Well, I woke up this mornin’ with mojo on my mind,
Yeah, I woke up this mornin’ with mojo on my mind,
There’s a lot o’ pretty words out there sure need to be defined.
21st Century Mojo Blues, 2017
A few nights ago I was gainfully engaged on BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘grammar phone-in’. We were hunting through the early hours, with thesaurus-like doggedness, for the right word to answer one caller’s particular lexical needs…
Our caller was in want of the perfect word for an overwhelming feeling of ante-activity torpor that oft-times envelops her. Suggestions ranged from unmotivated to discombobulated, via riffs on acedia, ennui, enervation and listlessness. You get the idea. Somewhere along the line came the suggestion that our caller had lost her mojo. Woah! The challenge of discovering the right word for a vague malaise is nothing compared to defining mojo. And, as it turned out, no one could quite agree on its meaning, meanings and shades of meaning.
The origins of mojo are in hoodoo (voodoo’s kissin’ cousin), a folk craft-spirituality practiced in some primarily Christian, primarily African-American cultures. The roots of hoodoo were imported with slaves from West Africa into the southern states of America. A mojo, in its vaguest folkloric forms, is best described as an occult talisman, a charm, a magic spell or, simply, magic.
Take that one step further and magic becomes power and influence. That way lies ‘political mojo’, a mythic and mysterious force that brings success and failure as it comes and goes in the public arena.
It was folk songs, jazz and blues that carried mojo to a wider world. From there to the Beatles and to break on through the doors of perception.
It is first recorded in 1926, according to the OED, in Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, but by then the powers of mojo had long been felt. In September of that same year the effective potency of a mojo is challenged in a humorous (proto-feminist?) song.
Butterbeans & Susie, My Daddy’s Got The Mojo, But I Got The Say-So, 1926
Blind Willie McTell, Scary Day Blues, 1931
It’s not all sex-magic though. The broader lucky charms of a mojo are still in effect as the wider world’s understanding of the word slowly evolves.
Coot Grant and Kid Wilson, Keep Your Hands Off My Mojo, 1932
Robert Johnson, Little Queen of Spades, 1937
Muddy Waters’ Louisiana Blues, 1950
A ‘mojo hand’ is a small bag of hoodoo charms, on a par perhaps with a lucky rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe. Whatever, there’s still an intangible mojo magic in the New Orleans’ air.
J.B. Lenoir, Mojo Boogie, 1953
But there really ain’t no getting away from Muddy Waters in the story of mojo. This this next lyric, although it’s from one of Muddy’s best-known recordings, was written by fellow Mississippi-born bluesman Willie Dixon.
Muddy Waters, Hoochie-Coochie Man, 1954
It was Muddy Waters’ version of Got My Mojo Working, written by Preston ‘Red’ Foster in 1956, that really brought the word mojo to popular notice.
Muddy Waters, Got My Mojo Working, 1957
Mojo. It’s an easy word to sing along to even if you really don’t get the meaning.
The Beatles, Come Together, 1969
In the heart of L.A. Woman, a 1971 recording by the Doors, vocalist Jim Morrison extemporises on the words Mr. Mojo Risin’. Magically, Mr Mojo Risin is an anagram of the singer’s name. Morrison’s mojo was most definitely a blend of charisma and sexual magnetism.
In time, keeping bad company with jazz and blues (and later rock) musicians, the magic that mojo makes turned to drugs. The earliest reference is 1935: mojo is cocaine and mojo is heroine. The etymology from mojo magic to mojo intoxication is all too easy to imagine. One on-line interpreter of obscure lyrics even goes so far as to suggest that the quote from the Beatles Come Together (above) is actually a drugs reference. Do you think?
In 2003 the Urban Dictionary recorded Mojo as a street name for speed (amphetamines). A few years later, in 2009, Mojo Incense was recorded as a brand name for a form of synthetic marijuana, and from 2015 Mojo shows up as a generic brand and slang identity for spice (synthetic cannabinoids).
The next leap forward in relatively respectable mojo usage harked back thirty years to London in the ‘swinging 60s’. Mike Myers, the Canadian creator of the Austin Powers movies used mojo in a specifically sexual sense to conjure up a parodic vocabulary from 1967.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, 1999
Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002
As a word of power mojo has often been co-opted by commerce. The best known (in my corner of world) are MOJO Magazine, the Mojos, and Banana Mojos. Other Mojos are available.
Meanwhile, back in 2017 on 5 Live, there was a struggle to pin down a useful synonym or definition for mojo, and what you might be lacking having lost it. Here’s some of the phone-in suggestions:
- Va va voom
Somehow, it’s all of those and more. Mojo is a magical word. It shimmers on the air like a shadow in our speech.
However, the best definition for mojo that I have seen is offered by Dr. Evil…
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, (1999)
(The quotes from the Austin Powers movies were garnered at imdb.com. Lyrics came from a variety of sources. Google them.) Now I need a drink.Something ‘with it’.
Mojito (no relation). It’s a mojo with added it.
Well, I woke up this mornin’ with mojo in my noggin,
Yeah, I woke up this mornin’ with mojo in my noggin,
Got up, wrote this, now I’ve finished mojo-bloggin’.
21st Century Mojo Blues, 2017