High John de Conquer

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I was surprised to hear mention made in Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues of the charm called John de Conquer because I’d only run across references to that talisman twice before.

John de Conquer, or sometimes High John de Conquer, is a dried root believers say has magic properties. It can bring luck in love or gambling. In Deep Blues the owner of the Memphis music store Mugge visits expounds on it and another charm before he even begins talking about recordings.

Since I started researching this subject I’ve found the charm cited in blues lyrics by Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley and Dr. John.

High John de Conquer is also mentioned in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

My own introduction to the legend came in an October 1943 essay in American Mercury magazine by Zora Neale Hurston. In that essay, called High John de Conquer, Ms Hurston described what she said was a legend brought from Africa by transplanted slaves. The legend described a will-of-the-wisp who could not be shackled by the power of the slave owners.

“First off he was a whisper, a will to hope,” Ms Hurston wrote. “Then the whisper put on flesh . . . The sign of the man was a laugh . . . sure to be heard where the work was hardest and the lot most cruel . . . Maybe he was in Texas when the lash fell on a slave in Alabama, but before the blood was dry on the back he was there . . . Somebody in the saddest quarters would feel like laughing and say, ‘Now High John de Conquer, Old Massa couldn’t get the best of him . . .’”

Old Massa couldn’t get the best of him because he didn’t know High John existed. The legendary figure was the slaves’ secret.

In Invisible Man High John de Conquer plays the same role. His existence isn’t mentioned until the narrator turns his back on the cruelty and platitudes of the white world and begins to explore the invisible life of blacks in the Harlem ghetto. The riches of that life aren’t known to the whites because, like High John de Conquer, the secret hasn’t been shared.

The clue High John de Conquer offers about a hidden life intrigues me because it speaks, as much of the music we are listening to speaks, of a hidden community with its own delights and its own quirks and its own peculiarities.

The community in Invisible Man is a black one, but I suspect there are similar communities to which belong anyone powerless, anyone disenfranchised, anyone under the lash that Ms Hurston speaks of.

Significantly, the hero of those communities is not a hero of strength but a hero of wiliness. He’s like Brer Rabbit, and there’s no shame for him in telling lies or being shiftless or devious or crafty. Those are tools he needs for his psychic survival.

Most adults don’t like to think of themselves as employing those tools and it would be hard for us to imagine ourselves into a world in which they were prized, except that we weren’t always adults. We once were children, and as children we had our own secret life of powerlessness with its own songs and chants and taunts and superstitions.

And I’m only going on my own experience here but I have to suspect we didn’t shy from being dishonest, crafty, shifty and devious either.

I’d have to strain to make a connection between the world of blues and the world of children, but when we are looking at the blues in particular and this music in general it might do us well to remember the powerless and sly six-year-olds we used to be.

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2 Responses to “High John de Conquer”

  1. W Powell Says:

    Thanks for the informative article Harry. I have a copy of the Zora Neale Hurston essay “High John De Conquer” in a 1943 book titled “The American Mercury Reader.” At the beginning and end of the essay it appears that the Black author is offering this legend to White America as a hope-filled charm and source of courage to help win World War II. How ironic that it was around this time that America began employing more Black troops in combat as opposed to limiting their participation in the war to food, transportation and ammunitions supply.

    • Don Bashline Says:

      Thanks, W Powell, for the comment – I checked out the essay you referenced (it’s available here at Google Books) and it’s well worth a read.

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