A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What is a mojo?

May 15, 1987

Dear Cecil:

What is a mojo? Do women have them? And what does it mean to have your mojo workin', risin', etc?

Cecil replies:

It's not what you think, wise guy.

According to my Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary — not, perhaps, the ideal source for a word popularized by semiliterate blues musicians, but bear with me — mojo has two meanings: (1) a narcotic, especially morphine; or (2) "magic, the art of casting spells, [or] a charm or amulet used in such spells."

In the first sense mojo may derive from the Spanish mojar, to celebrate by drinking; in the second, from an African word, perhaps Gullah, moco, meaning witchcraft or magic.

In blues songs mojo almost always refers to #2.

For example, there's "Mojo Blues," recorded by Charley Lincoln in 1927: "Oh the mojo blues mama, crawling across the floor / Some hard-luck rascal done told me I ain't here no more / … Aw she went to a hoodoo, she went there all alone / Because every time I leave her, I have to hurry back home."

Imponderable though portions of this are, it seems clear that the woman is using a mojo to bring her man back.

Similarly we have "Low Down Mojo Blues," recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928:

"My rider's got a mojo, and she won't let me see / Every time I start to loving, she ease that thing on me / She's got to fool her daddy, she's got to keep that mojo hid / But papa's got something, for to find that mojo with / She got four speeds forward, and she don't never stall / The way she bumps over the hill, it would make a panther squall."

The problem with these damn blues tunes is that just about when you figure you've got something pretty much nailed down, meaningwise, they launch into some off-the-wall digression (e.g., "four speeds forward") that tends to cast doubt on any strictly linear interpretation. But you get the basic idea.

You also see how you might get the impression a mojo has something to do with sex, mainly because nine times out of ten it does have something to do with sex, in the form of a love charm or aphrodisiac or something.

"Scarey Day Blues" by Blind Willie McTell makes this pretty clear:

"My good gal got a mojo, she's trying to keep it hid / But Georgia Bill got something to find that mojo with [I know this is repetitive, but it gets better] / I said she got that mojo, and she won't let me see / And every time I start to love her, she's tried to put them jinx on me.

"Well she shakes it like the Central, she wobbles like the L and N [railroads] / Well she's a hotshot mama, and I'm scared to tell her where I been / Said my baby got something, she won't tell her daddy what it is / But when I crawls into my bed, I just can't keep my black stuff still."

I imagine the expression "black stuff" requires no explanation.

Notes from the mojo beat

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, please, watch your stereotypes — "semiliterate blues musicians" indeed!

One of the musicians you quoted, Blind Willie McTell, studied at schools for the blind in Mississippi, New York, and Michigan. Although he sang on the streets for years he was far from a beggar, traveling extensively throughout the south and performing many styles of folk and pop, as well as blues, in a wide variety of venues.

Two of our other best-known "mojo" lyricists — Willie Dixon and J.B. Lenoir — are famous for their insightful, articulate musical observations on politics, social issues, and a wide variety of other topics.

Each, moreover, was much more than a "mere" musician. Dixon was A&R man for Chess Records for many years, and Lenoir made a profitable living for himself in the funeral home business after he retired from music.

The list of blues musicians who've enjoyed success in other endeavors — politics, business, other performing arts, the church — requiring both literacy and resourcefulness would be much too long for this letter.

As far as mojo goes, I might be able to contribute two bits of information.

The "mojo hand" often referred to is a variation of a generic kind of magical "hand" used by root doctors and hoodoo doctors in rural folk medicine and magical practices.

On one memorable television broadcast, Dr. John presented Muddy Waters with one, complete with either the bones or the dried fingers of monkeys hanging from it.

From what I can gather, "mojo" in this case is an adjective, like the word "magic" in "magic potion."

The "mojo rising" the questioner mentioned, however, is the invention of one Jim Morrison of the famous Delta blues band the Doors.

Morrison took to nicknaming himself "Mr. Mojo Risin'" as an anagram of "Jim Morrison" toward the end of his life. He finally included the phrase in the song, "LA Woman," although what southern folk medicine has to do with Los Angeles is a secret Morrison carried to his grave (we think).

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