From Red to blues: Got My Mojo Working by Muddy Waters

Ian Tasker

If you are talking blues standards then they don’t come much more ready-made, boil-in-the-bag than Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working, which has become a staple of the genre, recorded or played by just about everyone who has ever strung 12 bars together. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to get their mojo working?


Although forever associated with McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters – a giant who straddles the history of blues, from the Delta alongside Robert Johnson, through the electrified blues of Chicago, to London with the Rolling Stones – it was originally written in 1956 by Preston ‘Red’ Foster, a mysterious presence in the history of the blues about whom very little seems to be known. One man who did meet him, the music promoter Sol Rabinowitz, described him as ‘one of the shyest human beings I’ve ever met’.

The first recording of Foster’s song was by the then 22-year-old R&B singer Ann Cole and it was almost immediately picked up by Muddy after hearing her perform it when she supported him on his tour of the southern states in 1956. Back in Chicago, he quickly recorded his own version, changing some of the words, and (quietly registering his name as writer in the process) released it in January 1957, coincidentally on the very same day that Cole’s original version also came out. The rest is blues history. Cue harmonica…


Got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you

Got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you

I want to love you so bad, I don’t know what to do

Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand

Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand

I’m gonna have all you women under my command


Got my mojo workin’

Got my mojo workin’…

Got my mojo workin’, but it just don’t work on you


I got a gypsy woman givin’ me advice

I got a gypsy woman givin’ me advice

I got a whole lottsa tricks keepin’ her on ice

We have probably all, at one time or another, lost it and then got it back again, but what exactly is a Mojo – other than a well-known music magazine? It has entered the lexicon to define rediscovering your confidence, energy or enthusiasm but its origins lie deep in hoodoo, an African-American folklore of the Deep South of the United States.


It’s basically a lucky charm, also known as gris-gris, worn to give protection from evil (slave drivers or law enforcement), to attract love, money and employment, or to communicate with spirits or cast spells. A small canvas or leather bag, often coloured red, it is filled with herbs, spices and mysterious other ingredients such as bones (the mojo ‘hand’ of the song’s lyric), graveyard dirt or gunpowder and is supposed to be carried at all times, preferably next to the skin.

It is also sometimes known as a nation sack – a term borrowed from the Native American ‘nations’ of Mississippi – which was a bag in which women kept loose change hidden under their skirts. This custom was originated by prostitutes who worked Memphis and other towns along the Mississippi River, the jingle of the hidden coins subtly advertising their trade.


The phrase appears in Robert Johnson’s classic Come On In My Kitchen and is a lyric that had long baffled me:


Oh, she’s gone, I know she won’t come back

I’ve taken the last nickel out of her nation sack

You better come on in my kitchen

It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors


As a frustrated musician and a fan of the Delta Blues, I had always dreamed of becoming a bona fide blues guitar man – after all I spent my formative years in the blues hotbed that is Richmond-Upon-Thames, ancestral home to the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones (named after a Muddy Waters song). So, some 40 years ago I travelled to the Deep South in search of my own mojo, both figuratively and literally.

I finally discovered the real thing on a scorching hot and humid afternoon at 739 Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, a museum and shop dedicated to African American folklore. It is a bit of a tourist trap but is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Laveau, the famous 19th century Witch Queen of New Orleans. It’s full of herbs, spices and other paraphernalia which, when combined and bagged up, create made-to-order mojos. After much deliberation I chose the mixture guaranteed to help make me rich, famous and irresistible to women.


So, I hear you ask, did it work? Er, well, not exactly. Perhaps on reflection I should have worn it day and night next to my skin rather than leave it languishing in my guitar case. Next time I suppose I’d be better off selling my soul to the Devil at the crossroads.


Footnote: In 1973, Foster, the footnote to a footnote, briefly entered the scene again, winning a court case that ruled he was indeed the true author of the song, before he subsequently disappeared back into the ether. He was described by a court reporter at the time as ‘a Black man, about 40 years of age, with bleached blond hair and highly modish clothing. He sat quietly in the courtroom and did not, in my presence, communicate with counsel for either party. His presence was known to both parties, and neither counsel chose to call him as a witness’. He must have been happy to get his mojo back.


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