Cross Marks and Spitting in TREEMONISHA
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,
Bags of Luck and Goofer Dust
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.
TREEMONISHA: Brief Cultural Context
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.
A New Look at TREEMONISHA
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.
Click the "Read More" link to see each full blog entry.