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TITLE: I've Been Hoodooed
MATRIX NO.: C-2493-
SINGER: by Jim Towel, with piano accompaniment by Cow Cow Davenport
COMPOSER(S): Gussie Davis, 1894
DATE OF REC.: 26 October 1928, Chicago, Illinois
ORIGINAL ISSUE(S): Brunswick 7060
REISSUE(S): Blues Documents BDCD-6040
TRANSCRIPTION: cat yronwode
by Jim Towel

I've been hoodooed, I've been hoodooed
Hoodooed, hoodooed by a darky hoodoo
I've been hoodooed, I've been hoodooed
Hoodooed by a doctor, sure as you're born

A gal for me had a great infatuation
She wanted me to marry, but she had no situation
When I refused, she near went wild,
Says, "I'm bound to hoodoo that child"

She went and got a rabbit foot, she buried it wit' a frog
Right in the hollow of an old burnt log.
Right on the road where I had to walk along
Ever since then my head's been wrong.

My bones begin to ache, my teeth begin to chatter
I went to the doctor, he couldn't tell the matter
Says, "Ol' child, you're goin' up the spout,"
He looked at my hair and my hair fell out

Nobody knows how funny I feel
Even 'til the husk fell off my heel
I went to the dock, start to jump in the river
Looked at the water, my bones begin to quiver

Laid on the dock, fell fast asleep
Try to wake up, my flesh begin to creep
Laid on the dock, I got a pain in the head
When I woke up, to tell the truth, I found myself dead

I've been hoodooed, hoodooed
Hoodooed, hoodooed by a doctor hoodoo
I've been hoodooed, hoodooed
Hoodooed by a doctor, sure's you're born

Put on your state, you children
Listen to what i say
Don't disgrace the coloured race
Now, don't be led astray

Put on your state, you children
There's a time to make your mark
If you can't come yeller, come the right colour
But for goodness sake, don't come dark

'Cause I've been hoodooed, hoodooed
Hoodooed, hoodooed by a doctor hoodoo
I've been hoodooed, I've been hoodooed
I've been hoodooed by a doctor, sure as you're born
TRANSCRIBED by catherine yronwode ( 30 Sep 2000
with help from Chris Smith ( 22 Oct 2000
and with thanks to Alan Balfour (
for supplying a tape of this song for my use,
and to Tony Russell for biographical data on Jim Towel 26 Jan 2011

DISCOGRAPHY BY: Chris Smith ( 22 Oct 2000

COMMENTS BY CAT YRONWODE: This is a coon song rather than an actual blues, but it is notable for the variety of authentic images it presents, some of which -- e.g. the hollow log and the husk (callus) from the heel -- are not found in any other lyrics. The list of symptoms narrated and the fact that a conventional doctor cannot cure the unnatural illness all point to a typical case of foot track magic, also known as poisoning through the feet or crossing. The use of a rabbit foot and a dying or dead frog to produce this condition is not very common; more often those two are used for gambling luck, while the symptoms of poisoning through the feet are produced with an more "verminous" animal such as a snake, a scorpion, a lizard, or a nest of spiders buried in the path. However, the classical symptoms of foot track magic are all here, and the mention of the husk or callus falling off the victim's heel seals this as an authentic description of unnatural illness or "poisoning through the feet."

Folks not familiar with American slang have asked me what the phrase, "If you can't come yeller" means. "Yeller" is "yellow" -- meaning a light-skinned or bi-racial person of partial African descent. It was the custom at the time this song was written (in the 19th century) to refer to people of colour by slang terms which described their skin colour fairly specifically. In later eras, especially during the mid-20th century, such distinctions were abandoned, due to the informal adoption by racist "Whites" of what was known as the "one-drop rule" (one drop of African blood makes you a person of colour) and the resultant reclaiming of the word "Black" by African Americans to describe all people of partial or full African descent as a self-chosen term. But, going back to the days of Jim Towel, folks would describe a "coloured person" as High Yeller, Brown, Brownskin, Tan, Cafe au Lait, Bronze, Dark, or Black, as a matter of course, just as European Americans might describe a woman by her hair or eye colour (cf. Stephen Foster's, "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair" or the Carter Family's "I will twine with my mingles of Raven-black hair").

You will often hear this casual description of skin colour in African American songs of the 19th and early 20th century: Blind Willie McTell sings, "I got three womens, Yellow, Brown, and Black" and Ed Bell sings "Brown Skin Woman Blues." Also, you can hear blues songs of that era derisively referring to a woman as a "Crow Jane," meaning a woman with skin as black as a Crow.

So what Towel is saying is that in order to advance socially, one should have light skin and if you are not of a naturally light skin colour, you should "(be)come Yellow" by lightening your skin tone with make-up to at least Tan or Brown. This was in the era when face makeup was just entering popular society rather than being reserved for the stage or for "disreputable" women. The market in make-up for African Americans was an offshoot of the then burgeoning market for make-up of all kinds.

This section of the song opens with a comment about putting on an air of dignity ("put on your state, you children") and is part of a look at the upward mobility of formerly enslaved people who now aspire to social status and cultural acceptance or assimilation into White majority culture. Towel was a vaudeville performer and the song would have been accompanied by gestures and dance, probably a Cakewalk style promenade with a cane, top-hat, and suit at the "don't disgrace the coloured race" portion of the song.

It has been suggested that in fact, "I've been Hoodooed" almost seems to be two songs in one -- a song about being conjured and a tongue-in-cheek look at post-Civil-War Black social hierarchies, but it seems to me that the song expresses a sense of duality, that which would "disgrace the coloured race" would be if one were "led astray" by a belief in hooodoo -- and as the melody slides from a minor key for the "superstitious" portion to a major key for the assimilationist portion, we see the tension in the singer's situation, which, with comedic inevitability, collapses back into lowly fear in a minor key.

COMMENTS BY CHRIS SMITH: I agree with Paul Oliver ("Songsters & Saints," p. 102) that [in V.8 and V.9] it's "put on your state, you children." Bob Macleod in his Blues Documents transcription book gives "sneak shoes, children," but I don't think that's right. "State" (or another word meaning "dress up and act fancy") is supported by Jim Jackson, who in "I'm a Bad Bad Man" sings

Put on your slick, you children,
Regularly paint you on the face;
Now don't disgrace our coloured race,
Listen to what I say.
Go put on your slick, you children,
It's time to make your mark;
Now don't come yeller, but come the right colour,
For God's sake don't come dark
Jim Towel's song, according to Oliver, was written by the black composer Gussie Davis in 1894, and he suggests that the implication of the "put on your state" verse is that the hoodoo is the white man -- i.e .that white people are the source of black people's troubles. This, as Paul *doesn't* point out, would be a switch from the meaning of the rest of the song, which is clearly about real hoodoo.

COMMENTS BY CAT YRONWODE: First, although i agree fully with Paul Oliver and Chris Smith that the phrase is "put on your state, you children," not "put on your sneak shoes, children" as per Macleod, i'd like to note that Oliver's "implication ... that the hoodoo is the white man ... that white people are the source of black people's troubles." is flatly contradicted by the singer's statement in V. 1 that he was hoodooed by a "darky." Further, since his aspirations in V. 8 and V.9 are for lighter skin, it is the old "darky" and the belief in hoodoo that is holding him down, not a white person -- and in fact no white people appear in the lyrics at all. Plus, as Chris already said, the song is not about some sort of metaphorical hoodoo -- it is actually about real hoodoo practices.

Second, in regard to the meaning of "put on your state, you children": As Chris noted, the similar Jim Jackson verse with its "regularly paint you on the face" line does refer to the skin-colour preferences brought out in the latter past of the last verse. Jim Jackson's "put on your slick," with respect to "regularly paint you on the face" may refer to hair slick, pomade, or grease, used to give kinky hair the appearance of straight hair.

However, Jim Towel does seem to sing "state," and not slick" as per Jackson. Chris took this to infer the meaning "dress up and act fancy" for "state" -- but my 5th edition Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1936) gives two meanings for the word "state" that are even more apropos to this song, in the sense of "estate":

3: condition with reference to wealth, social position, etc.; standing; esp., high rank; eminence.

4: condition of living; specif., elaborate condition befitting a person of rank and wealth; hence, formal dignity, pomp, or the like.
That is, the singer is not only adjuring the children of the Negro race to "dress up and act fancy" but to "show the world your social aspirations with a display of wealth, pomp, formal dignity, and lightened skin colour." This is in keeping with the fact that "I've Been Hoodooed" is a 19th century coon song, not a blues, because poking fun at the uppity pretensions of upwardly mobile African-Americans was part and parcel of the coon song genre, even in -- perhaps especially in -- songs composed by black lyricists.

COMMENTS BY CHRIS SMITH: The verse as a whole is an encouragement to be dignified, which sadly is seen as co-terminous with acting like white people. I have a book of essays by an African American social commentator called "Showing My Colour." He uses the term ironically, of course, explaining that "Don't show your colour" was how black people used to tell one another not to behave badly. [But also note the comparison] to Jim Jackson's "put on your slick," which pretty clearly is about dressing in style.

COMMENTS BY CAT YRONWODE: ...Or about slicking your hair down to appear less African.

COMMENTS BY TONY RUSSELL: A collector friend asked if I knew anything about Jim Towel. [Here are] some fragments of information I dug up:

A black James Towel was enumerated as a New York resident in 1910 and 1920, both times described as a theatre actor. The 1910 census gave his age as 53, the 1920 one as 60. He was born in DC (1910) or MD (1920). He is briefly mentioned, as Jim Towel, in a "New York Notes" section in the "Indianapolis Freeman" in 1913 as having made a hit at a NY theatre, all of which goes some way to explaining the nature of his material.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The following web pages can be consulted for more details about the topics referenced in this song:
V.1 hoodooed (poisoned), hoodoo doctor (practitioner)
V.3 rabbit foot
V.3 where i had to walk along (foot track magic)
V.5 the husk fell off my heel (foot track magic)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Individual acknowledgements for transcriptions and discographical data appear on each song-page, but i want to note that this Blues Lyrics and Hoodoo archive would never have been possible without the contributions of Gorgen Antonsson, who generously shared with me the format and content of his own personal lyrics archive, and Alan Balfour and Chris Smith, who have devoted a great deal of time to supplying me with tapes, transcribed lyrics, and detailed discographical information. Additionally, i wish to thank the kind members of the prewar blues e-list who have aided my research in innumerable ways. If you have missing data to supply, hear a substantially different take on a transcription, or want to let me know about a song that has been overlooked in these pages, please contact me through the prewar blues e-list:

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Due to certain social, economic, and political paradigms in place at the time of their composition, many early blues songs were improperly copyrighted or not copyrighted at all. Many bore no composer credits. Many were ripped off by unethical music publishers who falsely claimed authorship and copyrighted them in their own names. Many that were once copyright-protected are now in the public domain due to publishers' or composers' failures to properly renew the copyrights. Many have since been ripped off by unethical performers or music publishers who have pretended to be the composers for the purpose of securing a belated copyright or who have claimed "arranger's" credits on songs they falsely swore were "traditional" when in fact the songs were composed by the people who originally performed them on record. It is my sincere belief that the song transcribed on this page bears the implied moral copyright of its composer, whoever that may be. If you believe that you control the copyright by virtue of authorship or legal legerdemain, you may contact me in a civil and polite manner and i will attempt in good faith to satisfy your needs in the matter of obtaining formal permission to quote the lyrics in this scholarly publication.


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