The 'Invisible' Confederation of Zombies in Bob Dylan's New Orleans Attic: all the way from Dahomey of Voodoo
through Haiti to New Orleans-Jerusalem
Hoodoo people say that the Jokerman who opens Infidels (1983) with a neighborhood-knocking clout is? Notoriously evasive Bob Dylan rushed in where post-structuralist Dylanologists amongst dread to tread even now. To Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone, June 21, 1984: I'm usually either here or on the West Coast or down in the Caribbean. Me and another guy have a boat
down there. “Jokerman” kinda came to me in the islands. It's very mystical. The shapes there, and shadows, seem to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis.
Shadowy world of meaning. See Dylan-bloodhound of (Jack) London Scott Warmuth's Goon Talk blog:
Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light by Karen O'Brien, p. 128: Each 'relationship' song is held up to the light, scrutinized, examined for clues and hidden secrets, energized by a reluctance to accept mystery, to accept that it's good to be puzzled sometimes, that it's a gift not to be presented with the transparently obvious time and time again, because in that space created by not knowing, we can imagine, we can relate, we can endow work with the value, if any, that it holds for us. Significant writing uses mystery, abstraction, subtlety and skill to enable us to do that. As the writer and critic Susan Sontag observed, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art and the world: 'To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings"'.
'Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art'? Why? Did art attack the intellect first? The opening of Dylan's JOKERMAN:
Standing on the waters casting your bread ...
So swiftly the sun sets in the sky You rise up and say goodbye to no one Fools rush in where angels fear to tread Both of their futures, so full of dread, you don’t show one
Maya Deren in the classic inside study The Voodoo Gods: Divine Horsemen of Haiti (1953) p 48:
The dread zombie, the major figure of terror, is precisely this: the body without a soul, matter without morality.
From a subsequent entry in Warmuth's blog, Sax Rohmer's The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu:
My heart thumping furiously in my breast, I bent over him; and for the second time since our coming to Cragmire Tower, my thoughts flew to "The Fenman."
There are shades in the fen; ghosts of women and men Who have sinned and have died, but are living again. O'er the waters they tread, with their lanterns of dread, And they peer in the pools--in the pools of the dead....
I used to hear Dylan's lyric 'so full of dread' as 'sold for the dead'; there may just be an intentional blurring of diction here for a pun effect. (It also sounds a bit like 'soulful of dread' or 'soul[s] full/for the dead'.) This is certainly thematically relevant in a garbled stream-of-consciousness kind of way; theology requires that sins be paid for (but it is not the only pun going on here). Deren p 49 fn:
A zombie is nothing more than a body deprived of its conscious powers of cerebration; for the Haitian, there is no fate more terrible.
Which is what the school of anti-interpretation represented by Susan Sontag and others seems to feel it has had violently thrust upon it on being told 'this means that'. Susan Sontag and poststructuralists intellectually and aesthetically raped? Must be petrifying. Warmuth:
There is a lot to chew on there. If you are not familiar with Rohmer's characters, Nayland Smith is a bit like Sherlock Holmes and Petrie is his Watson. The most interesting thing that I see here has to do with the gaunt cat. In the book Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture by Tina Chen this line in Rohmer's novel is brought up when she discusses how Rohmer positions Smith and Fu Manchu as mirror images, albeit ones that are "perhaps inverted and/or distorted." Chen writes, "Petrie's description of Smith as 'a great, gaunt cat' yokes together two of the signature characteristics ascribed to the Doctor: his 'gaunt' frame and 'cat like gait.'" One can also see this mirror image played out in the 1980 film The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, in which Peter Sellers plays both Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu Manchu.
Jumbies or zombies are also known as duppies. My mother once asked, 'Is that like a doppelgänger?'; German meaning double-goer. There is a thin book of brilliantly vivid poems by Lloyd W Brown called Duppies, published 1996. It intertwines duppies with blues, jazz and voodoo. A few years ago I went through it, finding a small number of striking phrases suggestive of influence on Dylan's JOKERMAN. But this would appear to be an anachronism; and I have not untangled whether any of the poems could have been circulating in some form prior to Dylan's Infidels album in 1983. I do have the similarities documented in word processor format. From Deren's glossary:
ZOMBIE A soulless body. The soul may have been removed by magic from a living person, or the body of someone recently deceased may have been brought out of the grave after the soul had been separated from it by regular rites of death. The purpose is to make use of the body as a slave.
In Rohmer's book, which I have not read, Petrie jumps out at me as a likely voodoo-esque eponym. Deren, on the West African provenance of voodoo, p 65:
For it was the Dahomean culture that became dominant, and around which a major portion of the other African deities was integrated. ... In the new world there arose a new nation of loa, the loa of the Caribbean: the Petro nation.
Deren p 66:
Petro was born out of this rage. It is not evil; it is the rage against the evil fate which the African suffered, the brutality of his displacement and his enslavement. It is the violence that rose out of that rage, to protest against it. It is the crack of the slave-whip sounding constantly, a never-to-be-forgotten ghost, in the Petro rites. It is the raging revolt of the slaves against the Napoleonic forces. And it is the delirium of their triumph.
'See the ghost of slavery's ship'. BLIND WILLIE MCTELL. Deren pp 70-71:
Indeed, one may say that in contrast to the Rada, which is Africa or Dahomey, Petro is America. The two worlds are joined in Voudoun, yet retain their distinctions to this day: the traditional cults of the old, monarchic homeland, and the revolutionary cults of the new and terrible slaveland. ... The Haitian, manifesting a keen sensitivity for ethos, and an infallible sense of diplomacy, incorporated the American divinities as 'nation' of loa, a cultural rather than a moral category, just as the various African tribal divinities had been related, in Voudoun, as a congress of divine nations.
Deren p 73:
Above all, America contributed the complex divinity Baron Samedi, at once Lord of the Cemetery, of the cross-roads (as brother to Maît' Carrefour, the Petro equivalent of Legba) and of the magic related to both the Dead and the cross-roads, whose major, or at least, best-known expression is the zombie. Both the word zombie and Samedi are from the Indian Zemi which connotes both the spirit of the dead, the soulless living, and the fetish stone by which magic is accomplished.
From Deren's glossary:
ZEMI The fetish or sacred object of the Arawauken Indians who inhabited Haiti; also understood as ancestral spirit. Important evidence of Indian influence in Voudoun, and probable source of words 'zombi', and the loa Baron Samedi, and others.
In his memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan makes two ostentatiously contradictory statements within paragraphs of each other about the spirituality or atmosphere of New Orleans; I marked these in editorial style upon my only reading of the book a year after it came out. Scott Warmuth's Goon Talk blog entry on Dylan's appropriation of phrases from Sax Rohmer's The Return of Dr Fu Manchu in Chronicles reminded me of those markings. Dylan, Lord Samedi-zombie of the blues crossroads if you like:
New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don't have the magic anymore, still has got it. ... Even with all the churches and temples and cemeteries, New Orleans doesn't have the psychic current of holy places. That's a cold, frozen fact.
Dylan's first New Orleans comment plays on the meaning of the word magic, probably by actually meaning it in the sense other than, disguising it behind, the routine casual sense. The second comment is disingenuous or, rather, deliberately ironic/paradoxical because the home of the blues and the blues itself, so dear to Dylan, are home to/rooted in voodoo. Something spinechilling is going on here; it comes down to conflict between the folkloric or not-so-folkloric source of the blues on the one hand, and, on the other, the source of the Light that Dylan claimed in 1997, while being interviewed by Jon Pareles, to have seen throughout the previous decades. Recall Dylan's bargain with 'the destiny thing' in his 60 Minutes interview in 2004 in the US. The interviewer Ed Bradley asks him who he made the bargain with. He answers, 'the Chief Commander' and, when pressed further, says, 'of this world and the one that we can't see'. The devil or the LORD indeed. The NT calls the devil the god or prince of this world, but in the context of spiritual dominion over the minds of humans not in submission to the gospel, which includes voodoo worshippers. Indeed, the gospel of Luke reports Christ as saying, 'If I by the finger of God drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you indeed'. This is too involved to get into, but the fact Dylan performs the Grateful Dead's FRIEND OF THE DEVIL distils this paradoxconundrum of his performance persona; he is a walking paradox of a tormented jumbi. Compare the following phrase from Chronicles with the fact that the opening of John's gospel says the light flees from the darkness because it has not understood/overcome it: 'The ghosts race towards the light'. The spiritual, metaphorical and visual realms become blurred at least in Dylan's perception or literary presentation of the New Orleans 'magic' – as they certainly do in Caribbean poetry. 'You rise up and say goodbye to no one'. JOKERMAN.
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing Freedom just around the corner for you But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?
John 3:13-15 (New International Version):
13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[a] 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.[b]
The Jokerman is an ambiguous shamanic figure, whose roots go back to West Africa; hoodoo men say that he is? Would the following excerpts be irrelevant to the Jokerman's hoodooistic being in the event that Dylan had been entirely unaware of the incidental 'etymology', pseudo- as it may be, while thematically being a cold frozen fact? Would it forever destroy the song JOKERMAN and its shadowy world for Susan Sontag and co., deprive them of their conscious powers of cerebration, had Dylan in fact been aware of, gathered from coincidence, the shamanic jok 'root' of voodoo's Dahomey land? Or might this help 'build a richer house'1 (including the attic), albeit perhaps asking to be torn down as if by a Haitian earthquake, leaving you still to apprehend who the Jokerman is for you? From Percy Cotterell's Dictionary of World Mythology:
Juok God of the Shilluk, tribesmen living on the upper reaches of the River Nile. Shilluk cosmology represents the universe as the two divine loaves, opunne, the heaven and the earth, divided by the great river, the Nile. Juok, a deity of many facets, is omnipresent; he gave the Shilluks cattle, millet, and fish for their sustenance, and is still the giver and sustainer of life through his breath. He also ‘liftest up’ the sick.
The missionary influence: assimilated but without the gospel having been received. Jesus the Jokerman refused to believe in Juok? Refused to take the easy way out by not being lifted up? Hmm.
Jok Literal meaning: ‘creator’ God of the Alur tribesmen of Uganda and Zaire. He is also known as Jok Odudu, ‘god of birth’. The Alur believe that the world is full of spirits, djok, and consider that their ancestors manifest themselves in snake forms or in large rocks. Black goats are sacrificed to Jok, especially when the Alur need rain.
Shamanic djok, the hidden confederates in the New Orleans attic. JOKER MAN BLUES indeed (Michael Gray's Song & Dance Man III, 2000, p 490 fn 28; the Georgia Browns, NYC 1933. Vocal Buddy Moss): all the way from Dahomey of hoodoo through Haiti to New Orleans-Jerusalem. Memphis Minnie, HOODOO LADY; hoodoo you do, hoodoo lady? Encyclopedia of Religion:
The cult of snakes indigenous to West Africa (especially Dahomey) came to America with the slaves and acquired a new form in the magical and religious voodoo of Haiti.
Hobart Freeman in Every Wind of Doctrine pp 151 & 153:
The term zombie (from zumbi) in the West African Voodoo cults means “god” or “fetish,” and refers to the python or snake deity. In the Haitian Voodoo cult the sorcerer is said to have the power to reanimate the corpse which is then known as a “Zombie,” and who, in a trance-like state, will obey the commands of the sorcerer. ... Initially Voodoo came to the Western hemisphere over 200 years ago when the first African slaves were sold in the West Indies. From there it was introduced into the United States, resulting in heaving concentrations of Voodoo worshippers in the South, especially in New Orleans.
Trajectory: Dahomey, Haiti, New Orleans; all the way. And that's a cold frozen fact – magical as it is. As Dylan said to Martin Keller in 1984: 'Roots man'. Jumbi is the thing, in Dylan's New Orleans attic, that the 'unrepentant' Dylan literati, poststructuralist and otherwise, did not do; would not do or mention one time (with the possible exception of one, depending on how you define 'do'). 'Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants. Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response'. Intertextuality on the 'muddiest superhighway in the universe'. Fodder for a hermeneutic civil war in Dylanology between mudcake creatures slinging it. Kendel Hippolyte:
1 Greil Marcus, http://swarmuth.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html
a caribbean exorcism poem (G.C.) zombie is the thing we didn’t do words unsaid and roaming the life we never lived bolom is the hope tormented, unfulfilled shrivelled to a premature old man in a baby’s body still-born, still un-born demon is dissatisfaction in a mocking shape the leer of years contorted grin at ourselves, laughter misused and coming back at us and i [sic] am the devil gored by undeeds, prickled restless by a life that roams inside despite a mouth to say it, hands to shape it devil, beelzebub, devourer head-haunter howling in white spaces serpent, unwanted whisperer is (if I know it) the other brother of myself, returning a difficult counsellor tortured paradox eternal parable of our need to love.
In the human heart of Dylanology an evil spirit can dwell. 'There was something in [his] body that [he] could hardly see'. The blues changed Dylan's life at the crossroads. Blues mythology indeed. Luke 11:23-25 (New International Version):
23"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters. 24"When an evil[a] spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first."
Oh, mother. 'My repentance is plain'? But what about the Jokerman's or that of the Dylan literati? Michael Gray p 516:
'Jokerman' is always welcome, always alive and benign, always rich and complex, always habitable, always ready to open up its labyrinthine possibilities.
Indeed, the thread in the labyrinth leads you; and that's a cold frozen fact.
A zombie is nothing more than a body deprived of its conscious powers of cerebration; for the Haitian, there is no fate more terrible.
Or dreadful ... The reader should note that this is only sample material taken from hundreds of pages of long preexisting unpublished work and just recently intertwined, May 2010, with US disc jockey and Dylan enthusiast/researcher Scott Warmuth's worldwide-web Goon Talk blog posts dealing with Bob Dylan's quirky 'magical' descriptions of New Orleans in his memoir Chronicles and their inclusion of phrases from books including Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz and The Return of Dr Fu Manchu.
The new Dylanology, mysterious and revolutionary, already hurts: all the way from Dahomey of shamanic djok-ridden2 voodoo through Haiti and New Orleans to New Jerusalem. Roots man, roots. As John Gibbens said in The Nightingale's Code: a Poetic Study of Bob Dylan (2001), New Orleans seems 'more like an outpost of the Caribbean' than part of the US. Hoodoo the Dylan literati say that Dylan's Jokerman is? (Conflation aside, I don't find Jesus standing on the waters of the Caribbean, or its outpost, in my bible.) Or, for that matter, dancing.)3 Most of them have not wanted to rush in. But there has been plenty of discussion of it over the years on the 'muddiest superhighway in the universe' – a mysterious and revolutionary phrase I read somewhere. Most say Jesus while others just say he can't be without offering an alternative. Matthew 16:
15"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Professor Emeritus of Molecular & Cell Biology at Exeter university John Bryant, professorial finger of the new Dylanological wisdom and the Mr Jones of human origins, told me in 2004:
I AM a Dylanologist actually ... I've got Song & Dance Man III ... he's wrong about Jokerman, Jokerman is definitely not Jesus ...
Juok liftest up the sick.
Copyright 2010 Paul Kirkman, 'Messianic' Dylanologist. All rights reserved
2 'Actually', the loa, the voodoo 'deities', 'mount', as 'divine horsemen', the voodoo devotee 3 In December 2009 AJ Weberman asked me by email: 'Paul, what's with the parentheses ... are you starting the parenthetical school of thought?'