recent reading roundup: poison, atchafalaya ethnology, faith healing in Louisiana

photo credit jclk8888, Pixabay

I don’t have time to summarize anything right now, but I’m hoping if I leave this here, it’ll spur me to do so later.

James H. Diaz. Atlas of Human Poisoning and Envenoming, 2nd ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2014.

Hilda Roberts. “Louisiana Superstitions.” Journal of American Folklore 40: 156 (1927), 144-208.

  • We’re gonna have to talk about this one when I have some time. This sure does have some… stuff in it. I mean, totally aside from its being “a product of its age” and all that. The blanket conflation of hoodoo doctors and Cajun traiteurs is a pretty humongous one. This would never get published today, and it’s not because of the language. It’s because of shoddy scholarship / painting with too broad a brush.

F.A. de Caro. “A History of Folklife Research in Louisiana.” Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State. Nicholas R. Spitzer, ed. Office of Cultural Development, 1985.

John L. Gibson. Archaeology and Ethnology on the Edges of the Atchafalaya Basin: A Cultural Resources Survey of the Atchafalaya Protection Levees. Center for Archaeology Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana. Final report to the Department of the Army, New Orleans District, Corps of Engineers, Jun. 1979 – Jan. 1982.

Maida Owens. “Louisiana’s Traditional Cultures: An Overview.” Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Carl Lindahl, Maida Owens, and C. Renée Harvison, eds. University Press of Mississippi and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, 1997.

Alec Sonnier. Cajun Traiteurs: Faith Healing on the Bayou / The Cajun Traiteur and Transmission of Cajun Folk Healing Knowledge. Master’s Thesis, Dept. of Anthropology. California State University Northridge, May 2020.

  • A quick note that Alec Sonnier’s preface reprints two prayers that a Louisiana traiteuse shared on her Facebook page in early 2020 as the coronavirus epidemic was spreading across the country. You really, really gotta love at least a couple of things about the 21st century – at least a traiteuse sharing healing prayers from her personal practice on social media.
  • I don’t know if that was her private Facebook page or what, so I haven’t posted those prayers here. I don’t know if everybody’s the same way about this, but a lot of times those prayers are not for public consumption. I’m not gonna be the one to assume they are. But in his conclusion, Sonnier prints a prayer shared by another traiteur, Mr. George, who received it in a dream. Mr. George said it “can be used by anyone who wishes to be healed of an ailment” and he encouraged people to use it “to help themselves in the healing process” (131). It goes like this:

“Heavenly Father, I call on You right now in a special way. It is through Your power that I was created. Every breath I take, every morning I wake and every moment of every hour, I live under Your power. Father, I ask you now to touch me with that same power, for if You created me from nothing, You can certainly recreate me. Fill me with the healing power of Your spirit. Cast out anything that should not be in me. Mend what is broken. Root out any unproductive cells, open any blocked arteries or veins, and rebuild any damaged areas. Remove all inflammation and cleanse any infection. Let the warmth of Your healing love pass through my body to make new any unhealthy areas, so that my body will function the way You created it to function. And Father, restore me to full health in mind, body and spirit so that I might serve You the rest of my life. I ask this through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

(Mr. George qtd. in Sonnier 131)

He cites a 2008 article on traiteurs by one Julia Swett, too, which is a name one or two of y’all might know :). But careful, y’all, look – this Sonnier’s father is kin to those Heberts, and you know you gotta watch out for those Heberts!

(Just teasing an Hebert – I’m only playing 🙂 )

Elizabeth Cotten and “Freight Train”

If you’re a Southerner and/or a fan of American folk music, you’ve probably heard the song “Freight Train” before.

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’m going

Yet you still might not know the name Elizabeth Cotten, and that would be a damn shame.

Elizabeth Nevill Cotten was born in 1893 in North Carolina into a musical family. She was playing her brother’s banjo by the age of 7. She had to drop out of school at age 9 to work, and by age 11, she had scraped up enough money to buy herself a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. She was a self-taught (and left-handed) guitarist, and she wrote “Freight Train” when she was a teenager, possibly as young as 12.

She was a nanny at one time to Peggy Seeger, the American folk singer, and during the American folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, Peggy took the song with her to England, where American folk music was increasingly taking the country by storm. Two British songwriters named Paul James and Fred Williams then stole the song and copyrighted it as their own. While this is an especially egregious example, it’s not rare at all. Lots of well-known white urban musicians made their names (not to mention their money) during the American folk revival by mining the creativity and talent of relatively unknown rural folk musicians, a huge proportion of which were African American. These musicians often continued living in relative obscurity and poverty, sometimes completely unaware of their influence on the contemporary music world. Few ever made money from their music or were ever able to work as musicians.

“Freight Train” was a huge hit for British skiffle singer Chas McDevitt in 1957, and it’s been covered by the Quarrymen/Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Chet Atkins; and Odetta, just to name a few. The Seeger family and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary eventually helped get credit restored to Elizabeth Cotten, but your chances are really good of finding the song misattributed even today. (See, for instance, this biography of Chas McDevitt at That’s why everybody’s heard the song “Freight Train” but far fewer folks recognize the name of Elizabeth Cotten, even though she toured into her 80s and won a Grammy four years before her death in 1984.

She was a bloody genius and a national treasure, and we are lucky that she was able to perform her music and that it was recorded for us to hear today. If you don’t know her playing, you should fix that right now.

Here’s Elizabeth Cotten playing her composition “Freight Train.” If you’re not a musician, this fingerpicking style is absolutely unique due to her playing a right-handed guitar upside down. If you are a musician, she’s tuned down a whole step here. I will try to find the credit for this clip and update later – I haven’t tracked it down yet.

She was also hilarious and a hell of a storyteller. Here’s the story behind her song “Old Woman Keeps Telling Her Lies on Me.”

Here’s an interview with her by fiddler Aly Bain in 1985. Her singing voice may reflect her age at this point, but her picking is still just absolutely phenomenal.

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate her influence on American folk music. She was astonishing.


Ankeny, Jason. “Elizabeth Cotten.” Allmusic. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Bain, Aly. Down Home, BBC, 1985.

Demerle, L.L. “Remembering Elizabeth Cotten.” Eclectica Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 1996. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. Maya Angelou, foreword. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.


Recent reading roundup: St. Expedite, Hindu chromos in Haiti, iconography in retablos, domestic work in the segregated South

Did you know there was a very active St. Expedite Society in Independence, Louisiana up until very recently? I didn’t. Read more at Folklife in Louisiana: “St. Expedito’s Role in South Louisiana Catholicism, in New Orleans and in the Italian-American Community near Independence, Louisiana,” by Karen Williams.

Hindu deities on vodun altars: Rush, Dana. “Eternal Potential: Chromolithographs in Vodunland,”African Arts vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 60-75+94-96. Also helpful more broadly, imo, for any student of folklore/popular religion who’s ever encountered an argument about whether Abre Camino is “real hoodoo” or not, wondered what to think about the development of the seven-colors school of approach to Santisima Muerte, or pondered the relationships between figures like Legba vs. Ellegua.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. The Iconography of Mexican Folk Retablos. Thesis. University of Arizona, 1969. I tend to assume everybody immediately sees why stuff like this is so interesting. I tend to be wrong. But basically the iconography had never been studied before this, so this was a big deal, this work. And if you like to understand what you’re looking at when you see a candle in a botanica or grocery store, you’ll encounter plenty of stuff that had its origins here whether you personally work with that imagery/tradition or not.

I read Telling Memories Among Southern WomenDomestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South years ago, and even then, before I’d really started *studying* this stuff in any consistent and applied way, I felt like everybody I knew ought to read it. I knew they wouldn’t – people think this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with them if their families weren’t the ones being described in these stories – but they’d be wrong, ’cause this is part of how we got here. And the impact of it doesn’t just disappear suddenly when it’s no longer fashionable or feasible or *whatever* to have domestic employees. This is part of Southern culture, y’all, and it’s part of how your role in it, as whatever sex, race, class, gender, family role stratum you occupy, got constructed and defined.

I still feel the same way in 2020. I think Southern folks should read this book — especially white folks. Especially white women.  Here’s a review with a useful summary at the Washington Post.