Book Review: ‘A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo’

My hometown of Memphis, Tennessee is famous throughout the world for our cultural contributions to society. We have the best bar-b-que on the planet, we are the birthplace of the blues and rock n’ roll, and we are home to tough as nails athletes like Jerry “the King” Lawler and the Memphis Grizzlies. There is another claim to fame Memphis once had and this is being the Hoodoo capital of the country. In his book, A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers, & Spirituals, noted cultural anthropologist Tony Kail takes a look at this oft-overlooked part of the Bluff City’s past. He looks at a time when every neighborhood in the Bluff City had access to a spiritualist, rootworker, or some other practioner who could get your mojo going. These were the people, Memphians from all walks of life turned to whenever they needed help of the supernatural variety. I know there are quite a few readers who often skip the introduction at the beginning of the book, but that would be unwise in this case. Kail hoodoocvrutilizes the book’s intro to lay the groundwork for everything you will need to know for the rest of the book to make sense. He explains a bit about the difference between Hoodoo and Voodoo, as well as how this unique spin on African spiritualism and medicine found its way to the Mid-South.

Readers will be impressed that so much information is able to fit into a book and i still proves to be an easy and enjoyable read.  Kail is able to look at every aspect of the topic from; the history, the culture, the actual practice, and its legacy; without it feeling crammed or disjointed. For someone like myself who has a fascination with both history and Southern legends, I had a field day reading this book. In order to share the tales of Hoodoo’s rich history in the Bluff City, Kail has done some fantastic research. He found a number of stories about the African-based practice from Memphis high society to the average person on the streets. One of particular stories involves a prominent criminal judge named James Greer, who had to come up with his own Hoodoo spell to try and help one of his cooks who was afraid she had been cursed. We also learn that in the 1930’s the baseball team, the Memphis Turtles were on a hot streak and many believed it was because they had the power of Hoodoo on their side. Not constrained to giving accounts from historical documents, Tony Kail also went in search of those old enough to remember having a healer or conjurer in every neighborhood. Those accounts are what provide readers an excellent idea of how this practice was viewed, as we read about the respect (and sometimes fear) with which these spiritual doctors were regarded.

If you share my love of history and folklore this is a book you must add to your library. Tony Kail proves to be equal parts studious historian and gifted storyteller in A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo as he tells the story of a sadly overlooked part of the city’s rich history. With a 158 pages the author examines the subject from so many different angles. Not only does he talk about the actual practice and the stories of those who worked as spirit doctors; but there is also an examination of the racial and sociological aspects of Hoodoo in this region as well. He also points out the remnants of Hoodoo which can still be seen around the city to this day. You do not have to be fellow Memphian to give this book a read and find it to be a fascinating look into a time long ago which has a legacy which can still be seen.