"The gypsy woman told my mother/ Before I was born"
The Mississippi River Delta meets the gypsy fortuneteller.Deep Thought
When Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon were growing up, "gypsies" were a relatively new concept in the United States. Gypsy was a general (and somewhat inaccurate) term for Eastern European immigrants who were part of ethnic groups like the Roma and the Ludar, nomadic peoples not associated with a single country of origin (find out more here). Tens of thousands of so-called "gypsies" immigrated to big U.S. cities between the 1880s and World War I, many gaining work as musicians and performers.
The image of the gypsy developed at this time, but it developed somewhat separately from the real people it represented. The "gypsy fortuneteller" was introduced into U.S. culture by the World's Fairs, which were big circus-like exhibitions that contributed both to the commercialization of ethnic stereotypes and to the spread of multiculturalism in the U.S. When Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters came to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta region, they would have encountered both the real Roma people and the widespread stereotype of "gypsies" as a mystical, magical group of traveling fortunetellers.
"I got a black cat bone"
Willie Dixon's songs, like many Delta blues pieces, were sprinkled with references to African-American hoodoo, a form of southern spiritual beliefs inspired by the cultures of West Africa.Deep Thought
The hoodoo tradition developed among black Africans from many nations, thrown together under the horrifying conditions of slavery. Black slaves, many of whom arrived without knowledge of each other's languages or cultures, created new traditions that combined their African roots to confront their current situation. In Haiti, these traditions came to be called voodoo; in the U.S., the overarching term is hoodoo. Hoodoo was both a religious practice and a form of resistance to oppression, as African slaves were often forced to "convert," take Christian names, and leave behind their native traditions.
Black cat bones were used in hoodoo as lucky charms. Need a lucky charm, but don't feel comfortable gutting a black cat yourself? You can relax: these days, you can purchase these bones online for only $9.95.
"I got a mojo too"
Mojo: more than just some good vibrations, but definitely not a term for sexual prowess.Deep Thought
People talk about "mojo" all the time—or at least they did in the 1960s, we think. But most don't know that in its original use, a mojo was a charm bag or amulet carried for luck, usually imbued with power through a ritual or spell. The term originated in several African Bantu languages and came into common use among enslaved Africans practicing hoodoo in the U.S. A mojo (also called a "gris-gris," a lucky hand, a root bag, and a variety of other names) might bring luck or protection around a specific issue, such as love, money, or birth. The use of the term by nationally and internationally known blues musicians like Muddy Waters eventually led to the widespread popular use of "mojo" to mean luck, magical power or good vibes.
Some people with their minds in the gutter also misunderstood "mojo" to be a vague reference to sexual virility, leading Jim Morrison of The Doors to create a vulgar nickname for himself: "Mr Mojo Risin" (you may note that it is also an anagram of his name, possibly the only redeeming feature of the title). The first Austin Powers movie also popularized this interpretation of mojo, as Austin Powers goes on an epic search for his own "shagedelic" mojo. It doesn't sound like either of these guys was talking about a hoodoo charm bag, but they also didn't really know what they were talking about.
"I got the John the Conqueroo"
A John the Conqueroo is a southern folk term to refer to the root of a St. John's wort, a traditional medicinal herb also used in magic potions.Deep Thought
The roots were traditionally used to cast off evil spells—and sometimes to cast a spell or two on someone evil. If you need some John the Conqueroo yourself, keep an eye out for any number of Hypericum plants—the flowering St. John's wort plant grows all over the Northern Hemisphere and is a breeze to harvest.
"Oh you know I'm the hoochie coochie man/ Everybody knows I'm him"
Someone had to ask: what is a "hoochie coochie man"?Deep Thought
There are several related theories on this intriguing, borderline inappropriate question. First, there is a general consensus that "hoochie coochie" originally referred to a particularly lewd type of dancing performed by women in traveling sideshows in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Side shows were the location for the earliest strip shows and peep shows: the traveling nature allowed working women a level of discretion about the type of work they did, which many people considered to be morally reprehensible.) At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a dance called the "hoochie coochie" was a big hit, and it was described as "disreputable" and "vile," something akin to belly dancing. "Hooch" is also a word for moonshine, or illegally produced alcohol, and "cooch" can be a slang word for female genitals.
So hoochie coochie is definitely something sexy and female: what does that make a "hoochie coochie man"? He's either a man who is a regular patron of "hoochie coochie" shows—an early 20th century strip club patron, drinking underground moonshine and tipping the girls well—or he's a man with his own special form of macho hoochie energy, kind of a "ladies' man" for the post-war era.
"On the seventh hours/ On the seventh day/ On the seventh month/ The seven doctors say/ He was born for good luck"
Hoodoo, like voodoo, often mixes Biblical traditions with folk traditions from Africa.Deep Thought
In Christian traditions, seven is the most holy number. In John 4:52, Jesus heals a young boy whose fever goes away at "the seventh hour." The biblical "seventh day" is the Sabbath, the day when God rested after creating the earth and heavens for six days; the story is the source of the modern tradition of resting and going to church on Sundays. The seventh month is also mentioned several times in the Bible, and is the time of many important celebrations in the Jewish lunar calendar, including Rosh Hashanah. Finally, a mysterious mystical text called the Seventh Book of Moses, a Hebrew text vaguely associated with Kabbalah (Jewish myticism), is supposed to be the source of some of the important symbols and beliefs in African-American hoodoo.
Most southern Christian sects discouraged "superstition," Kabbalism and numerology. But hoodoo was a folk tradition with no controlling authority, so people who practiced it could integrate beliefs from multiple cultures. Dixon's series of lucky sevens in the song is a great example of how folk religion can reshape old traditions and influence culture.
The "seven doctors" seem to be just another extension of the lucky value of the number seven. But seven doctors don't work out perfectly for everyone: that was also the number of doctors who were treating Michael Jackson at the time of his death.
"Everybody knows I'm him"
Prophets and Messiahs are usually born under special conditions—and apparently, so is the hoochie coochie man.Deep Thought
When Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were born, their births and early lives were surrounded by special signs that let people know that their status on earth was unique: premonitions, prophecies, flames in the sky and so on. As it went with Moses, so it goes with the hoochie coochie man: his birth was prophesied by seven doctors and a gypsy fortuneteller. Perhaps unintentionally, Dixon's songwriting plays with an eons-old tradition of prophetic imagery, suggesting that the hoochie coochie man has a special role that is recognized by people wherever he goes. The parallel with the likes of Jesus and Muhammad could be offensive to some, but given that a "hoochie coochie man" is pretty much a nonsense concept, it mostly comes off as a bit of playful fun.