obsessed with the orgiastic rites of the maenads and the bacchante even as he spat on their beliefs. Dionysus advised Pentheus to spy on the women to learn their secret rituals and better know his enemy; the deity also suggested that the king dress as a woman to mingle among the maenads and the bacchante. Pentheus was stirred into a flurry of excitement; he dressed in drag and made his way outside the city to where the women were dancing. But they saw him for who he was and tore him apart, his own mother taking his head, believing it to be a lion, the final curse on the house of Semele's family.

This telling of the Dionysus myth is largely taken from the ancient Greek play
The Bacchae
by Euripides, a piece of literature often used to demonstrate the relationship between religious ritual and theater. And what is rock if not theater, particularly in the moments that reshaped and ultimately solidified the mythos of popular music. Theater is where gender easily becomes fluid, and like Pentheus, who eagerly masquerades in drag to witness
the god's beautiful frenzy, rock musicians warped and weaved their sexuality. It can be seen in Robert Plant's masculine gracefulness, David Bowie's hermaphroditic aliens, Mick Jagger's tumescent lips, and Patti Smith's binary swagger.

Rock also taps into the Dionysian principle in its tragic forms. Pentheus secretly wants to participate in the secret rites, but he is not properly initiated. He wants the thrill without the sacrifice, but the god demands it, and so Pentheus is destroyed. This is rock's perpetual misfortune, where the lure of the ecstatic—often by way of intoxication—resulted in various forms of tragedy, including madness and death.

It's in the Dionysian intoxicating madness that the human drive for creative freedom was born and where rock would one day derive its essential vitality. The archetype of Dionysus reveals that the earliest roots of rock and roll's spirit are pagan at its core. Rock channels, through some mechanism of the unconscious (or maybe it really is magic after all), the faces of the old gods—of Dionysus and even others such as Pan and Hecate—of the mystery cults, where libation and dance are the vehicles through which one worships and experiences transcendence. So it is Dionysus haunting these proceedings—not a god one chooses to worship lightly. He is a god who will demand that you twist and shout your way across the hills, banging on your drum or whatever instrument is at hand. Don't worry if the music is any good or not. All it has to be is loud enough to annoy the neighbors. They might even peek out their windows to see what all the noise is about, and maybe even let their hair grow long and join the


If you want to learn to play guitar, find a crossroads and wait there at midnight. If you are patient, “a large black man” will emerge from the gloom. It could be Papa Legba, a Haitian deity whose strange origins lie in the religion known as vodou. Legba is the guardian of the spirit world, and you must first treat him with respect if you expect to gain any favor from the
, the spirits who are expressions of the creator god. It could also be Eshu, a West African Yoruba god who is a messenger, trickster, and the guardian of pathways. He will take your guitar and tune it in such a way so when you play it, you will be gifted with a preternatural power to play the blues. If you tell someone about it, they will surely think you unwittingly sold your soul to the devil, for who else would seemingly bestow you with such a momentous gift without actually asking for anything in return? When your time comes, they will tell you, you must answer to
Old Scratch himself. But they would be wrong. It's not the devil who waits at the crossroads. In their long journey from Africa to the southern United States, Legba and Eshu slowly transformed into something sinister, warping the dark trickster gods at the spiritual source of the blues and later fighting for their rightful place as rock and roll looked to them for its own wild designs.

The legend of musicians selling their souls at the crossroads has become the creation myth for the popular association of rock with the occult. It is typically attributed to the life and legend of one young man; the poor, black Robert Johnson, whose influence on rock and roll is unsurpassed, was said to have made the deal that would give him uncanny proficiency on the guitar but would also doom him to a death at the age of twenty-seven. The story of Johnson meeting the devil has become popular music's stock parable for a Faustian bargain that ultimately ends in disaster. Curiously, the original story was likely not about Robert Johnson at all, but about the Mississippi blues singer Tommy Johnson. He sang in a ghostly falsetto that suggested otherworldliness, and he fostered this by putting out the rumor that he'd received his vocal gift from the devil at a crossroads, a story perpetuated by his brother LeDell and pulled deep into the history and mythology of the blues.

The crossroads legend, despite its pervasiveness, is merely symptomatic of a deeper occult strain swimming in the undercurrent of rock and roll. Despite the story not originating with Robert Johnson, the legendary guitarist was still wading in a bayou of voodoo and Christianity. One of Johnson's most well-known songs, “Cross Road Blues,” makes no mention of the devil, but it was believed to be his confessional that something
happened to him at the devil's favored location. Most scholars and critics now agree that the song is about something just as common as the devil: riding the rail in search of better luck and a less baleful fate. Nevertheless, Johnson was still part of a culture knee-deep in a swamp of superstition.

The devil is often a stand-in for any non-Christian deity that might pose a threat to the conventional Judeo-Christian narrative, and it was no different in the American South in the hundred years or so leading up to the time of Robert Johnson and the blues. It began in 1820 when a Yoruban by the name of Ajayi was captured by the Fulani people, who had come to dominate much of West Africa in the nineteenth century. It was common practice for Africans to sell other tribal people into slavery, and Ajayi was only thirteen years old when he found himself bound in chains on a ship heading to Portugal. A ship belonging to a British antislave group stopped the Portuguese vessel and was able to secure the rescue of the captured Africans on board, who were then taken to Sierra Leone, where antislavery Christians had begun to gather and settle. There, the young man was exposed to a Christian missionary and soon converted. He was mentored in the church by Samuel Crowther (whose name he adopted as his own), ordained in 1843, and later became a missionary himself. And what better place to begin than in his homeland, where he knew the people, the customs, and the language?

To make sure his message would be well received, Samuel Ajayi Crowther began work on a translation of the Bible into the Yoruban tongue. But there were challenges. Crowther wanted the new Bible to feel Yoruban. Afraid it might appear as an alien
text, he made sure it embraced the authentic culture of the Yoruban people. To this end, Crowther also borrowed from the Yoruban religion and in so doing shaped the culture of American music and preserved something he had hoped to eliminate. For the Yoruban people, there was no word corresponding to the biblical word for Satan or the devil. So Crowther chose the name for the Yoruban deity who had similar characteristics, at least from a nineteenth-century Christian viewpoint: it would be Eshu, the trickster god of the crossroads.

The consequences of Crowther's shell game were immense. Given that the beliefs of African religion were transmitted orally, it would be impossible to trace exactly what route this new Eshu-in-devil's-clothing would take in the journey across the Atlantic, but if we follow the religion's beliefs overall, eventually we are sure to find him waiting at the crossroads somewhere in the American South. By the time we get there, though, Satan has taken his place.

Eshu first appears outside of Africa as the
known as Legba in Haiti. Here, the African slaves practiced vodou, a tradition blending the religion of the Fon people of West Africa known as vodun with the French Catholicism of their masters. Vodun and the Yoruba religion share some essential features, not the least of which is the figure of this trickster deity that acts as an intermediary between this world and the spirits. As for Catholicism, this brand of Christianity made perfect sense to a people who saw their own spirits performing the same function as saints; intercessors who could be prayed to for various human needs, such as curing illness, changing the course of luck gone bad, or even exorcising other ill-tempered entities. And like the
, Catholic saints each have their own symbol, often a plant, animal, or something akin to a charm or amulet. In fact, saints were combined with various African spirits based on the similarities of their symbolic objects.

During the thirteen-year-long Haitian revolution of French slaves from 1791 to 1804, vodou was the spiritual heart of the revolt, and many believed the magic of their homeland would empower them. Numerous freed blacks, slaves, and slave owners fled to Louisiana and helped to increase the already swelling black population. The complex aspects of vodou intermingled with the stew of other beliefs and practices, including Evangelical Christianity, occult practices molded out of the Yoruba religion, and European superstitions. Together these elements would come to be popularly known as voodoo.

Even before the slaves brought vodun to Louisiana, the African deities had already begun their decline as important intermediaries with the transcendent creator god in Yoruba (known as Olorun) to devils and even Satan himself. The Western view of African religion was filtered through fear and racism. Even those who considered themselves scientists viewed their subjects as though studying a strange nonhuman creature. In 1849, David Christy, a member of the American Colonization Society, gave a lecture to the Ohio House of Representatives titled “A Lecture on African Colonization,” in which he argues against the slave trade and proposes instead to “civilize and Christianize Africa.” Whenever the chance arises, Christy refers to their beliefs as superstitious and barbaric, in need of Christian cleansing. Between the subtle psychological conflation of the African trickster god with the Christian devil, as well as the deliberate
attempt to paint African religion as backward, it is no surprise that for African Americans there was a troubled negotiation between their newly adopted Christianity and stories and folktales that survived from Africa. Music became the location where the lines were clearly drawn. Inside the church is the music of a promised salvation; outside the church the devil lurks. In the American South, it was difficult to separate the devil from those traditions that had been passed along, so while certain occult practices continued, the real magic was spread through whispers and gossip. Like all occult phenomena, tracing what was actually practiced as opposed to what was rumored can be difficult.

In the American South, people spoke in hushed tones about conjurers, spells, and gris-gris—small bags containing objects such as pubic hair or bone that served as talismans—and they may even have paid someone to cast a luck charm or to help ward off evil. Their Christianity did not preclude people from accepting there was power in another kind of belief, even though such practices would be intolerable within the actual church community. Voodoo also offered a direct and unmediated way to try and change one's conditions. In his masterful book
Slave Religion
, Albert J. Raboteau explains why conjure (magic) was so attractive to the slave despite, for example, the Christian prohibition against it: “Not only was conjure a theory for explaining the mystery of evil, but it was also a practice for doing something about it.” The post–Civil War South continued to see voodoo practices, but it is likely many African Americans didn't call it by name. Folk beliefs become so familiar, and so habitual, they can seem mundane, just parts of living requiring attending to.

For the Christian South, distrustful of anything that did not conform to the church and suspicious of secular music in general, the blues was a perfect storm, a tempest challenging the idea that an American black identity had to be bound up in the church. From its earliest days, the blues were seen as the devil's music, a secular pastime bumping up directly against the sacred music of the church, which by this time was mostly gospel. The blues were not about salvation, faith, or redemption but about worldly things. While borrowing much of its musical rudiments from slave spirituals, the blues were psychologically in tune to the songs sung in the fields and on the rail. Work was not the stuff of church and, particularly post–Civil War, did not have theological implications as it had when blacks were slaves and their labor would be rewarded with heavenly salvation. Work songs for the freed blacks were honest in the way the work was honest, pure labor under the hot sun: “Oh, I b'lieve I git religion an' jine de church / I'll be a black-jack preacher, an' not have to work.”

As the blues developed, ever more liberated from the church, sex and relationships became the preferred topic. Some of the more explicit songs were performed by women artists, which only highlighted how much the blues were also about personal agency and didn't need to conform to Christian ideals about the place of the sexes. The Delta blues singer Lucille Bogan's 1935 song “Shave 'em Dry,” for example, not only placed the power of sex with the woman, but drew a clear line in the sand: the blues might be the music of black folk, but it is not black church music: “I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb, / I got somethin' between my legs'll make a dead man come.” Most blues songs are not this sexually explicit, but they
are emotionally explicit, dealing plainly with love's gains and loss. As the late writer and poet LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) explains, the blues humanized the slave songs by making the hopes and suffering more earthbound and not simply a part of a great cosmic drama. And while the blues often suggest that the trouble is merely bad luck that befalls you, there was something you could do about it, if only to locate the source of misfortune: hoodoo inserted agency and will into the black spiritual identity. Personal agency, however, was often in opposition to the will of God. For example, if you didn't have much talent for playing the guitar, well, this was just the hand God dealt you. It wasn't for you to make any kind of deal behind his back.

If you are heartsick over a lover who has run away, Jesus can't help, but a “gipsy woman” might, as in a song by Joshua Johnson: “Well I went to the gipsy an' I laid my money on the line, / I said, ‘Bring back my baby, or please taker her off my mind.'” If your mate is cheating, don't ask God to change your lover's ways. The root of a certain orchid resembling a withered hand—known as a mojo hand—will help you in a way frowned upon by your Christian fellows: “I'm going to Louisiana, to get myself a mojo hand / 'Cause these backbiting women are trying to take my man.” Freedom, even if it was by the hand of God, didn't necessarily mean life would be easy. Work was still hard to find. Manual labor for little money meant that gambling became more than a pastime. It was a hope that things could get better. And hoodoo could shake up the odds in your favor: “He give me some good luck tea and said, ‘Drink it before it gets cold' / He give me some good luck tea and said, ‘Drink it before it gets cold' / He said, ‘Drink it all day, doggone your bad luck soul.'”

Sometimes, however, hoodoo was the reason for luck gone bad: “I believe, somebody's / done hoodoo'd poor me / I believe, somebody's done hoodoo'd poor me / Every card I pick's the first one that falls, / Dice won't do nothing but two, twelves, and three.” And hoodoo won't help you with a cheating lover if it's hoodoo luring her away: “Now, when your woman start actin' funny, and begin to run aroun', / You better get you somebody, 'cause she's fittin' to put you down, / Better let her go, man, just as quick as you can, / Because that hoodoo girl is going to hoodoo the hoodoo man.” As the blues made its way out of the South and into the northern cities, the superstitions and occult beliefs were cast off like old clothes in the hope for better things to come. Where there was industry there was likely more work. And this meant less time to be concerned with the curses spat out by an old conjurer.

It's the legend of Robert Johnson that remains, however, even though the consensus among music critics and historians is that for Johnson himself, the devil was not part of his self-identity. As the blues historian Elijah Wald explains, “There is no suggestions from any of his friends or acquaintances that the hellish or demon-harried aspects of his work were of particular importance to him, or that they were even noticed by the people that crowded around on the streets of Friar's Point.” The fact the legend persists is valuable in and of itself: Robert Johnson meeting the devil is a cultural crossroad: the place where all the avenues of occult meet and a point where the occult will continue to reveal itself in the music and culture of rock. The music itself is a product of a synthesis consisting mainly of those rhythms and vocal expressions coming directly out of the religious practices
of Africa, practices that involve precisely what we now term the occult. These include spirit possession, divination, and sympathetic magic, all of which are in opposition to Christian norms.

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