In the first blog entry of my Treemonisha series, I quoted strikingly similar passages from Joplin’s Preface to his opera and one of Booker T. Washington’s important letters, pointing out that a nearly identical passage appeared in another of Washington’s letters. Both men wrote of whites abandoning their plantations, leaving ignorant former slaves to fend for themselves with no one to guide them.
I cannot say whether Washington’s words inspired Joplin’s opera or whether Joplin intentionally paraphrased them in his Preface, but overwhelming evidence from fiction and non-fiction sources, from Joplin’s lifetime and ours, demonstrates that Joplin was tackling two important social handicaps of the post-Civil War era—the ignorance and the superstition of the freedmen. Generations of subservience to white masters, who used illiteracy to keep their slaves dependent, left them to cope with their new freedom in whatever ways they could. Because of superstitions largely carried over from African countries that most of them had never seen and because of their related fears, no doubt compounded by years of victimization, freedmen and even their descendants were too often willing to pay conjurors what little money they had to ensure their safety from harm.
Although the past seven blog entries have focused on specific hoodoo superstitions that Joplin carefully incorporated into the opera, it’s time to further examine parallels between the opera and Booker T. Washington’s thinking. Because Washington graduated from Hampton Institute, which shaped his beliefs, I will include Hampton and its founder.
In 1880, a Little Rock newspaper reported the desecration of a recent grave, consisting of exhumation and the cutting off of three fingers for use in a hoodoo luck bag. The article opened with a prediction that such acts would soon end:
When first listening to the Houston original cast recording of Treemonisha and then again when attending the 2000 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production, I found the rescue scene particularly funny. Listeners and audience members hear Remus explain his plan for rescuing Treemonisha from the conjurors.
I’ll wear this ugly scarecrow
Back in the forest as Simon counts to three before shoving Treemonisha into the wasp nest, Remus’ approach interrupts the count. Dramatic irony creates comedy when the conjurors fail to recognize Remus, whom they could surely overpower. Seeing the “strange form” approach,“ Cephus cries out, “Look! What’s that comin’ yonder?” Panic ensues as the conjurors perhaps believe they face retribution for kidnapping Treemonisha:
Remus has successfully turned the tables on the unknowing conjurors, who prey on others’ superstitions but fall victim to their own. With this scene, we easily see Joplin accomplish two goals: showing the conjurors as charlatans and simultaneously injecting humor.
Once more, Joplin’s contemporaries may have seen more. Although today's audience may laugh at the naiveté of fearing a straw man set out to frighten birds, a closer look at scarecrows and the African figures resembling them may explain the conjurors' desperation.
Act Two of Treemonisha opens in the woods with a conclave of conjurors singing “Superstition.” Joplin’s stage directions tell us, “A wasp nest is hanging on a bush.” As Simon lists his fears, the chorus agrees: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true, /We all believe ‘tis true.” When Simon sings of shaking in fear when passing a graveyard at night, the chorus responds, “We’ll run.” Supposed to possess supernatural powers to ensure good luck and counteract any evil, the conjurers appear to have little control over their lives.
As “Superstition” ends and “Treemonisha in Peril” begins, Zodzetrick and Luddud signal their approach, bringing with them the kidnapped Treemonisha. Joplin quickly tells us that the conjurors in the woods neither expected her, nor know her:
When the conjurors decide to punish Treemonisha for opposing their luck bag sales, they needn’t look far for their means--the wasp nest hanging on the bush. However, perhaps we should wonder why the conjurors selected this meeting place. If they did not know or expect Treemonisha, they could not have planned to punish her with wasps. Why had the conjurors chosen to meet beside a wasp nest when the woods surely offered safer spots?
For us today, Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork supplies possible reasons for this seemingly reckless choice. Joplin's contemporaries may have understood more than today’s opera goer or listener.
Self-Protection or Business
The conjurors may have believed the wasp nest would help them.
According to Hyatt's hoodoo informants, wasp nests have protective powers.
When the corn huskers' joyous ring dance ends, Treemonisha wants to make a head garland like those worn by her friends for the harvest celebration. Her plan to cut leaves from the tree in front of her house prompts her mother Monisha's plea:
No! not a leaf from that tree take.
After Treemonisha and others ask to learn why that tree is “so dear,” Monisha responds with her aria “The Sacred Tree.”
Such trees appear in religious beliefs throughout the world, in primitive religions as well as the world’s major religions. In perhaps the earliest book devoted to the topic, The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth (1897), Mrs. J. H. Philpot comments on this universal archetype:
After Treemonisha criticizes the conjuror Zodzetrick for preying on others' superstitions rather than doing honest labor and again after her friend Remus explains how her education will “break the spell of superstition in the neighborhood,” Zodzetrick threatens and attempts to intimidate:
You accuse me wrong for injury I’s not done,
In Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, after attempting to sell Monisha a bag of luck and being rejected by her husband Ned, the conjuror Zodzetrick starts to leave the stage. Ned exits the stage, and Monisha enters their cabin. In what a hoodoo-believer would see as a dangerous move, Ned and Monisha's eighteen-year-old adopted daughter Treemonisha politely confronts the "king of Goofer dust land":
Wait, sir, for a few moments stay,
Treemonisha’s opening scene introduces audiences to the opera’s first two hoodoo elements: bags of luck and goofer dust. Although viewers and listeners cannot overlook Zodzetrick, the conjuror, many people today have little familiarity with hoodoo practices and materials. Because the opera centers on education’s battle against hoodoo superstitions, background knowledge of these traditional beliefs and practices not only enhance our understanding of characters, words, and actions, but also help us recognize Joplin’s familiarity with these superstitions and the care with which he brings that familiarity to life on stage.
Touching on the etymology of the term hoodoo in his book Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Traditional Crafts Revealed by Actual Practitioners (1978), James Haskins writes, "Over the years, mostly outside the New Orleans area, these magical practices were subsumed under the general term hoodoo. . . . By most accounts, hoodoo is derived from juju, meaning conjure, but some theorize it may also be an adulteration of the term voodoo. Whatever its origin, the term referred to that body of magical practices that characterized black life in most of North America."
In Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994), Clarence Majors offers a broader definition, defining hoodoo as "the spirit or essence of everything, an early African-American religion with origins in West African spiritual life, magic, a conjurer, charm, jinx, or spell." According to Major's definition, hoodoo can refer to the individual magical acts, the spiritual/magical practitioner performing them, magic practices in general, or the very nature of "being," for all things--human, animal, insect, plant, even dirt and stone--were believed to possess spirits and powers.
More than two decades after the Civil War and when Scott Joplin was a young adult, Booker T. Washington delivered an historic speech that could introduce Joplin’s opera Treemonisha:
I would here remark that one, to get a true idea of the poverty, ignorance and superstition . . . the terrible crime of slavery, the enormity of the work yet to be done for the Negro . . . should leave the towns and rail roads and go miles out into the country on the large plantations where the majority of the colored people are to be found. . . . The whites as a rule have left these plantations, leaving the masses of ignorant blacks with neither guides nor
In words reminiscent of Washington’s, Joplin explained in his Preface to Treemonisha:
The scene of the Opera is laid on a plantation somewhere in the State of Arkansas, northeast of the town of Texarkana and three or four miles from the Red River. The plantation is surrounded by a dense forest.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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