Glass Bottle Trees- Is it just a Mississippi thing?
We have received inquiries about the glass bottle trees, which will be available on our website soon. Thought we might share some history and reading material for those interested.
Slaves from the Congo in Africa brought the idea of the traditional bottle trees – live trees with colored bottles on the ends of branches – into this country. Bottle trees protected homes from evil spirits by trapping spirits inside the bottle, where they could do no harm.
Recently, the bottle tree has seen new life as a tree-like metal structure with a steady base and branches (where colored bottles are placed).
It was the perfect song for Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon knew it. The song was still fresh and Muddy learned it quickly from Dixon while taking a break between sets at Chicago’s club Zanzibar, where he was playing a regular gig. The year was 1953 and Muddy was at the height of his power, both artistically and commercially.
When he tried “Hoochie Coochie Man” on his band and the club patrons moments later, he knew he had a hit. The crowd went nuts. Muddy growled and swaggered, imbuing the song with sexual power and menace. Muddy gave voice to the defiant pride of his audience, a pride long held in check in the segregated South, now finding a new freedom in the urban North.
But it wasn’t just the sexual swagger and electrified sound that connected Muddy to his fellow exiles. Muddy was openly acknowledging the power and influence of Hoodoo in the lives of his fellow African Americans.
The laundry list of magical talismans and beliefs in “Hoochie Coochie Man” serve the song primarily as metaphor for virility and sexual power, but they also serve as a powerful connection of his audience to a shared African past, the evidence of which still exists today, hiding in plain sight.
The shared past of African American history begins along the African coast from Senegal and Gambia to the North, through Sierra Leone and down to Nigeria and the Congo. Most slaves brought to the Americas came from this narrow coastal region, a region culturally diverse in language, religious practice and musical traditions. To maintain control over the slave population, the Africans were stripped of most of their cultural identity and forced to take on the religion of the master, Christianity. For survival, most eventually succumbed to the oppression of the white masters, or so it appeared on the surface.
But the history of Africans in the New World is that of a people who knew how to adapt, innovate and maintain their spirit even under the most brutal of conditions. Noticing similar characteristics in the pantheon of Spirits from the Yoruban religions to those of the Catholic Saints, the apparent Christian conversion of many slaves was little more than a mask that allowed them to maintain an African cultural connection through the process of adaptation. Thus, the West African religions became Vodun in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, Santera in Cuba, Shango Baptist in Trinidad, Voodoo in the Deep South, and elsewhere, its lesser-known cousin “Hoodoo.”
Unlike Voodoo, which maintains a connection to the Orisha, or African Pantheon of Spirits, Hoodoo is not a defined belief system but rather a gumbo of African-American folk magic, Indian herbalism, root work, European folklore, traditional Christianity and personal rituals. Practitioners of the craft are known as root doctors, two-headed men (and women), hoodoo doctors and conjurers, among others. Though derided by mainstream Christianity as, at best, naive superstition and at worst, devil worship, many practitioners of Hoodoo consider it a practical, ritual-based form of folk Christianity, a white magic.
In many ways Hoodoo represents the flip side of Christianity, sharing similar goals and aspirations but doing it through practices that utilize the collective memory of African culture, therefore being exiled to the shadows of mainstream religion. Similarly, the blues is Gospel’s earthier, secular cousin, speaking similar truths but doing it in a voice unfiltered by Christian dogma. It’s hardly surprising then that a reviled and misunderstood form of African-based religion would find voice in a music similarly condemned by the church.
The history of the blues, both in recorded lyrics and in the personal beliefs of some of its greatest musicians, is rife with examples of Hoodoo. And despite the fact that most practitioners of Hoodoo make outward claims of it being an extension of Christianity, much of the Hoodoo referred to in blues lyrics is decidedly of the darker variety.
Perhaps the most pervasive and powerful myth in blues lore is that of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar prowess. Aside from the fact that it was singer Tommy Johnson and not Robert Johnson who actually made this claim, the crossroads myth is nevertheless a belief that cuts to the heart of Yoruban religion.
In Africa, the god of the crossroads is known variously as Legba, Eshu, and many others. Although Christianity regards any trickster god as being synonymous with Satan or his lesser demons, the beliefs of the Yoruba hold that it is only through this trickster God that you can gain access to the higher Gods. Thus, a crossroads is the best place to gain access to spiritual forces that will allow the believer to gain one of many different skills, be it gambling luck, dancing ability, various work skills or the ability to play music better than one’s rivals.
The good/evil duality of Christianity has no allowance for a more complex polytheistic system like those found in Africa, so Legba becomes Satan and a rather benign ritual is equated with eternal damnation. Robbed of the original context for what was a partially remembered ritual, many African Americans came to accept the equating of Legba with Satan, further exiling the bluesman, or anyone else beyond the Christian mainstream, from respectable society.
Many blues lyrics reference the spells or talismans of Hoodoo, such as “goofer dust,” or a “black cat bone,” but the most commonly used and misunderstood of all is the concept of “mojo.” Mojo has become a ubiquitous cultural buzzword, incorporated into the title of dozens of commercial products. Through cultural references by rock band the Doors (“Mr. Mojo Rising”) and the satirical British spy Austin Powers (“Blimey! I’ve lost my mojo!”), mojo is often understood to be nothing more than sexual virility or a euphemism for the male organ.
Derived from an African word meaning “spirit” or “life force,” mojo in the context of Hoodoo and the blues refers to one of various types of flannel bags containing secret magical ingredients obtained from a Hoodoo conjurer and designed to assist the believer in either love or money interests.
Evidence of Hoodoo and other African cultural retentions also can be found in African-American material culture, although the original meanings of the objects have often been forgotten. Most of these objects were traditionally used to keep “evil spirits” out of the home, but they also served a decorative function and it’s in that context that most still exist.
The most well-known is the horseshoe nailed above a threshold for “good luck.” This is but one of many objects African Americans used to keep evil from entering the home. Others examples included tacking a bible verse above the door, painting doors and windows blue (called “haint blue” in South Carolina), hanging “ghost mirrors” beside the door (evil is repelled by its own sight), flanking the door with vessels of water, and hanging a colander or sieve over a keyhole (evil spirits are obsessive compulsive and must count the holes before entering).
© Eudora Welty Collection
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
This photograph by Welty, of a home in Simpson County, reflects a folk belief that “bottle-trees” trees on whose limbs bottles have been placed will trap evil spirits that might try to get in the house. Welty used bottle trees in her short story “Livvie,” which was set near the Old Natchez Trace, a famous colonial “road” used by Indians, merchants, soldiers, and outlaws between Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee. This photograph, like many others taken by Welty during her work for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, appears in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
The old methods of repelling evil that still commonly exist are mostly found in yard art or yard shows. Surrounding any living plant or tree with rocks, a discarded tire, or small wire fencing acts as an encircling charm of protection. Similarly, encircling herbs planted around the home serve as a botanical protection. “Swept” yards containing no grass were thought to prevent the devil (i.e., snakes) from having protective cover. But the most dramatic of all art objects designed to repel evil has all but disappeared from the Southern landscape: the bottle tree. In this belief, reaching back to the Congo of the 9th century, colorful bottles (traditionally cobalt blue) are placed on branch ends to catch the sunlight. When an evil spirit sees the play of light, it enters the bottle and, like a wasp, is thereby entrapped.
Remnants of African culture and religion are woven into the fabric of American culture in so many ways, they often remain hidden in plain sight. Hoodoo is alive and well, both in the rural South and in the urban North, evincing the resilience of these beliefs to survive in the face of continued prejudice and misunderstanding. Like the blues, Hoodoo and other belief systems of African derivation will never die but will continue to adapt for survival into the 21st century.
Glass bottle trees are no longer just a Mississippi thing – the popularity has grown into a national interest. Everyone wants a bottle tree to protect their garden.