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The word "Jomo" -- also spelled and pronounced Jomoo, Joomoo, Joe Mow, Joe Moore -- occurs in African American conjure and hoodoo practice fairly rarely, and folks sometimes ask what it means, so this is an attempt at an answer. It is by no means definitive, but will cover the territory of what we know about this word by reference to historical documents.

The most common assumption about the word jomo is that it is simply an inversion of the better known hoodoo term mojo, meaning a charm bag. However, there is a regionality and an age to the word jomo that suggests that it is more than merely another way to say mojo.

First, let us look at what the African American word jomo is NOT:


When i first heard the world jomo used to describe a mojo bag or magical charm of some sort, i was reminded of Jomo Kenyatta, the African political hero, but research quickly proved this sound-alike conjecture to be spurious. Jomo Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Ngengi in 1889 and was later christened John Peter Kamau. He took the Swahili pseudonym Jomo Kenyatta ("Light of Kenya") during his days as a guerilla fighter and independence leader.

Kenya is in Eastern Africa, with a coast line on the Indian Ocean, making Swahili a very unlikely language from which the African American word jomo might derive, since most of the slaves transported to the United States were from Central Africa. There are hundreds of languages in Africa, so playing the matching game on a word-by-word basis is futile: Jomo never means "light" in hoodoo usage, and in Swahili, the number "one" is "moja" -- but that is not the origin of the American conjure word "mojo," either, so combing Swahili lexicons for words related to conjure is generally a waste of time.


The next thing that comes to mind with the word "jomo" is that it is a syllabic inversion of the far commoner word "mojo." This is the explanation of it that is given in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

Because most of the African words that are included in English derive from Bantu languages, it is logical to assume that if jomo is not an inversion of mojo (which current thinking ascribes to the Bantu word mooyo or moyoo, meaning "spirit"), then we should be able to locate a Bantu analogue for it -- but so far, this has not been the case. Thus DARE and other lexicographical sources state that jomo is an inversion of mojo.

The syllabic inversion theory has led several people to claim that jomo is a "cover" or secret way of saying "mojo" so as to not arouse suspicions of performing witchcraft. However, this makes no sense: White people in America generally have no idea what a mojo is, so trying to hide one unknown word by using another unknown word is pointless, while Black people are already familiar with the word "jomo," as i will demonstrate below, thus obviating its efficacy as a cover for the word "mojo."

However, even if jomo is simply an inversion of the word mojo, it has evolved meanings beyond those given to the mojo, which is a charm bag that is folded, wrapped, tied, and carried on the person or secreted in a location about the home. As will be seen below, the word jomo also has a meaning that mojo never has, namely the general range of works covered elsewhere by terms such as hoodoo, conjure, rootwork, root doctoring, or foot track magic.


The word jomo appears in several rural acoustic blues song lyrics, recorded during the early 20th century, as well as in a couple of books of 20th century folklore. The birthplaces and dwelling places of the folklorists' subjects and those who sang on the musical recordings (which, incidentally, are far less common than rural acoustic blues that mention mojos) may provide a clue as to the distribution of the word.


The earliest blues lyrics that mention a jomo (and also, incidentally reference a black cat bone) are in "Jim Tampa Blues," recorded in Chicago in 1927 by Lucille Bogan, with spoken parts by Papa Charlie Jackson.

The singer, Lucille Bogan, is narrating the first-person tale of a prostitute and her pimp, Jim Long, whose nicknames are "Jim Tampa" and "Mister Tampa Long." The story unfolds from the prostitute's point of view as the narrator complains that no matter how badly Jim Tampa treats her, she can't leave him, due to the magical hold he has over her. Here is verse 4, in which the jomo is mentioned:

It must be a black cat bone, jomo can't work that hard 
(spoken)        Oh, what is a jomo anyhow? Tell me. 
It must be a black cat bone, jomo can't work that hard 
(spoken)        What kind of a thing is it? 
Every time I wake up, Jim Tampa's in my yard. 

The black cat bone is well known as a charm to force a lover to return, and this is what the woman thinks is being used on her, because, as she implies, although a jomo is a magical charm, it is not one that is specifically used to force a lover to return, after the manner of a black cat bone.

Lucille Bogan, whose maiden name was Lucille Anderson, was born in Amory, Monroe County, Mississippi, on April 1st, 1897. Sometime before 1916 she relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, and married Nazareth Lee Bogan. She began her recording career in 1923, at the age of 26. Beginning in 1944, she started a second recording career under the pseudonym Bessie Jackson. in order to work outside of her recording company contracts. During the latter portion of her career, she was almost always accompnaied by the piano player Walter Roland, an Alabama native.

Like many Black performing artists of the time, once she was under contract as a singer, she travelled by train to her recording sessions, which, in her case, were in New York City (1923), Atlanta (1923), and Chicago (1927 - 1932). After an extended stay in Chicago, she returned to Birmingham in 1934 and then again recorded in New York City (1933 - 1935). She moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and died there of heart disease the same year.

Despite her birth in Mississippi, one could call Bogan an Alabama singer, and she does mention Birmingham in her lyrics -- but her various songs also reference the states of Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia.

The name "Jim Tampa" would seem on the face of it to indicate the city of Tampa, Florida, but the allusion may be a sexual metaphor by way of the popular Hav-A-Tampa Jewels brand of cigars. "Jewels" is ancient slang for testicles, the long, dark brown cigars resemble the penis of an African American man, and the trademark of Hav-A-Tampa Jewels, dating back to 1902, is a bare-armed "loose" woman in seductive, exotic clothing. Thus "Jim Tampa" and "Mister Tampa Long" appear to be the prostitute-narrator's rather clever nicknames for her pimp, Mister Jim "Tampa" Long, who may or may not have hailed from Tampa, Florida.

Bogan's co-lyricist on "Jim Tampa Blues" is Papa Charlie Jackson, who was born in 1885 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and died in 1938 in Chicago -- but note that in the song he is asking her what the word jomo means, as if he does not know. This is may be nothing more than rhetorical device, but it also does point to the rarity of the word, even in the African American vocabulary of hoodoo, and it is certainly not common in lyrics of this sort for one Black singer to ask another Black singer the meaning of a piece of Black slang.


A song titled "Jomo Man Blues," was recorded by Waymon "Sloppy" Henry in 1929. We have no certain birthplace or other biographical information on Henry, but reasearch by Bob Eagle indicates he was born in Alabama. We do know that he recorded all his songs in Atlanta, Georgia in 1928 and 1929. He hung out with guitarist Peg Leg Howell and fiddler Eddie Anthony in Atlanta, but little else is known about him.

Due to the nature of Waymon Henry's repertoire -- he made as many recordings of rags as blues -- and the one known picture of him, in which he is wearing a silk top hat -- printed in a 1925 ad in the Chicago Defender newspaper (a national paper, so not indicative of his place of residence) -- it is thought that he must have been a minstrel, medicine show, or vaudeville performer. He is known for his amazing lyrics, some of which may be original compositions, and for his strong vocal delivery, rather than his musicianship, and, in fact, because the musicians on his pieces seem to vary from session to session, some believe that Henry was a stage performer who played with pick-up bands when recording. This may help explain why so few of his blues contemporaries could tell later researchers much about him.

Because this song references the word jomo in four out of its five verses, it is worth quoting here in full, from the "Jomo Man Blues" web page, with transcription by catherine and nagasiva yronwode:


by Waymon "Sloppy" Henry

Jomo wrecked my home one morning, made my woman move Jomo man wrecked my home one morning, made my woman move Got me so worried and bothered that i don't know what to do

Jomo man, jomo man, don't do me this a way Jomo man, jomo man, don't do me this a way Look here, jomo man, jomo man, please don't do me this a way

Engineer blowed his whistle, fireman toned the bell Gal i'm loving crying, "Don't leave me here" Jomo man wrecked my home one morning, baby, honey now i must go If times don't get no better, you won't see me here no more

Eh, told yez, mama, done all i could do All i could do and look here, my honey, Done all that i could do Look like you're a woman that i'm loving, can't get along with you

Eh, you toted your lodestone, John the Conquer too Sprinkl'd your goofer dust, made my woman move Jomo man, jomo man, you done broke up my home Aw, got me here, sure making me weep and moan.

In our attempt to determine the regional distribution of the word jomo in the early 20th century, let us sift through any clues to Henry's place of origin that can be found in his song lyrics, pronunciation, and dialect phrasing.

So, as far as i can determine, although Sloppy Henry recorded in Georgia and may have lived there all his life, he used the Irish / Black sailor's dialect that is also found from New Orleans through Mississippi to Tennessee, he sang a floating verse also recorded by a Memphis, Tennessee, band, and he used a locution found in the works of a Mississippi singer-composer. However, as will be seen below, the word jomo is quite closely associated with four states -- Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida -- and since Henry worked and recorded in Georgia, it is likely that he was raised there as well.

Since Henry is assumed to have been a professional entertainer rather than a rural songster, it is probable that he picked up lyrics from other entertainers and/or travelled the Southern vaudeville and medicine show circuits, thus explaining why his songs refer to places as wide-spread as Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, and Oklahoma. If Sloppy Henry travelled with the medicine shows or worked on the Toby circuit (now there's another linguistic conjure moment: note how the all-Negro Theater Owner's Booking Agency (the TOBA) got called the Toby, another word for a mojo), he would have easily taken in a range of territory from Baltimore to Atlanta and westward to Memphis, Tennessee.


The list of definitions of terms used in the writing of the 1935 book "Mules and Men" by the African-American author Zora Neale Hurston at contains this line: "Ah got my Joe Moore in my hair - A piece of gamblers lucky hoodoo."

Hurston was born in Alabama, although she publicly claimed Florida as her birthplace. "Joe Moore" is Hurston's phonetic spelling of "jomo" -- reflecting how the word is pronounced in the state of Florida. (The subtraction of -- and unneeded addition of -- the final "r" is so common in Southern rural speech that it needs no further comment, i presume.)

In this case, the jomo is not Bogan's conjure bag or Henry's maker of spells or a generalized term for rootwork, but some small charm (such as crossed needles) worn in the hair.


The piano player and song writer Walter Roland, who accompanied the singer Lucille Bogan on her "Bessie Jackson" sides (see above), also mentioned a jomo in one of his own songs, "Penniless Blues," which was recorded in New York City on March 20, 1935, and featured a piano-guitar duet with Josh White. Roland was born in the town of Ralph, Alabama, on either December 20, 1902 (according to his Social Security record) or December 4, 1903 (according to his death certificate). Like Lucille Bogan, Walter Roland also lived in Birmingham, Alabama, although he travelled to make recording.


by Walter Roland I been blue all night, what is I'm going to do? Eh-eh, what is I'm going to do? You know the reason I'm that a-way, Lord, I'm broke and hungry too You know, my woman left me, Lord, when I wasn't feeling well You know, my woman left me, when I wa'n't feeling well You know, said living with that woman, Lord it is just like living in hell I ain't got no money, not a penny can I show I ain't got no money, not a penny can I show And you know, folks, that's the reason, Lord, that I'm worried so You know, I let that woman tote my money, Lord, in a jomo sack Lord, I let that woman tote my money, Lord, in a jomo sack And you know it's going to be some hell raised, Lord, if she don't bring some of my money back

Walter Roland's jomo is a charm in a sack or bag. In appearance and function, it is a mojo; more specifically, since it contains the man's money, it resembles a nation sack.


The great folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded mention of the word jomo in Georgia in 1939, and you can find this at my Harry Hyatt informants page:

Waycross, GA
c. March 2, 1939
    #1095 - [-] 
          "[Go] to de fo'ks of de road 'bout twelve or one
          a'clock in de night an' git some sand ... an' put it in a
          bag ... an' put it ovah yore mantlepiece. Go tuh de
          graveyard. ... an' git some dirt an' sew it up wit dat. An'
          dat'ud make yo' lucky -- good a jomo as yo' want."
          (entry 2039, cylinder 1764:6)
This jomo, comprised of fo'ks of de road dirt and graveyard dirt sewed into a red flannel bag, is carried for good luck; in both appearance and function, it is indistinguishable from a mojo


A professional bootlegger and gambler in Georgia who was interviewed by Harry Middleton Hyatt in 1939 described a "jomoo" made for him by a Florida-based root worker. This can be found at my Harry Hyatt informants page:

Waycross, GA
c. March 7, 1939
    #1149 - {-} A 28 year old [presumably male] bootlegger and
            professional gambler (born c. 1911) who had been using roots
            for 18 years (since c. 1921).
          This man did not make his own hands, but, with his uncle,
          consulted the same "root man" twice. The first time he
          wanted help with the Bolito, an illegal policy-like lottery
          game with connections to Cuba. In the narrative it is implied
          that he was not looking for luck in winning but was working
          as a gambler, possibly as a policy writer or runner for the
          numbers racket). The root worker and his wife were located
          in Florida. The doctor read palms and the couple seemingly 
          performed an act of prestidigitation with a live snake, after 
          which the doctor made up a root bag for gambling for $8.00; 
          a rite of circumambulation and recital of the 23rd Psalm set
          it working. Later, due to the police giving him trouble over
          his bootlegging and gambling activities, the man sought out
          the same worker again and, for another $8.00, was given a
          "law keep away" type hand, a jomo or "jomoo." Said the
          informant, "During de time dey [the police] supposed to
          travel dat beat, jes' roll mah jomoo an' dey'd pass on by
          ... ah tried it an' it worked."
          (entry 249, cylinder 1874:9)
This jomo is carried for protection; in both appearance and function, it is indistinguishable from a mojo.


An old man, born in Goldsboro, North Carolina, who had been both a preacher and a root doctor, was interviewed by Harry Middleton Hyatt in Brunswick, Georgia in 1939 and described hot foot and break-up spells as "jomoo work" performed by an "evil jomooo man." The following description can be found at my Harry Hyatt informants page:

Brunswick, GA
March 14 1939
    #1213 - [-] An elderly ex-clergyman, born in Goldsboro, NC
            but living in Brunswick, GA. Hyatt called his interview 
            "Tomb of de Babe of Bethlehem" after one of the religious 
            spells he related. Hyatt also called him "long-winded" and
            "sincere" -- and somehow managed to mess up his recording
            equipment and re-record over his cylinders, losing a portion 
            of the interview. The ex-clergyman did not do any sort of evil
            work, but described it when Hyatt requested: 
          To make people move, that's jomoo work. That's the jomoo work[er]
          that does that. He does that with snake charms. The snake charms 
          are made by workers who go to the woods, kill snakes, take three
          drops of their blood and some of their bones, parch the mixture 
          to dust and sprinkle it under the doorstep or inside the rooms to
          force people to move out. If a man has a wife and another fellow 
          wants her and he goes to a jomoo man, that will result in a court
          case, due to the actions of "evil jomoo man" and his "poison dust."
          In the old days this was called cunjure or cunjering. 
          There is a great deal more in this interview. 
          Interview Volume Two, pages 1325 - 1335, 
          cylinders C469:3 - C478:5 = 2050 - 2059. 


A professional root worker in North Carolina who was interviewed by Harry Middleton Hyatt in 1939 described a "joomoo" made with fo'ks of de road dirt, graveyard dirt, vinegar, sulphur, John the Conquerer root, lodestone, and Adam and Eve root. This too is logged at my Harry Hyatt informants page:

Fayetteville or Wilson, NC
c. May - June 1939
#??? - [-] [Hyatt lost the informant's number and the location
       of the interview, but the cylinder number places it here.] 
          At midnight take fresh (new) graveyard dirt from the breast
          of the grave of a man who was not a Christian, but "a real
          gambler or some wicked man." Bring it home, add 9 drops of
          Apple cider vinegar and a pinch of sulphur. Wrap and tie it
          in a piece of paper until it dries, then rub it to powder.
          This powder is used to fix up a "joomoo" for a client by
          adding it to a piece of John the Conquer root, a piece of
          lodestone, and a piece of Adam and Eve Root, sewn into a red
          flannel bag. This will work as a gambling hand as long as
          for every $500.00 won, the user gives $5.00 to an indigent
          old person.
          (entry 2040, cylinder 2633:1)


A person in North Carolina who was interviewed by Harry Middleton Hyatt in 1939 made mention of the word jomo as a type of conjure. This also is logged at my Harry Hyatt informants page:

Wilson, NC
c. May - June 1939
 #1506 - [-] "... take your old shoes and burn 'em so no one kin jomo 
          work yo'. Yo' always have good luck at chure home."
          (entry 1505, cylinder 2673:9)
In this case, to "jomo work you" is the equivalent of "to rootwork you," to "poison you through the feet", or "to hoodoo you" -- that is, to perform negative or coercive spells on you by means of foot track magic, necessitating the destruction of your old shoes for the sake of protection from vulnerability. So, to this North Carolina speaker in 1939, jomo could be a verb as well as a noun, and it certainly referred to more than Hurston's mere gamblers' lucky charm or Bogan's mojo-like charm, closely resembling the generalized and potentially harmful magical work done by the "jomo man" referred to by Waymon "Sloppy" Henry and the elderly ex-clergyman interviewed by Harry Hyatt.


On August 19, 1939, two Black men and one White man were interviewed in the office of the Aycock & Lindsey turpentine camp, Cross City, Florida. The interviews, conducted by Stetson Kennedy and recorded by Robert Cook, are included in the Florida Folklife section of the WPA Collections at the Library of Congress. The transcription summary, uncredited, was probably written by Kennedy. A complete copy of the transcription notes of the portion of the recording that relates to jomos is located at the Southern Spirits Archive of African American Spirituality under the title James Byrd, Albert Spaulding, Berry Johnson: The Jomo in Florida.

1) James Byrd, Negro turpentine worker, Cross City, Florida, age 30 (born 1909), said that "Joe Mow" is a good luck charm usually including a lodestone, carried in the pocket and rubbed for winning at gambling games.

2) Albert Spaulding, White, age 21 (born 1918), assistant manager of the commissary of a large turpentine camp, Cross City, Florida told of a Black man buying three nails and a paper bag to make a protective "Joe Mow" to keep under his pillow as a preventive against attacks by witches, presumably hag-riding witches who would trouble him in his sleep.

3) Berry Johnson, Negro turpentine worker of Cross City, Florida, discussed ghosts and Joe Mows, but no further details are given in the transcription summary.

We know that Zora Neale Hurston worked for the WPA with Stetson Kennedy and here we see again a Floridian "Joe Moore" or "Joe Mow" used as a lucky gambling charm -- but we also have a "Joe Mow" protection charm and a "Joe Mow" associated with spirits and ghosts.


We have looked at eleven 1920s - 1930s sightings of the word jomo in the mouths of --

Surprisingly, every early 20th century reference to a jomo that i and my research partners have located -- both in folklore and linguistics studies and in blues lyrics -- can be traced to persons who were born in or were known to have spent time in four contiguous states: North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, or Florida.

Further research may yet turn up some early jomo sightings from other states ... but as the list of examples grows longer and the same four states show up over and over again, one cannot help but get the distinct impression that this rare word was used in a relatively limited region.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I would like to offer my deepest thanks to the blues researcher Chris Smith of the pre-war blues e-list for bringing the DARE entry and the LOC online version of the WPA recording to my attention, and for supplying references to Hyatt interviews that i had overlooked in my first pass through the material. Thanks also to Elijah Wald, David Evans, Eoghan Ballard, and Jeffrey Anderson for contributing to online discussions that helped me formulate my thoughts on this subject.

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Since i know that at least three people who read this page will be clamouring for the lyrics to Waymon "Sloppy" Henry's "Say I Do It," here is the first verse and chorus:

Mose and Pete lived on Greenwillow Street,
     in northwest Baltimore.
Pete run with Mose 'cause he powdered his nose,
     and even wore ladies' hose.
Two could be seen, running hand in hand,
     in all kinds of weather,
Till the neighbors they began to signify,
    'bout the birds that flock together.

Mose, he began to sigh! 
He yelled out his reply:

"Say I do it, ain't nobody see'd me,
     they sure got to prove it 'bout me.
Can't identify a man with the cover over his head,
     when a crab is cooked, he's bound to turn red.
It's true I use a powder puff and has a shiny face,
     I wears a red necktie,'cause I think it suits my pace.
I know my voice is tenor, I reduce myself with lace,
     and when you see me with the gang, you find me singing bass.
They say I do it, ain't nobody see'd me,
     they sure got to prove it on me."



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