Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Johnny Conqueroo

Muddy Waters
Gabriel and I were watching The Last Waltz the other night, a film we both know well. The music is quite familiar, the performances legendary at this point. But when it got to the Muddy Waters song "Mannish Boy" we both agreed that we must be mishearing one of the lyrics. The song seems to go:

I'm a man,
I spell m-a-n...man

I goin' back down,
To Kansas to
Bring back the second cousin
Little Johnny Conqueroo

Johnny Conqueroo? What? I thought about other blues standards and realized that I'd heard this before. For instance, "Hoochie Coochie Man", also sung by Muddy Waters:

I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got the John the Conqueroo, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls, lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know, the Hootchie Cootchie Man

A little research solved the mystery: Johnny Conqueroo, also known as John the Conqueror or John de Conquer, is a hero in African American folklore. He was an African prince, sold into slavery in America, who could not be broken by his "masters". He entered mythology as a sort of trickster figure, famous for his prowess at evading those that would bend him to their will. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about him, and there seems to be some evidence that Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus tales is patterned after him.

So why is he in the songs as an object and not a person? It turns out that he is associated with a type of root that supposedly has confers luck in gambling and sexual conquest through sympathetic magic. Some sources say that the plant in question is St. John's Wart, but this doesn't seem right since it has filamentous roots. A better candidate is Ipomoea jalapa, a vine related to morning glories and sweet potatoes. The root of this plant is more like a tuber than a filament. And there's no getting around the fact that when dried it looks like testicles. 

So, another song lyric puzzle solved! Unfortunately I don't think the explanation for all those possibly misheard Pogues lyrics will be as easy.

Thank you to Google Image Search for the photos.


  1. While I have heard of Johnny and am very familiar with Brer Rabbit very cool story and now I will be paying very close attention to other Blues songs to see what other interesting tid bits are hidden there.

  2. And people ask me why I don't like boy bits! Those things look disgusting! But the lore is quite interesting.


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