It was decidedly synchromystic, in that earlier in the day I had been re-reading the June 2018 Living Blues magazine cover article and interview with Louisiana blues singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King, whose recently-released album is Hotel Voodoo, an album which in my opinion is one of the strongest records I’ve heard in the past year.
But back to that book I was reading last night …
Levenda goes into detail about the “cultocracy” of Haiti, with the prevalence of Voudon (aka “voodoo”) which is a “dynamic and energetic faith that unites racial identity, spirituality and what may be called ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’ into a single, all-encompassing practice.”
Adds Levenda: “(T)he relationship between magic and politics in Haiti is very strong, virtually inextricable.” Beginning in 1791, the Haitians (descendants of people from West Africa and many slaves) would go on to defeat 60,000 French colonizers and become independent. It began, notes the author, on August 14, 1791 with a secret voudon ceremony where a black pig was sacrificed to the god of war, all “held in the midst of a storm of thunder and lightning.” And the “Revolt of the Slaves was baptized in its blood.”
Further into his analysis, Levenda notes pop culture references in cinema, from the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973) and Angel Heart (1987), with fantastic Caribbean actor Geoffrey Holder memorably portraying Baron Samedi in the former film. That one involved 007 and his investigation into drug trafficking and its links to the deaths of three British agents on the fictional island of San Monique.
Later in Live and Let Die, the voodoo aspects of the film come to the fore as Tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) is nearly sacrificed in a voodoo ceremony as it becomes clear that the charismatic Baron Samedi is the true villain, laughing on the front of a train as the credits begin to role. Unusual ending for a Bond film, as Baron Samedi literally gets the last laugh. 7Up, anyone?
Continuing, Levenda gets into the more contemporary politics of Haiti, noting the authoritarian Haitian leader Papa Doc Duvalier and his obsession with voudon and that it was his magic spells that killed President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Twenty-two is significant in that it is a number of tremendous occult power in the voudon cult. November being the 11th month (11+11 = 22).
And when Papa Doc was in power, he relinquished the powerful hold of the Catholic Church on his fellow Haitians, allowing for the native voudon religion to flourish. This led to many people believing that Papa Doc was “a channel for the typically and uniquely Haitian god, the dread Baron Samedi (‘Baron Saturday’),” with Papa Doc going “out of his way to cultivate this identity, dressing in the Baron’s typical black suit, black hat and sporting a cane.”
Adds Levenda: “Baron Samedi is the Lord of the Crossroads, and thus is the Guardian of the path into the other world. The Baron is usually invoked before most rituals that have to do with summoning power from beyond.” It is at the crossroads, usually around midnight, when the living and the dead are able to intersect.
Indeed. Baron Samedi, as portrayed by Geoffrey Holder in Live and Let Die is a very debonair-yet-sinister character - a loa, or spirit in both Haitian and Louisiana voodoo. This is also evident with “Legba” as seen at the notorious “crossroads” near Clarksdale, Mississippi where future Father of the Delta blues Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil. This is recounted in the 1986 film Crossroads.
And let’s not forget the Baron Samedi-like Doctor Facilier, an evil bokor, or witch doctor, who plots to rule New Orleans with help from his “friends on the other side” in Disney’s animated film The Princess and the Frog (2009).
But let’s get to Chris Thomas King. Those unfamiliar with the name will certainly recall King’s role as Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the 2000 Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? King would win a Grammy Award for best album thanks to his contribution to his contribution to the film’s soundtrack, a cover of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” writes Robert H. Cataliotti in the recent and insightful Living Blues profile on Chris Thomas King.
Tommy tells Everett, Pete and Delmar, when they picked him up at the crossroads, that he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange to be able to play his guitar “real good.”
“Oh son, for that you traded your everlasting soul?” asks a shocked Delmar.
“Well, I wasn’t using it,” responds Tommy. Indeed.
I should mention that King’s role in O Brother and my recent research into Robert Johnson and the crossroads legend has made it into my recent sync work, notably my articles “Rolltop desk,” "Old situations need old medicines" and “Blues hammer.”
It’s interesting to look over the course of King’s blues music career (the name “King” was added as he was starting out, having learned under the guidance of his father Tabby Thomas of the Blues Box in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. and because that name was associated with “great things”) and how he has refused to be pigeonholed by what he calls the “Blues mafia.” On Hotel Voodoo, King offers us "Tabby's On The Bayou," a tribute to his father where they have a "voodoo party" and it "ain't no crime" to have a good time.
In fact, as I noted in one of my aforementioned articles, King is close to completing a book called Sacré Bleu: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Its Culture Therewith. As Cataliotti notes, King’s writings encompass his and his father’s careers in the blues while arguing that for a New Orleans-based blues narrative, or that “the origins of the blues … are located in the late 19th century black Creole culture in New Orleans.”
And here’s what really captured my attention. Just as Peter Levenda wrote of Baron Samedi as the “Lord of the Crossroads,” King tells Living Blues that the first side of his new album, Hotel Voodoo, is called the “Baron Samedi Suite.” These five songs are dedicated to the Voodoo loa, or spirit, writes Cataliotti, “an electric blues power trio tour de force.”
And he is right. Beginning with “American Man (In The Key Of Free),” King kicks of Hotel Voodoo with a decidedly uplifting bit of rootsy pop-rock, in the vein of The Hooters and Springsteen.
In the second song in the Baron Samedi Suite, King gets autobiographical on “Voodoo Child (On Hells Highway)” with the singer playing the guitar, bass, harmonica and percussion while Jeff Mills in behind the drums, from a recording session at The Shed in New Orleans (while a lot of the other songs are recorded at King’s 21st Century Blues Studio in Prairieville, La.).
Over a spooky, swampy, electric blues track, King tells of how he was discovered in 1979 as a young folk-blues discovery by a folklorist from the Smithsonian Insitute in Washington, D.C., considered a folk-blues successor to Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb.
King said of Baron Samedi in the Living Blues interview: “As far as Baron Samedi, as far as the concept, Baron Samedi is lord of the crossroads, and a lot of times he’s depicted with a top hat and the drink in his hand and the cigar. Some people thinks that’s my alter ego, you know, because I do the top hat, and it might be. But I didn’t consciously start wearing the top hat to emulate Baron Samedi.” Sometimes the sync sort of takes over. And later you realize, “Well, I’ll be doggone! Look what I’ve done!” It’s clear that King is comfortable with the Baron Samedi comparison. What I sense is King's embrace of that "whole Jungian thing," the duality of man. That sort of thing. It's perfect!
And so King, having shed the “pretenses of primitivism” in blues music, would make waves by new sounds like hip-hop in 1990’s. However, this would make the iconoclastic musician persona non grata amongst many of the Blues Mafia purists. So, when he sings of being a “voodoo child, running wild,” it is clear that Chris Thomas King is determined to do things his way.
And King never looked back. He stayed true to his blues roots while moving decidedly forward. And it has certainly paid off.
After all, listen to the third song, “Friday Night Bleu.” Here you have the infectious joie de vivre that New Orleans and Louisiana culture are so associated with. This is one of the more classically-styled, straightforward blues-rockers on Hotel Voodoo where King (playing every instrument) is quite comfortable in the role of party animal – and a guy who reminds me of a couple of other Kings – B.B. and Albert – playing that electric guitar of his. Brilliant stuff!
One of my favorite albums King did – 2006’s Rise – where he offers a brilliant, heartfelt record released in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Standouts include covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and the standard “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by fellow Louisianan Louis Armstrong.
But keeping in mind the Baron Samedi, it’s “Like a Hurricane (Ghost of Marie Laveau)” where King sings of this “Voodoo queen” whose specialty is “casting beautiful spells” and whose hooks are in King, as he concludes in the final verse: “You possess everything I own / You’re like a hurricane.”
The final song in the Baron Samedi Suite is "Rock and Roll Conjurer," with its mix of Jimi Hendrix ("The Wind Cries Mary") and Tab Benoit ("Medicine") sounds alongisde honks of Louisiana blues harp and King's confident guitar playing. And that's what many of us here for - that guitar.
And before you know it we are in the "Jelly Roll Suite" and "Les Bleus Was Born in Louisiana" incorporates a decidedly New Orleans-style jazz/blues that will put any listener in a Mardi Gras-sorta mood. This is an effort by a combo, with Owen Callahan providing the tasteful clarinet, with MIlls on drums, Eric Welch on bass and King handling the rest. And King is making sure that the listener understands the blues started in Louisiana - not Mississippi or Texarkana. Duly noted, Mr. King! Somewhere in heaven, New Orleanian Jelly Roll Morton is smiling!
"White Folks Call It Jazz" is another acoustic-music combo effort, this time with Gregory Agid playing clarinet and Nathan Lambertson on bass.
An unexpected cover here is Adele's 2011 smash hit "Someone Like You." Hearing the soft-spoken, smooth Chris Thomas King, playing the piano part, pull this ballad off is a joy to the ear.
He closes out the record with the folk-tinged "Rainbow Lullaby" a slice of positivity where King sings and plays mandolin, banjo and pretty much everything else. It kind of brings Hotel Voodoo full circle, when all is said and done.
As King told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate last year: “The blues is one of America’s greatest assets. It tore walls down across the globe. That’s why somebody has to advocate for the blues and try to get Louisiana to wake up and embrace something that’s so beautiful.”
We agree, having spent years covering the Louisiana music scene. Chris Thomas King is addressing something that needs to be highlighted in a major way. And I really think King's offering of Hotel Voodoo -a fantastic record - will get the proverbial ball rolling.