Boyette Slave House & Slavery in 19th Century Eastern North Carolina

In honor of Black History Month I am sharing several local historical sites with significant connections to local Black history.

First up is the Boyette Slave House. A lesser-known site, the house is located in rural Kenly, but not far off Hwy 222. I visited recently and took a look around. The site is just the small structure itself (it measures just 16x12x8 feet), a wayside side that provides some basic history of the structure, and a small, partial fence enclosing the building, but the site is very significant in terms of Black history. One of very few remaining slave dwellings, the house is a rare piece of history that could shed light on what life was like for enslaved people in the United States. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is privately owned.

Both the National Register nomination form and the wayside sign provide information about the Boyette family that owned the 400 acre farm that the slave dwelling was a part of, but less about the enslaved people who lived in the home. The names of several of the enslaved people owned by the Boyette family were included in George Boyett’s will, probated in 1852: Silvia, Caroline, Maryan, Alfred and James. These names are included in a footnote in the National Register nomination form.

In 1850 George and his son Larkin collectively owned 8 slaves. In 1860, after George’s death, Larkin and his wife Chloe Bagley owned four slaves. The farm produced corn and sweet potatoes as well as livestock and hay (as of 1850). After the Civil War, in which George’s son Larkin fought for the Confederacy, Larkin diversified his father’s farm and grew a wider variety of crops.

According to the National Register nomination form, the house is estimated to have been built sometime between 1800 and 1852. The National Register nomination, filed in 1979, focuses on the house’s distinctive and rare architectural features–It is one of very few remaining examples of a “fragile and ancient” medieval building style brought to the United States by European colonists. This style features hewn planks joined together with full-dovetail notches and dowels. The chimney is an especially well-preserved example of a stick and mud chimney. This architectural style was common for slave dwellings in the 19th century, when more substantial structures had moved to less flammable materials for chimneys. Many slave dwellings were made of similar materials and in a similar style, but when slavery ended many were demolished or fell into disrepair, making this dwelling unique today.

This home represents a form of slavery–smaller farms worked by the family and less than 10 enslaved people–that many don’t think of when thinking of slavery. As I found while working on the Still Standing Visitor Evaluation Project, most people think of plantation slavery with rows of slave cabins on the outskirts of a large (500-1,000 acres) plantation farming cash crops. But enslaved people lived a variety of experiences. In 1860, there were 331,059 enslaved people in North Carolina, about a third of the state’s total population. Many of these lived and worked on plantations, but others worked on small farms, or doing skilled artisan work or trades, or as house servants in rural and urban areas.

The Boyette Slave House is important as it preserves one way of life for enslaved people in the early to mid 19th century in North Carolina. Slave dwellings provide built evidence of the institution of slavery and can be used to highlight and discuss enslaved people’s lived experiences, their resistance to slavery through forging family and cultural ties despite their lack of freedom, and the myriad of little ways in which they created a life, a home, even as they worked without pay and were held against their will. This small cabin holds so many stories left untold, but is a preserved document of slavery in our community. Enslaved people lived here.

Boyette Slave House is located on Glendale Road in Kenly, North Carolina, off of Hwy 222. The structure is privately owned, but it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was restored in 1981, with repairs made to the roof and the distinctive mud and stick chimney. Some information about the structure is available on the Johnston County Visitor Bureau’s website.

Have you visited the Boyette Slave House? Locals, did you know it was there?

Carter Woodson and the Origins of Black History Month

We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.

Carter Woodson, 1926

Carter Woodson, an historian, author, and journalist, is considered the father of Black history. He was one of the first scholars to study Black history and in February 1926 he started “Negro History Week.” This developed into the annual month-long celebration of Black History Month.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), image in the public domain.

Some will interpret the quote above to mean that there shouldn’t be a separate month to celebrate Black history; however, that wasn’t Woodson’s point. He wanted African American history to be fully intertwined in American history. His efforts to study, write, and promote Black history were meant to get it into the textbooks and to make it part of the curriculum. He meant that history should be inclusive of all, and not decided by bias, not excluded because of racism, and not any one group’s history held above others. However, Woodson felt that the best way to make that happen was to promote the study of Black history till such time that it was fairly integrated into mainstream history. And until it is, Black History Month remains important.

In honor of Black History Month, which starts next week, I am visiting local sites relating to African American history and sharing a little bit about each site. This month I will visit and write about several sites in Wilson and Johnston counties in Eastern North Carolina. I am looking forward to learning more about the African American history around me and sharing it with you all.

We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet: History of “Auld Lang Syne”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.

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Like my writing? Thanks! I love researching history and writing about it. Everything has  a history and a story. Let me find yours! I offer research and content creation (blog posts, newsletter articles, social media posts, etc.) for businesses, organizations, non-profits, museums & other institutions. Let’s talk about how you can use your history to tell your brand’s story. You can email me at bethbnevarez@gmail.com.

It’s a Wonderful Life: 10 facts about the classic holiday film

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One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” with my mom and whoever else will join us. We have watched it on the big screen together twice, once in New York City when we visited my brother for Christmas, and once in my hometown, in downtown Wilson, North Carolina at our local historic theater. But most years, it’s pajamas, fuzzy socks, and the fuzzy VHS tape at home. (Though this year, I have realized it’s on Amazon Prime so we won’t have to deal with the finicky VCR this year.) We’ve seen it a dozen times at least and yet the end still makes us cry.

I am so looking forward to this year’s viewing and in honor of the tradition, I’ve compiled a few fun facts about this 1946 Christmas classic.

  1. IMG_6008Both Frank Capra (the director) and James Stewart (who plays the main character George Bailey) served in World War II, with this film being the first they had worked on postwar. Frank Capra, Italian by birth, volunteered to enlist at the age of 44 after Pearl Harbor and put his film talents to patriotic use, creating documentaries about the war to boost morale among troops. Most notably he produced the “Why We Fight” series. James Stewart served as a pilot in WWII rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve and becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. He was also the first Hollywood star to enlist to fight in World War II. IMG_6002
  2. Donna Reed, who played Mary Hatch Bailey, the film’s leading lady, said that the film was “the most difficult film I ever did. No director ever demanded as much of me.”
  3. The film didn’t do as well as expected at the box office because of strong competition, but it was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.
  4. IMG_6009The one award that the film won was the Technical Achievement Award given to the Special Effects crew for developing a new technique for simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. Before It’s a Wonderful Life, snow was made using painted cornflakes; however, these were rather noisy when stepped on, causing scenes to need redubbing. The special effects team on It’s a Wonderful Life developed a new way to create snow using water, soap flakes, foamite, and sugar, which was much quieter than cornflakes.
  5. The film is based on a short story titled “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, which was written in 1939 and published privately in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in their January 1945 edition under the title “The Man Who Was Never Born.” The studio became interested in the story and Cary Grant was initially interested in playing the lead role that would ultimately go to James Stewart. IMG_6005
  6. The swimming pool under the gym floor that features in the famous dance scene of the movie still exists at Beverly Hills High School where it was in use at least until 2013.
  7. The film is listed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Films Ever Made, placing number 11 on the initial 1998 list and number 20 on the revised 2007 list.
  8. The pet raven of Uncle Billy’s was in several of Capra’s films beginning with You Can’t Take it With You. His name was Jimmy. IMG_6006
  9. Like many of Capra’s films, the movie told a moral story with a positive, heartwarming and patriotic message about a downtrodden “every man.”
  10. 4.7 million people tuned in to NBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of the movie in 2017. Will you be watching this year?

All images and video clips are owned by Republic Pictures who retains the copyright for the film, the story it is based on, and the film’s music.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Time for Scary Ghost Stories

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago.”

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice. What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween?

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. The line about scary stories seems out of place in the Christmas classic, but it has its roots in Christmas traditions of the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And one tradition that didn’t quite carry over to today is the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve.

In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits. A Christmas Carol also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

Image in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Cloth-First_Edition_1843.jpg

A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

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Like my writing? Thanks! I love researching history and writing about it. Everything has  a history and a story. Let me find yours! I offer research and content creation (blog posts, newsletter articles, social media posts, etc.) for businesses, organizations, non-profits, museums & other institutions. Let’s talk about how you can use your history to tell your brand’s story. You can email me at bethbnevarez@gmail.com.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside:” Context & Controversy

Baby Its Cold Outside

Last holiday season controversy erupted over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” And this year, John Legend & Kelly Clarkson’s new version has stirred up opinions on the song once again. What is the controversy all about? And what’s the context for the original song’s lyrics? Read more below about the historical context for the song, and how it comes off in the present.

Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. Frank and his wife Lynn Garland sang it for the first time at the end of their housewarming party to indicate to guests that it was time to leave. They were then invited to lots of parties and asked to be the closing act. The song first appeared publicly in the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter, a romantic comedy. It is performed twice in the movie–once in reverse gender roles with the woman wanting a man to stay.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that pushiness feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple (yet still uncomfortable) as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think. (Also, this point is poked fun at in the new John Legend & Kelly Clarkson version where he asks why she still lives at home. In the 1940s, many women would have lived at home until they married.)

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy, but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

A songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. And John Legend’s version also makes that effort. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it? Let me know in the comments!

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Like my writing? Thanks! I love researching history and writing about it. Everything has  a history and a story. Let me write yours! I offer research and content creation (blog posts, newsletter articles, social media posts, etc.) for businesses, organizations, non-profits, museums & other institutions. Let’s talk about how you can use your history to tell your brand’s story. You can email me at bethbnevarez@gmail.com.

Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens

Recently, I toured Dumbarton Oaks, which is a research library and collection in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collection and estate was donated to Harvard University by Robert and Mildred Bliss, collectors of art and artifacts from around the world. The Blisses were particularly fascinated with Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, as well as gardening and landscape design. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden reflects these interests.

We toured two main exhibits at the Museum and then spent the majority of our visit enjoying the gardens.

One exhibit we viewed focused on textiles from Byzantine. Entitled “Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion,” it demonstrated the way that Byzantine garments were dismantled, with the ornamental sections of clothing cut away from the bulk of the garment which would have been plain or solid in color. These more ornamental fragments were sold by traders. The exhibit explores the themes in the designs commonly found on these Byzantine garments, and related objects.

The Museum’s display style was much more like that found in art museums or anthropology museums, rather than my area of expertise–history museums, and the Byzantine empire is far from the usual topics and time periods I study, but I enjoyed viewing these pieces, amazed by how well many of these textiles were preserved, several hundreds of years later. I was also interested to learn that researchers are able to gleam information about the people who wore these clothes from the stains and folds of these garments, which were removed from the burials of medieval Egyptians. They also speak to the aesthetics of the period.

Of more interest to me were the Pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and South America. This exhibit was in a beautiful array of circular areas and hallways with floor-length windows all around. These artifacts spoke to the religious and cultural life of the pre-conquest indigenous groups of Latin America.

Finally, we toured the gardens, which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, in consultation with Mildred Bliss. Beginning in 1921, the two women drew on their knowledge of European garden tradition in order to create the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The garden consists of a series of terraces. It was designed and evolved over 30 years with every single element carefully considered and chosen. Read more about Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens at their website.

“So This is Christmas:” A Holiday Song as Protest

“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.

Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”

The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

A few more interesting facts about the song:

  1. In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.
  2. The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.
  3. The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.
  4. The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.

Full lyrics:

(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)

And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over, if you want it
War is over, now!

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas

The Monster Mash: 3 Interesting Facts About the Halloween Classic

The Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since. Here are a few fun facts about this Halloween classic.

  1. The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.
  2. The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance craze of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.
  3. Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.

“I Put a Spell on You:” From Radio Ban to Disney Movie Favorite

The origins of a popular song that has become a Halloween Disney movie favorite? A drunken recording session, a blues singer with an amazing voice, a breakup, and a spooky production.

A song many know because of its numerous cover versions, “I Put a Spell on You” is now included on Halloween playlists, owing partly to its inclusion in the movie Hocus Pocus. However, even before its more overt connection to the Halloween holiday, the song was thought of as shocking, demented, and dark, but not solely for the lyrics which suggest witchcraft or voodoo. Originally written and performed  by Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins,”I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956 and is the song that earned Jalacy the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname. It was Hawkins’ screaming delivery of the song and his resulting performance style that really gave the song its powerful yet outrageous and slightly sinister tone. The song transformed Hawkins’ career and he became the pioneer of the subgenre of “shock rock,” a genre later popularized by artists including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osborne, and Marilyn Manson.

“I Put a Spell on You” was not originally intended to be associated with Halloween at all. It was Hawkins’ delivery of the song in the 1956 recording and the resulting live performances that would change everything for the song and for Hawkins. Hawkins, who had operatic dreams, but was working as a traditional blues singer, originally wrote the song as a traditional blues love ballad with lyrics about getting a lover back after a breakup, influenced by his own personal life. He recorded it as such in 1955 but the track didn’t go anywhere. However, the story goes that a year later when he decided to try rerecording it, the producer brought in food and large quantities of alcohol to the recording session and got everyone drunk resulting in the most well-known version of the song.

However, the resulting version of the song also got it banned from radio. In 1956, Hawkins’ singing, screaming, and grunting, complete with animal noises, sounded overtly sexual to mainstream audiences. The fact that Hawkins was African American likely contributed to this take on the song. Even a toned down version wasn’t played on most radio stations. Despite the radio ban, the song was Hawkins’ most commercially successful one, though it never made the top charts.

Hawkins’ live performances of the song did little to allay the concerns of many groups. He took to appearing on stage in a coffin, rising out dressed in a “screaming wardrobe”  including zebra stripes, bright colors, sometimes a loin cloth, with a spear or a skull on a stick that would sometimes smoke his cigarette while he sang, and with tusks in his nose and a turban on his head.

The NAACP denounced his act with concerns that he was propagating stereotypes of African Americans as cannibals or witch doctors. Some African American newspapers and magazines ignored Hawkins, not wanting to promote his music. The song was released in the era of Jim Crow and segregation and understandably there were concerns about the act being consumed by white audiences for which it upheld dangerous and negative images of black people.

Despite all of this, the song was Hawkins’ biggest hit, with Hawkins being featured in DJ Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Revue and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists. Some of the most well-received covers include those of Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler (in Hocus Pocus), and Annie Lennox, but there have been many more.

Nina Simone’s cover was especially well done with the song taking on a whole new meaning when sung with her amazing voice. Simone slowed the track down more to the ballad tempo it was originally meant to be, but with powerhouse vocals and jazz style scatting. The track became so much a part of Simone’s body of work that she titled her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.”

Bette Midler’s rendition in Hocus Pocus has become particularly popular at Halloween owing to the movie’s rising popularity as a cult classic. It seems to be more popular as it ages with references to it on signs, t-shirts, and more as Halloween approaches. Midler as Winifred Sanderson changes many of the lyrics to fit the spell she was casting while singing but hers is one of the more well known uses of the song, though it has appeared in several other movies and in commercials.

Jalacy Hawkins’ song had a long life after him as artists continue to cover it. However, the song and its influence on his stage persona changed his career trajectory so much that he had difficulty getting other records taken seriously and many shied away from playing his records because of fear of associating with him, even when records were more traditional. He didn’t really benefit financially from the song despite the fact that many covers of it happened in his lifetime.

Read more about Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, who had an interesting life with a difficult childhood, served in the armed forces, and had a relatively successful boxing career, all before the release of “I Put a Spell on You.” Links to further reading below.

Links:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-02/15/004r-021500-idx.html

These first two links are obituaries for Jay Hawkins.

https://www.biography.com/news/screamin-jay-hawkins-i-put-a-spell-on-you-biography

Biography of Jay Hawkins.

http://flavorwire.com/503899/the-curious-history-of-i-put-a-spell-on-you

This is an especially interesting article that follows the trajectory of the song over time and speaks to the likelihood that Hawkins’ version was unsuccessful because of racial biases of the time, while later white performers’ versions of the song were more commercially successful and bigger hits on radio charts. It also suggests that Hawkins’ performance style confronted white audiences’ desire to appropriate black music while society still maintained segregation and oppression of African Americans.