Thursday, August 2, 2012

Marie's The Name: Redbone: "The Witch Queen of New Orleans"

Although they have been around for centuries, one way or another, we have now reached the decade where witches (or women who dabble with the supernatural in general) are sung about more than any other.  I’m not sure why the 70s was such fertile witch-song territory, but so it was; and these are scary witches for the most part, far away from Samantha on Bewitched.  Without knowing it, here it is, late October, a time of lengthening shadows and chilly mornings, rustlings of leaves and eerie quiet.  The charms of early fall are gone; the dread winter it’s an appropriate time for the witching season to begin, but I have to ask once more – why now? 

Some might say it’s some kind of reaction to feminism; witches are powerful figures, independent, mysterious…and feminism may have prodded the psyches of some to remember them, as actual flesh-and-blood women gained more and more of their own independence.  Others might say that the late 60s opened up a veritable box of occult and esoteric information – made things like the Tarot and astrology and so on more hip.  The witch arts of casting spells and brewing up potions fits in very well with this, though I can’t say I’m personally very familiar with these activities.  (The I Ching is more my thing, overall.)  This song is about not just a witch but a witch queen; a super-powerful figure, and since she’s in New Orleans, voodoo (again not something I know much about, besides the dolls) is in her repertoire, as well.

But what men fear about witches is their beauty and sexual power; that it is tapping into Mother Nature itself, and cannot be overcome.  Some songs may dread this power, others may celebrate it; Redbone’s funkiness suggests that they’re down with this witch – better to be for her than against her – but still you’ve got to watch out for her, as she glamorously goes about her business.  (For reasons too complex to explain here, the 70s were glamorous times, or at least times when glamor was pursued, and sometimes achieved; as a reaction to the power-cut squalor that persisted through most of the decade.)  I can’t say this is a feminist song, pro- or anti-; but the muddy funk here sounds as if it’s a lot older than rock ‘n’ roll in a way – Redbone are a Native American group, and this adds to the sense of another time, another place, a wisdom that extends centuries back, on the part of the group as well as their subject.  “Black Magic Woman” (as done originally by Fleetwood Mac and covered very successfully by Santana) is about a woman who belongs to a man, but this woman belongs to no one; she is free.  But how free is any witch, really?  This one, plainly hip-deep in voodoo and able to help anyone for a "dime or a nickel" is possessed alright - by devils themselves.  She is evil, therefore, and even when she's gone, she's not dead; just departed.  With "hate in her eyes" she goes, like one of the Furies, grumbling and reluctant...practising her crafts elsewhere, maybe somewhere else in the swamp, where all is muddy, humid and pungent...

Redbone wrote this song, which was a bigger hit in the UK than in the US; I'm not sure if they wrote this out of some personal experience or because songs about witches in general were in vogue*.  But it does strike me as a song that reaches back in time to tell a story, and it's a true one, about this woman, Marie Laveau; the fact that she lived to be 98 and that very little can be proven doesn't stand in the way of legend, not to mention its younger relatives, rumor and hearsay.  This song is typical in making witches seem much, much worse than they really are, and maybe (just maybe) reflecting something of those primal fears that in reality are more nightmares than actual fears.   The songs about witches will continue, though, from Cher's future hit "Dark Lady" to Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon."  There is always one corner of the 70s where there's a powerful woman of the night, a strange woman who is more allied with - and tied to - Mother Nature than others feel is right.  Whether this is due to feminism, a general public awareness of the occult or what, it's a theme that marks the decade, as surely as the more cold and rational aspects elsewhere. 

*Maybe they were hip to Dr. John, whose Gris-Gris album came out in '68; funk of all sorts was getting into the charts and gaining popularity about now...

1 comment:

MikeMCSG said...

Interesting as well that the fashion for things occult/pagan started creeping into kids TV around this time with things like Catweazle, Ace of Wands and ( a bit later ) The Changes.