Sunday, June 19, 2016

Information About "John The Conqueror" In African American Folk Culture

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the folk character "John The Conqueror" and John The Conqueror roots in African American folk culture. This post also showcases the Blues song "My John The Conqueror Root".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to Willie Dixon, composer and Muddy Waters, performer of the song "My John The Conqueror Root". Thanks also to the publisher of that song on YouTube.

From by catherine yronwode
"As an amulet, JOHN THE CONQUEROR ROOT has no equal. It is used for Drawing Luck, gaining Mastery, and Strengthening Male Nature. We make a dressing oil from chips of the root, and incorporate it into sachet powders, incense, and crystals for bath or floor wash. All our JOHN THE CONQUEROR supplies contain pieces of real root!"
-- The Lucky Mojo Curio Co. catalogue

"High John the Conqueror root is one of the staples of African-American folk magic. Its use in mojo hands is as ubiquitous as its qualities are varied, and its very name signifies power and prosperity to many.

Who was John the Conqueror and what is the root named after him? Ethnographers, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life -- perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined -- was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master supplied many a story with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Bre'r Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu. He gave -- only to take away. He bet -- and never lost. He played dumb -- but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of High John is so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words "John over John" and "John the Conqueror" is a powerful spell of magical protection against being hoodooed."...

There are three roots named for John the Conqueror. Each is in a separate botanical family and has a different method of use.

High John the Conqueror is the most prized of the three John roots. When Willie Dixon sings in "Hootchie Cootchie Man" that he has "a John the Conqueroo," he means a John the Conqueror root -- the hard, woody tuber of Ipomoea jalapa, a member of the morning glory family, and a relative of the common sweet potato. Fresh John the Conqueror root has a unique, spicy fragrance, reminiscent of a combination of cherry-scented pipe tobacco, vetivert, cedarwood, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and mace. Like many other ipomoeas, some of which are psychedelic, it is rich in alkaloids, but in magical practice, the root is not ingested, probably because it is an extremely powerful laxative. Instead it is used whole -- carried on the person as a pocket piece or as an ingredient in a mojo bag, especially one designed to draw money, bring luck at games of chance, or enhance personal sexual power....

Southern John or Dixie John Root (rarely called "The Conqueror") is the root of the common Wake-Robin or Trillium grandiflorum and related species. These spring-flowering members of the lily family have long been used medicinally, and among Euro-American herbalists, Low John is sold medicinally under the name Birth-Root or Beth-Root and used as an aid in childbirth and with menstrual cramps. However, in African-American folk magic, Low John is not ingested. It is carried on the person, usually for help in family matters and love. …

The third John root is Chewing John, sometimes called Little John to Chew or Court Case Root. This is Alpina galanga, otherwise called Galangal. It is a member of the ginger family and is medicinally used as a stomachic and carminative. In African-American hoodoo practice, its pleasant gingery taste is part of its charm and, unlike High John Root or Low John Root, Chewing John Root is actually chewed and the juice swallowed. A typical spell prescribes its use in court case magic: Chew the root, swallow the juice and discretely spit the "cud" onto the courtroom floor before the judge walks in; he will decide the case in your favour...

John the Conqueror roots are primarily "male" roots because they resemble the testicles of brown-skinned men. When carried as a lucky amulet, a man's root is always whole. No African American man i know with a family background in hoodoo practice would walk into my shop and buy a broken High John root, even if it was as big as a baby's head and cost two dollars!...

How did African slaves and their descendents come to believe that the root of a wild morning glory vine native to Mexico, Louisiana, and Florida was a powerful magical herb? The answer probably lies in the little-documented but widely-acknowledged contact between captive Africans and the Native Americans from whom they acquired local botanical knowledge.

Any intelligent herb doctor or shamanic healer who was transported to a new environment would seek out a list of regional plants whose uses corresponded to the ones with which he or she was familiar. Thus, it is only reasonable to assume that Ipomoea jalapa was the designated surrogate for a West African plant with similar magical or medical properties.

The Native Americas made use of various regional species of Ipomoea both as a laxative and for magic. To the Iroquois Indians, the plant was "Man Root" or "Man In the Earth" -- and men carried it while hunting to strengthen themselves and increase their endurance. It was even said that if a man rubbed his root before hitting another man in a fight, he could kill his opponent with one blow.

Because the character of the person or mythical figure called John the Conqueror partakes of the tricksterish and way-opening qualities of the orisha and the loa known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu, it is not unreasonable to search for a hypothetical African fore-runner to John the Conquer root in the herbal folklore of Africa.

It may be that there are three John-roots in the African-American hoodoo tradition because each in its own way substituted for some part of an African root that incorporated diverse qualities. That is, an African root that could be chewed for male power was analogous to the Iroquois Man Root -- except that Man Root could not be chewed, so Chewing John was added to the retinue of John Roots to cover for that aspect of the African knowledge-base. Likewise the African root was used to help women in childbirth -- so the obvious substitution by Native shaman for this would be Birth Root or Dixie John.”...

Example #1: Muddy Waters - My John The Conqueror Root

IfYouAintGotNothingYouGotNothingToLoose Published on Nov 29, 2012
The mean Muddy Waters
This song was first recorded in 1964.

Here's two comments from another sound file of this song
Chris Moran, 2014
"Personnel list from liner notes:
Muddy Waters – Composer, guitar, vocals
Buddy Guy – Guitar
Sammy Lawhorn – Guitar
James Madison – Guitar
Otis Spann – Harmonica, piano (***very funny! James Cotton was under contract to another label at the time. Spann & Cotton were buds, so Spann was listed as the harp man)
Francis Clay – Drums
Clifton James – Drums
S.P. Leary – Drums
Willie Dixon – Bass
Milton Rector – Bass
Johnny Temple – Composer
J.T. Brown – Clarinet, tenor saxophone"

Chris Moran, 2014
"Don't forget James Cotton on harp. He doesn't get a mention because he was under contract to another record company (probably Vanguard). Also J.T. Brown is listed on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Nothing like saxophone to evoke the feeling of a "folk singer," eh?"

(Written by Willie Dixon & sung by Muddy Waters)

My pistol may snap, my mojo is frail
But i rub my root, my luck will never fail
When i rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root

I was accused of murder in the first degree
The judge's wife cried, "Let the man go free!"
I was rubbin' my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root

Oh, i can get in a game, don't have a dime,
All i have to do is rub my root, i win every time
When i rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root


Muddy Waters - "Hoochie Coochie Man"
"I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got the Johnny Concheroo
I'm gonna mess with you
I'm gonna make you girls
Lead me by my hand
Then the world will know
The hoochie coochie man
But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Oh you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"
"I think I go down,
To old Kansas Stew
I'm gonna bring back my second cousin,
That little Johnny Cocheroo"
My guess is that the African American children's game song "Johnny Cuckoo" is also based on the character John the Conqueror. Click for a video of African American singing games that includes a performance of "Johnny Cuckoo".

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