Before we jump into the heavy, molten psychedelic-voodoo sounds of Dr. John, it’s important to confront the cultural/political issues that are too often white-washed by a school-boy understanding of history (and music). The purpose here is twofold; to provide the music a historical context and touch upon the relevant issues of racism and imperialism.
Vaudou louisianais (Louisiana Voodoo) is the tradition of New Orleans that never gets a serious discussion; the Voodoo religion came to New Orleans through the beliefs and practices of the African population kidnapped and forced into slavery by the Spanish, French and American’s throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Haiti and New Orleans being two of the locations where those beliefs mixed with the Catholicism brought to the region by early colonalists occupying the territories of the indigenous Chitimacha population. Louisiana Voodoo or New Orleans Voodoo was born from that history of European imperialism, exploitation and terror used against multiple populations on multiple continents; making the Voodoo religion one of the oldest traditions of the United States. A tradition that never gets an accurate portrayal in the sanitized, faux-history we so often hear regurgitated through the lens of American Exceptionalism.
Perhaps the most famous practitioner of Voodoo was Marie Laveau who lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans between 1801 – 1895. (There is some ambiguity about those dates). Called the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Laveau was a women who took her religious faith seriously; doing charity work in the Catholic Church to help sick and hungry escaped slaves, while also acting as Voodoo Advisor to many of the community’s political and business elite. She was a free woman of color, spoke fluent French and was a Black–Creole of African, European and Native American descent. As Voodoo Queen, Laveau was also a respected member of the community. But again, this offical histroy is a white-wash; the laws in New Orleans followed the Black Code rules of Louisiana. These French laws set regulations for slavery and the lives of the Black population. Under the Black Code or Code Noir laws, slaves were forced into becoming baptized Roman Catholic. Any practice of their own religion was made illegal. Marie Laveau emerged as the Queen of Voodoo because she still acted the part of a devout Catholic. A clever alignment that enabled her to exercise the religion of her ancestors, despite the demonization of African religions. As of 2022, her tomb at the St. Louis Cathedral is still often adorn with flowers and candles by those that seek her help from the after-life. Although it may suprise many in the U.S., the Voodoo religion is actually a long standing American tradition that linger just below the surface of the official narrative of history.
The demonization of the Voodoo religion reveals some important questions about what it means to be an “American”; any aspect of the cultural-story that does not fit nicely within the Christian Promised-Land narrative is removed from the definition. This is true of Voodoo and many other cultural items. In truth, the Voodoo has been a distinct part of legacy of the country. And certainly as relevant to history of the nation as anything written about the pursuit of happiness. Voodoo has shared a longstanding partnership with the symbolism, amulets and potions of Catholicism. Today many Voodoo practitioners consider their religion as both Catholic and Voodoo without fear of contradiction. Both religions have the deeply held belief of the supernatural; the Voodoo Spirits and the Catholic Holy-Ghost both convey the sense that the supernatural is living within everything. And we don’t need to look any further then the Catholic Mass to find the ceremonial similarities; the Sacrament of the Communion is clearly the blood sacrifice of the Voodoo religion. Catholic believers pray for the wine and bread used in the ceremony to be transformed into the blood and body of the Christ. In Voodoo,the same is true of the animal-sacrifice; a goat, chicken, and other animals are sacrificed as gifts to the supernatural. The only real distinction between the two is that the Catholic ritual was standardized into the American narrative. While the same rites and rituals of Voodoo were banished as “primitive” and associated with some ridiculous Hollywood version of the religion.
Those differences are based purely on a fictional representation of Voodoo as a sinister practice used to conjure-up zombies; another creation of white-supremacy and American fear of the outsiders. It’s an account that has been successfully embedded deeply within the culture. There are many early examples but let’s use the fascinating 1932 film White Zombie to demonstrate how this campaign has been orchestrated. Early advertising for White Zombie promised movie-goers “black magic and white bodies“. Directed by Victor and Edward Halperin, the film is a crude portrait of the “foreign anxieties” that the U.S. has often projected onto the South American hemisphere. In fact, White Zombie was released during the final two years of a 19 year U.S. occupation of Haiti. Starring Bela Lugos as the “white” zombie master of the Haitian islands. The film is well-worth watching; with lots of the smokey-hot atmosphere that audiences now regularly associate with Voodoo. The details of the plot are insignificant but the film depicts a white man as the “master” of a black population of violent zombies. Furthering the thinly veiled message of white supremcy to the audience. And that zombie connection to race is one used again and again in American films. Reinforcing the racial prejudice against Voodoo as a violent symptom of a non-christian people.
As a young man, Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. was indeed interested in the Voodoo religion and developed the character of Dr. John – the Night Tripper to further a musical career. His original description stated that the character was to be a Senegalese Prince and a Voodoo Healer that came from Haiti to New Orleans and lived on Bayou Road. A ridiculous premise for a man with a German, Irish, English, and French heritage. And Rebennack was well aware of this critism that he appropriated the characteristics of his public persona. He even addresses the topic specifically in his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon by stating that “Music is something no one person owns” and sighted his early musical training and initiation into Voodoo at a young age as a justification. And perhap’s there is an argument to be made for Rebennack. Born in the city of New Orleans in 1941. At thirteen years old, he began a music career after meeting the legendary New Orleans musican Professor Longhair. Rebennack was so taken by Longhair‘s unique style and musical technic, that he began performing regularly with Fess, affectively beginning his life as a professional musician. Is that justification enough? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, there is some legitimacy to Rebennack‘s ties to Voodoo and the music of New Orleans. Finally, the hope here isn’t to fully explain these complex issues. But to acknowledge the historical and cultural issues in the context of Malcolm Rebennack becoming Dr. John – The Night Tripper. And although there have been undeniable misappropriations, that does not diminish from the art and music created as Dr. John.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Rebennack gained fame as a solo artist because of the persona of “Dr. John, The Night Tripper“. Dr. John‘s act combined the New Orleans-style of R&B and Jazz with an earthy-psychedelia that oozed the darkness of the bayou. This unique sound was coupled with a wild stage shows that incorporated rites of Voodoo with outrageous costumes and headdresses. Between 1968–1971, Rebennack releasing four albums as The Night Tripper; Gris-Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970) and The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971). Only on these four early albums can you explore the unique sounds of the doctor’s psychedelic-voodoo. After 1971, the Night Tripper subtitle was dropped and Dr. John moved far away from the graveyard-heat of those wonderful records. Speaking about his 1972 follow album, Gumbo, “I decided I’d had enough of the mighty-voodoo show, so I dumped the Gris-Gris routine we had been touring with since 1967 and worked up a new act—a Mardi Gras revue show that would often feature the New Orleans standards we had covered in Gumbo.” There are other good to great albums in Dr. John‘s disography; both Gumbo (1972) and In The Right Place(1973) are worthy follow-ups to the original four. In fact, In the Right Place was a major hit. Reaching the U.S. top ten with the singles, Right Place, Wrong Time and Such A Night. But it was not until 1998’s Anutha Zone that Dr. John would reemerge for an entire record of the Night-Tripper sound. Below we shall attempt to bring the music of those original records to you. Whatever issues this writer may have with how and why they were created, there really is no denying the unique power and odd beauty of this amazing music.
Gris-Gris (1968): The title is a reference to a Voodoo talisman which acts as a charm that is said to warding off evil or bringing good-luck to those wearing or holding the charm. Of course, the opposed is also true; Gris-Gris is capable of misfortune or despair towards an enemy. And the music of found conjures and captures both of the powerful vibes. This is the atmosphere of the Louisiana Creole of the 1700/1800 reborn in the psychedelic age of the Voodoo Priest. The entire album is filled with unique and distinctive songs and style. Mama Roux jumps off side-one; “Mama Roux…she was the queen of the little red, white and blue“. The psychedelic-funk-jazz mix is so rich and thick with color and sound that it seem to float through the air around you. The musical textures and earthy keyboards are a feast of sounds for the head. Forcing those inclined to shake their ass with approval. And for pure voodoo-atmosphere there is nothing else like the tension-fused dread of I Walk on Gilded Splinters. One of the most remarkable tracks ever melted into the grooves of vinyl, Gilded Splinters takes us on a smoldering trip into the mind of lustful revenge and secret powers. And whatever happens when those two sources mix. The bass grooves with late night madness. The cryptic keyboards tell the story of dangerous chants and magical spells. The sparse electric guitars crawling out from the depth of the sound. Exposing the psychedelic heart of the music. There’s nothing else like it.
Babylon (1969): The second Dr. John album takes the strange, voodoo-vibe into a pumping, harder-driving direction full of twisting guitars and organ. And it works. The atmosphere is still disoriented and spacey in part, with a biblical vision of a world gone wrong. Dr. John’s vocal performance is one part Voodoo Priest and one part Evangelical Shaman as he reports on the state of a war torn country and massive civil unrest; the horror of the 1969 military escalation in Vietnam had just begun (The Tet Offensive) and the music reflects the anger on both sides of the issue. Tracks like The Patriotic Flag-Waver and Babylon focus on the timely issues of the day without losing the textures and colors that made the first record such a trippy journey “I’m gonna bring my wrath down on you now/So you feel the weight of truth now/Gonna drive you like the rock of ages in the sea/And disappear like a pebble in eternity/Nobody wants to save what’s best left dead/A tidal wave is gonna dig your gra-a–a–ve.” Oh…and Black Widow Spider must be heard to be believed. Immediately.
Remedies (1970):Dr. John called it the album a “bad trip”. Summerized in the epic closing track “Angola Anthem“. However, the trouble with Remedies is less about a “bad trip” and more about the voodoo-theme feeling just slightly moldy. The album has a distinct lack of inspiration and consistency creeping into the recording process. Don’t take that the wrong way. You still don’t want to miss the funked-up glories of “Loop Garoo” or “Chippy Chippy“. Both songs are smodering with a the evil asperations that define the Night Tripper trip. It’s just that turning out three albums between 1968 to 1970 was a bit much. In the end, the album is a reflexion of that no-stop activity; the stress of writing, recording and touring had taken a toll on the doctor; “My managers put me in a psych ward. These guys were very bad people – I had gotten busted on a deal, and they got me bonded out of jail, and so when they did I could have got a parole violation. All of this stuff was so unconnected to music that it’s hard to relate it“. But if you are already under the spell, the voodoo chants and flirtation with the dark forces still weaves it’s hypnotic power throughout the record.
The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971):Originally, the Sun, Moon and Herbs album was intended to be a three-record set that the dear doctor was forced to trim down to a single album. (The full three album set did get a RSD release last year. Expensive to hunt down but worthy of your attention if you are hooked). SMH does show further signs that the Voodoo Doctor atmosphere was starting to get a bit old. And several of the tracks show the music leaning toward the more traditional sounds of New Orleans. But there is still much here to love. “Black John The Conqueror” is better than anything on Remedies or Babylon. It’s simply one of the best songs of the Night-Tripper journey. Originally derived from a tradition Cajun folklore, Dr. John used his magic to transform the track into the best song the Rolling Stones never recorded. In truth, there really isn’t a boring or bad song on the whole record. The Gris-Gris atmosphere is still there, if you look for it. The music burning with the expected midnight intensity and smokey groove. Just sit back and soak in the voodoo rhythms of the The Night Tripper’s ceremony. Dr. John would occassionally flirt with this sound again on individual tracks but wouldn’t commit to a full length project of psychedelic-voodoo until Anutha Zone in 1998 (see below).
Further Required Listening:
Professor Longhair / New Orleans Piano (1972): Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd (December 19, 1918 – January 30, 1980) is the legendary Professor Longhair. On New Orleans Piano, Fess (as he was known) records all 16 of the Atlantic Records songs he performed from 1949 and 1953. If you are not familar with the magic power happening between these groove then you have some serious listening to do. Longhair’s sound on songs like “Mardi Gras in New Orleans“, “She Walks Right In” and “Walk Your Blues Away” are pure rightious New Orleans boogie vamps. This is the real sound of the Mardi Gras street that Dr. John would appropriate and mix with the smokey psychedelic rock that is so compelling. If nothing else, every music fan need to hear Tipitina at least once. The song is a New Orleans standard with important cultural significance to anyone with a vague interest in the history and development of music.
Anutha Zone (1998): The journey goes on… Anutha Zone is Dr. John’s 21st studio album and a nice suprise in1998. Featuring guest performances by Paul Weller, Spiritualized, Spaceman 3, Primal Scream and Portishead. Let’s face it, by 1998 many had forgotten about those brilliant, early records by the Night Tripper. That is, until a new generation of (mostly) English musicians took the atmospheric voodoo-vibes of Gris-Gris into the modern studio. Dr. John plays it smart on Anutha Zone. Going for a more contemporary sound that with an occassional trip back into the Louisana backwater bayou. The album is full of joyful and sinister voodoo fun, but check out “John Gris” and “Hello God,”; Spiritualized creates something very special here – a thick, sweaty atmosphere of space-age musings that could almost make the members of Hawkwind smile with jealousy . Don’t overlook this album.