The Mother and the Voodoo Queen
Who do's that Hoodoo that you do so well?
A hush falls over the central New Orleans Square as She passes through. Larger than life, gypsy-like dresses brushing her ankles and gold falling from her neck and ears, She commands them all. To some She is preacher, to others hypnotist, for those witness to her revelry she is the devil herself, for those embroiled in her ceremony she is the embodiment of all mystery and misery, beauty, violence and sexuality that is Life itself. So who is She? She is not a singular, and She is certainly not everywoman. She is not a goddess, but She is certainly immortal.
Marie Laveaux: Voodoo Queen of New Orleans
I knew a conjure lady not long ago
In New Orleans, Louisiana, named Marie Laveau
Believe it or not, strange as it seems,
She made fortunes selling Voodoo and interpreting dreams
She was known throughout the nation as the Voodoo Queen.
Oh Marie Laveau
Oh Marie Laveau
Marie Laveau, the Voodoo queen
Way down yonder in New Orleans
Way down yonder in New Orleans.
“Papa” Oscar Celestin, GHB Records,1994.
It's September 16, 1801 – almost a century before the birth of the blues - and Marie Laveaux is being baptised a Roman Catholic. She is half French, half African, and by the time of her death in 1869 she will have been most recognised by her position as Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, a position she held for some forty years.
Laveaux is a personality shrouded in mystery and contradiction. She is trickster who walked with “one foot… in the realm of the mundane and the other in the realm of the divine” On the one hand; her charitable work with people dying from yellow fever and those on death row had her hailed as a saint. Quoted in the Times, she was described as “a most wonderful woman. Doing good for the sake of doing good alone, she obtained no reward… she always had the cause of the people at heart and was with them in all things... her last days were spent surrounded by sacred pictures… and she died with a firm trust in Heaven.” Yet the other hand remembered quite the opposite. “Marie Laveaux? I heard she was a devil. When she died she had horns coming out of her head… A whole lot of evil work she did”, said one Mrs Jones. Whilst another faction of the press called her the “prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous” and the cause of “the fall of many a virtuous woman”.
However, these “indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous” despite being drastically misunderstood by the white majority contain many elements vital in the practice and inner life of blues women such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Two particular elements come in the form of nommo, or naming rituals and intensely sexualised physical performance. In New Orleans Marie Laveaux “possessed supreme authority” whilst those witness to her ceremonies spoke of her “strong character, her great showmanship, and her self-confidence”. These attributes, often not granted to a woman of Laveaux’s time, can also be seen strongly in the character of Ma Rainey.
Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo’ song;
Now you’s back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong….
O Ma Rainey,
L’il an’ low;
Sing us ‘bout de hard luck
‘Roun’ our do’;
Sing us ‘bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go….
Ma" Rainey” by Sterling Brown
“Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom!” So begins one of the raucous tunes that typify the outrageous performance persona of Ma Rainey. Breaking the convention of the time, Ma Rainey’s highly sexual nature is intensified by its defiance of conforming to heteronormative themes. In Prove it on Me Blues Ma steps away from her usual dress of long flowing gowns and more gold than the eye can believe to a “collar and tie” to “talk to the girls just like any old man” because her friends “must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men” As Leib describes, this song is a “powerful statement of lesbian defiance and self-worth”.
This sexuality however is not cleaned up in the way that the characters of most white popular music of the time was. The blues she sings are rough, gritty and fuelled with the strong willed, stubborn female. Upon finding her man who’s “So good lookin’ and his clothes fit him so cute” in bed with two women she gets “rough and killed three women ‘fore the police got the news” in Rough and Tumble Blues. While in Sweet Rough Man she wakes up with a head “sore as a boil” after her man “beat me last night with five feet of copper coil” and despite her man keeping her “lips split… eyes as black as jet” she stays for “when he starts to lovin’, I wring and twist and scream… he sure can strut his stuff” As Lieb notes: “She sings of mature, highly sexual women, in contrast to the ingénues of most white popular music of the same period.”
However, it’s not all about sex. The life of a blues woman is one constantly on the road. There is always a new town, a new show and the constant battle for an income and whilst the nature of Rainey’s public performance was primarily comic, a deep sense of suffering fills her lyric. “Lord, my heart is achin’ mama feel like cryin’/ Since I had that dream last night, mama don’t mind dyin” is wailed out in Dream Blues, whilst in Little Low Mama Blues she sings “I’m gonna build me a scaffold, papa, to hang myself…Aiii, Lord, ain’t gonna sing no more.” Whilst the named reason for Rainey’s sorrow in these songs (and countless others) is her man, a deeper happening is present – within these songs Ma voices “some essential truth about the black experience in this [United States] country: poverty, suffering, heartbreak, and pain, as well as humour, fortitude, strength and endurance.”
It is obvious from a study of the work of Ma Rainey that her blues spoke of a life that “registered sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom”. This concept, though viewed as secular by the dominating religious voice (Christian), held however a powerful force within the black religious traditions. Ma Rainey herself is often referred to as a Voodoo Queen, for though she may not conduct traditional voodoo rituals as did Marie Laveaux, the blues practise of naming her troubles (as shown above) dates back to the process of nommo used in many West African Cultural traditions as a “means of establishing magical (or in the case of the blues, aesthetic) control over the object of the naming process”. Through the use of this process, secular acts become spiritualised as a woman’s voice raises the experience above the mundane world, and via sharing that experience in the a collective context of performance, liberates it. As Davis states: “Women summoned sacred responses to their messages about sexuality.”
Saint or Sinner Darlin'? The Role of Religion in Blues Mentality
The blues is neither saint nor sinner. The blues is the cry of those face down in the gutter, it wails its own story, speaks it true. The story begs not for forgiveness but implores redemption. And that is the beauty. For one who lives the life of the blues, like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, is by all outward signs a sure devil, yet one who lives that life and sings of the trouble elevates that trouble and speaks the words others can not. The life of the blues embodies the sinner. The performance of the blues, in all its honesty and empathy embodies makes the saint.
In the case of Marie Laveaux, the truth of the matter is that this woman embraced both devils and saints. With a spiritual life situated equally in the Roman Catholic Church and Voodoo ritual, her quiet charitable works were often not seen and her occult practice was easily misunderstood.
Perhaps, therefore, the use of a saint/sinner dichotomy is not entirely appropriate when discussing the role of religion in the blues mentality. Ma Rainey, when removed from the prejudiced eyes that may call her a sinner (her lesbianism, vaudeville lifestyle, drinking, “killer” instinct, highly sexualised performance persona and of course, her singing of the blues) was by all means a saint, a mother and inspiration to every blues woman that followed. She could have held the devil in the palm of her hand, yet one would be hard pressed to find a soul for whom her blessed voice had not healed, if only through a sharing of trouble in mind. This woman, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, like Marie Laveaux, cannot be viewed in binary, for her very makeup is one that demands a unification of opposites.
Perhaps, if any entity were to embody the blues’ spiritual mentality, it would have to be that old trickster whose “doubleness becomes both the source of [her] transforming power and the reason for [her] banishment from the community; as profaner of the sacred [she] becomes a sacred being, yet remains an outsider, the victim of [her] own violations. Radically impure by reason of [her] unbounded sexuality, gluttony, and mendacity, the trickster nonetheless helps to give the individual access to the sacred power by which [her] society is built.”