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In his heyday, Dr. John would appear on stage in a puff of smoke, decorated in Mardi Gras plumes, bones and amulets, reciting voodoo chants while spreading glitter into the audience. (© William Coupon / Corbis)

Dr. John's Prognosis

The blues and rock musician shares stories of his wild past and his concerns for the future.

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Where did the name Dr. John came from?
If you go back in the historical records of New Orleans there was a guy in the 1800s that was named Dr. John. He was a free man of color, as they said in those days, and a gris gris man.

How would you describe voodoo?
It respects all religions, it respects everything. An old lady told me one time, "There's nothing wrong with any religion, it's just that man can mess up anything and make it into something very bad." It's true. It happens all the time.

Didn't you use voodoo chants into your songs?
I went up to some of the reverend mothers and I asked them could I do a sacred song. But I couldn't do them because it was not for a ceremony. So I wrote something similar.

One we used went "corn boule killy caw caw, walk on gilded splinters." It actually translates to cornbread, coffee and molasses in old Creole dialect. It's very connected to the real one that it's based on.

Can you describe your stage show as Dr. John?
We would wear large snakeskins, there was a boa constrictor, an anaconda, a lot of plumes from Mardi Gras Indians. We were trying to present a show with the real gris gris. We had a girl, Kolinda, who knew all of the great gris gris dances.

How did audiences react?
We did just fine, until we got busted one day in St. Louis for a lewd and lascivious performance and cruelty to animals. We would come out on stage wearing only body paint. Everywhere else that was cool, but not in St. Louis. We also had Prince Kiyama, the original chicken man. He would bite the head off the chicken and drink the blood.

Why?
When you offer a sacrifice in gris gris, you drink some of the blood. In church they would chant "Kiyama drink the blood, Kiyama drink the blood." I thought it would be really cool to add Prince Kiyama to the show. That was another one of my rocket scientifical ideas.

Prince Kiyama said, "If you are going to charge me with cruelty to chickens, arrest Colonel Sanders." It didn't go over well with the judge. I think the courts looked at it like we were dropping acid out the wazoo. Everybody thought we were part of the acid thing, but I don't think any of us did that.

Your latest album, The City that Care Forgot, criticizes the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
None of my work has been as aggravated or disgusted as this record. I had never felt the way I do now, seeing New Orleans and the state of Louisiana disappearing. We've given the world jazz, our kind of blues, a lot of great food, a lot of great things. It's so confusing to look at things these days.

I'm concerned that much of the population of New Orleans is not there anymore. There were families split apart and just dumped across the country. A lot of people lost their homes, don't know where their loved ones are. I see them on the road all the time. These people have no idea how to live in Utah or wherever they are. Some have never left New Orleans and just don't know how to deal with it.

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