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DELUXE 3173; JUNE, 1948

 
 

 

There are certain subjects in rock ‘n’ roll that hold a strange allure for all types of artists spanning all eras. One of the more promising topics, in theory anyway, is voodoo, the mysterious folk religion brought to America by those enslaved in the 18th century.

Voodoo used the wearing of charms as a form of protection for its followers and other amulets containing mixtures of roots and herbs which cast spells on those who wished them harm. The mixture of traditional religious aspects, medicinal potions and a belief in the supernatural was a compelling entreaty for those enslaved who otherwise held no power, and conversely was a source of morbid curiosity which engendered cautious respect from their captors.

By the 20th Century, with voodoo widely considered to be debunked and therefore nothing to fear, it passed into folklore and eventually became an easily referenced catch-all subject for songs looking for powerful imagery to draw listeners in.

But as evocative as the term itself remained the music attached to it over the years varied greatly in its potency.
 

 

Heard The Story
Annie Laurie wasn’t originally from Louisiana, even though she launched her career there and remained tied to the city’s musical spirit for years. Her collaborator Paul Gayten however was born and raised around The Crescent City and came from a long line of local music royalty. No word on if any of them practiced voodoo.

Awareness of this region’s history would seem to be vital to the authenticity of the subject, as Louisiana had the most thriving voodoo practice in the country owing to a lot of factors, from the West African communities from which the slaves who wound up here had been abducted, to the fact that unlike other parts of the south the families of slaves were more often left intact here due to the strong influence of French Catholicism in the area, something which allowed for a tighter knit community and the passing down of religious and cultural practices among the population.

Much of this history is apparent in Annie Laurie’s Voodoo Man starting with the fact she kicks off the song with the line ”Went down to Algiers and had my fortune read”

The Algiers Parish in New Orleans comprised the 15th Ward of the city, the largest in size as well as the one most rooted in the slave trade, as its location on the West Bank of the Mississippi River meant it was where slave ships docked and those who survived the torturous journey across the Atlantic after being kidnapped were held there until they could be sold elsewhere in the city.

One of the first areas designated for freed slaves prior to the Civil War was set up in Algiers and it remained predominantly African-American ever since, comprising roughly 90% of the population in the Twenty-First Century.

A musical stronghold in jazz since the early 1900’s before spreading nationwide, the same transformation from local sound to national movement was now underway with rock ‘n’ roll, but while Voo Doo Man (to use the title as it appears on the label, probably due to those responsible not knowing what to make of it) certainly qualifies in that regard, the song itself wasn’t likely to draw much interest, not even among locals who’d be more attuned to the backstory than those in other parts of the country.
 

Things Won’t Be The Same
We’ve encountered this issue which keeps otherwise good ideas from living up to their promise before and it often boils down to a split within the record between two different stylistic approaches, pulling the song in opposite directions meant for divergent tastes, neither of which gets fulfilled by this conceptual indecision.

But Voodoo Man takes that problem and elevates to it outlandish proportions, making this one of the more schizophrenic records we’ve encountered in rock to date.

The basic idea behind the song is a really creative and there are some elements contained within that are a delight to hear, but unfortunately it can’t sustain the musical momentum nor does it delve deeper into the concept itself which is where it could’ve set itself apart had it chosen to be more bold in what it described. Instead they’re merely content to tease you with the premise, pulling you in with the allure of the subject matter and leaving you somewhat high and dry the more it goes on.

Let’s start with what works – and what should’ve been explored far more in the song’s second half – as Voodoo Man opens with its strongest hand, or hands as it were, as Gayten uses his on the keys to set a jumpy mood before settling down some as Laurie comes in speaking directly to her man who not surprisingly is treating her badly.

This is of course a standard trope in songs as both genders are known to bemoan their partner’s lack of civility, interest or faithfulness in relationships on record throughout rock history. Sometimes they’ve wailed about it uncontrollably as Roy Brown had on Miss Fanny Brown, other times getting vengeful which Roy did on Whose Hat Is That?, and still others desperately longing for a change of heart, which Annie Laurie herself explored on One Sweet Letter From You. Here though she’s rather blasé about her man’s indifference towards her which makes this a somewhat different proposition to consider… should they dig deeper into the possibilities it offers that is.

But after launching into the best vocal passage comprising the staccato-like chorus which finds her in fine vocal form concluding with the declaration ”things won’t be the same”, it all comes crashing down.

We never DO find out what she means by that line, whether it’s a throw-down to him that he’d better shape up or find himself tossed to the curb, or perhaps she’s figured out why he’s not showing her the proper affection and she’ll do what it takes to remedy that by changing her appearance, improving her bedroom skills or start serving him breakfast in bed or something, or – most intriguingly – if she came back from talking things over with the voodoo priestess in possession of some love powder, or conversely some black cat oil to induce a heart-attack. Whatever the case may be it remains a total mystery to us as she suddenly and inexplicably becomes possessed by some alternate musical spirit and starts scatting atonal gibberish, completely derailing any and all interest we had in what she was laying down.

Who knows, maybe THAT’S why her man is treating her badly, because she’s walking around speaking in tongues and embarrassing him in front of his friends, neighbors and any music lovers in the vicinity who don’t want to hear such nonsense being randomly substituted for more insightful lyrics and a resolution to the plot.
 

You Really Couldn’t Go
What’s most troubling isn’t the fact it appears just when we want to learn what happens between these two… nor even the fact that this vocal drivel makes a reappearance coming out of the instrumental break before she mercifully resumes speaking English for the all too brief wrap-up, but rather it completely overwhelms your impressions of the REST of the song, which is fairly good, especially the interplay between Gayten’s piano and the guitar.

It’s such a sparse track with the entire rhythm and accents for the majority being carried solely by Gayten’s keyboard work that when the guitarist (most likely Edgar Blanchard or his predecessor in Gayten’s outfit, Jack Scott) steps in with a jagged riff, muted though it may be, the song comes alive.

As mesmerizing as the guitar licks are, each pause in his playing allows you to notice Gayten’s solid left all the more. He’s not playing in the cracks, filling in the bare spots with a riff of his own as is often the case, but rather he’s playing continuously underneath the guitar. This has the effect of keeping the bottom intact as the song urgently requires since it lacks a proper bass and drums, and it’s in the midst of these hesitation moves on the guitarist’s part where they simply come to the forefront and gives you the opportunity to see the way in which two instruments can act in support of one another without seeming to do so consciously.

When the guitar returns after even more caterwauling by Annie, it’s played with a sharpness in the higher range and a driving rhythm when he shifts down, all while Gayten never lets up behind him. Though it’s shrouded in some aural haze, placed a little further back from the microphones more than kept low in the mix, since the mixes at the time were done more by positioning on the studio floor than any electronic balancing at the controls, that only makes it more suitable for the shaman-like feel it has in its best moments which suits the subject to a tee. A subject which unfortunately by this point has been long discarded by the songwriter and by extension Laurie herself.
 

Got No Worries
What makes this such a missed opportunity should be plainly obvious to anyone. Rock ‘n’ roll in mid 1948 was in the process of trying to establish its identity and a song like Voodoo Man had the potential to give it an enthralling quality that mirrored that of voodoo’s own history in New Orleans, where it was something that was known to all in the community while remaining something unspoken and mysterious to the outside world.

Rock too was shaping up to be the same way – a vibrant musical expression for the black community that would largely go unrecognized by white society for a number of years, then when it did become more widely known it was met with the same fears and cultural overreactions that voodoo itself had elicited long before that.

Had they played up the spiritual roots of this, adding chanted choruses by groups of singers, or just the rhythmic foot stomping, who knows how many minds would’ve been blown by hearing it pouring out of a jukebox somewhere. Even had they deemed that sonic onslaught too risky there was always the stories themselves of Voodoo Queens to explore, as that traditionally was the one realm where the female unquestionably did have the upper hand in these societies. For those far removed from that world this could’ve proved far too intoxicating for listeners to resist, not to mention it also might’ve given some insight into Laurie’s dismissal of her guy’s nefarious – yet unstated – actions.

Imagine hearing her put a hex on him, or call upon the spirit of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen Of New Orleans, still to this day a well-known historical figure in the city.

I’m sure that’s what they all thought they were doing. The scat vocals were probably considered a worthy substitute for more authentic chanting, something to connect it maybe to a jazz fan’s sensibilities, or merely to fill space so they DIDN’T have to delve into the customs and rituals that voodoo was built upon.

But if so it’s just a crib-sheet version of something far too interesting to be condensed so carelessly. What’s lost as a result isn’t just a more entertaining record for the time, but also a more insightful look at the stories and beliefs that had been passed down through the years and were rapidly being lost to the passage of time. The further back we can find examples of this tradition the more accurate the particulars were bound to be.

Eventually, when the threat of its lingering power had diminished enough in society, a more vivid look at voodoo practices would make a more colorful appearance in rock thanks to fellow New Orleans legend Dr. John, whose early albums, especially his brilliant debut LP from 1968, Gris Gris, gave a highly atmospheric take on this vein of cultural history.

But before long voodoo – once used as a form of self-empowerment by the oppressed and feared by many of their oppressors – had become nothing more than a tool of marketers to sell novelty trinkets during Mardi Gras to people who never heard of Annie Laurie or Voodoo Man.

Had this record been more daring and not weakened its magic potion, chances are they’d have a whole new appreciation for both her and the power of its subject.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Annie Laurie for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)