What is a mojo? Do women have them? And what does it mean to have your mojo workin', risin', etc? --Rich R., Madison, Wisconsin
It's not what you think, wise guy. According to my Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary--not, perhaps, the ideal source for a word popularized by semiliterate blues musicians, but bear with me--mojo has two meanings: (1) a narcotic, especially morphine; or (2) "magic, the art of casting spells, [or] a charm or amulet used in such spells." In the first sense mojo may derive from the Spanish mojar, to celebrate by drinking; in the second, from an African word, perhaps Gullah, moco, meaning witchcraft or magic.
In blues songs mojo almost always refers to #2. For example, there's "Mojo Blues," recorded by Charley Lincoln in 1927: "Oh the mojo blues mama, crawling across the floor / Some hard-luck rascal done told me I ain't here no more / . . . Aw she went to a hoodoo, she went there all alone / Because every time I leave her, I have to hurry back home." Imponderable though portions of this are, it seems clear that the woman is using a mojo to bring her man back.
Similarly we have "Low Down Mojo Blues," recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928: "My rider's got a mojo, and she won't let me see / Every time I start to loving, she ease that thing on me / She's got to fool her daddy, she's got to keep that mojo hid / But papa's got something, for to find that mojo with / She got four speeds forward, and she don't never stall / The way she bumps over the hill, it would make a panther squall."
The problem with these damn blues tunes is that just about when you figure you've got something pretty much nailed down, meaningwise, they launch into some off-the-wall digression (e.g., "four speeds forward") that tends to cast doubt on any strictly linear interpretation. However, you get the basic idea. You also see how you might get the impression a mojo has something to do with sex, mainly because nine times out of ten it does have something to do with sex, in the form of a love charm or aphrodisiac or something. "Scarey Day Blues" by Blind Willie McTell makes this painfully evident:
"My good gal got a mojo, she's trying to keep it hid / But Georgia Bill got something to find that mojo with [I know this is repetitive, but it gets better] / I said she got that mojo, and she won't let me see / And every time I start to love her, she's tried to put them jinx on me / Well she shakes it like the Central, she wobbles like the L and N [railroads] / Well she's a hotshot mama, and I'm scared to tell her where I been / Said my baby got something, she won't tell her daddy what it is / But when I crawls into my bed, I just can't keep my black stuff still."
I trust the expression "black stuff" requires no elucidation.
Can you please tell me why your fingers and toes wrinkle in the bathtub, but the rest of your body doesn't? --Rachel Fretz, Chevy Chase, Maryland
What my body does or does not do in the bathtub is no business of yours, Rachel. However, speaking in generalities, I might note that the top layer of the skin is composed of toughened, scaly cells collectively known as the stratum corneum. On most of the body, this layer is quite thin, just .015 of a millimeter, but it's 40 times as thick, or 0.6 of a millimeter, on the soles and palms. Normally the stratum corneum is relatively dehydrated, but it absorbs moisture and swells up when soaking. This swelling occurs throughout the soles and palms, but it's most noticeable in the fingers and toes because of their restricted dimensions. In extreme cases, e.g., so-called immersion foot syndrome, which sometimes occurs among soldiers whose feet stay wet for prolonged periods, the entire sole can wrinkle up and become painful to walk on. The principle is the same in any case: since the underlying tissue doesn't absorb water, the stratum corneum can't spread out, so it buckles like asphalt on the highway in the summer sun.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.