The Jinx Blues

Note: The following article was written by Bob Eagle, and originally posted to the “Blues-L” forum in January 2001. Other than a couple of very minor edits, here’s the article as it was originally published.

Here’s some exploratory ramblings on the word “Jinx” and its (possible) connections with the blues/Son House/et al.

JINX is the usual spelling in blues titles for a term which was earlier spelled “Jynx” in English. The term “jinx” has several specialized uses in blues parlance.

The term “jynx” entered the English language via Latin, but in a form effectively unaltered from the Hellenic Greek. The Hellenic “x” ending denotes the singular form, with the plural form (in English) spelled “jynges.” The “x” ending, being pronounced the same as “ks,” has led to the singular term sometimes being spelled “jinks,” probably erroneously.

The Greek word referred to the genus “Jynx,” a genus of birds allied to the woodpecker and known colloquially by the name “wryneck,” because of their ability to turn their head over their shoulder. This meaning had entered English usage by 1649.

However, such birds were used in witchcraft, and hence the term was also used in English, by 1693 (in the plural), to refer to charms, or spells. The term “wryneck” could also refer to a charm worn around the neck.

The term “jynx” was also used before the Christian era in Chaldea (the southern area of modern Iraq) as the name of an order of spiritual intelligences which formed part of the ancient Chaldean philosophy. That usage of the term had entered the English language by 1655.

However, as the glory of Chaldea preceded that of ancient Greece, the Chaldaic usage probably predated the Greek. Presumably the Chaldaic usage passed into Greek lore after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area. Assuming that the Greek usage is connected with the Chaldaic usage, the wryneck may possibly have been regarded as a personification of the Chaldaic spiritual intelligences, and therefore took their name. In turn, that could explain the bird’s use in witchcraft, and why the term came to refer to a charm or spell.

Blues parlance does contain some examples of usage common to the usage of the term in white society, where a “jinx” is a person (or, less frequently, an inanimate object) whose presence brings bad luck, whether by some intrinsic lack of luck or by action.

Examples are: Ora Brown’s JINX BLUES (Paramount #12481, recorded c. May 1927); and Augustus (Track Horse) Haggerty’s I FEEL THAT OLD BLACK WOMAN IS A JINX ON ME (Library of Congress, recorded November 20th, 1934).

The term is also used in blues in the white sense, “to hex.” It is interesting that the meanings of “hex” include (as a verb) “to practice witchcraft (upon);” and “to bewitch;” and (as a noun) to mean a “witch;” and a “magic spell.”

It is also used in blues in the sense of a “hex,” used as a noun: for example, Gabriel Brown’s THE JINX IS ON ME (Gennett #5023, recorded May 2nd, 1945)

But also, as used in blues lyrics, “jinx” has some specialist meanings.

One principal meaning of “jinx” in blues usage is to denote a spirit of superhuman powers and (usually) mischievous bent, almost akin to a lesser devil. Compare its usage, with the meaning being obscured by bizarre syntax, by Charley Patton in his SCREAMIN’ AND HOLLERIN’ THE BLUES (Paramount #12805, recorded June 14th, 1929), most copies of which are credited as being performed by his persona, THE MASKED MARVEL:

“(If) I woke up in the mornin’, jinx all ’round your bed; (twice)
Turned my face to the wall and I didn’t have a word to say.”

In REVENUE MAN BLUES (Vocalion #02931, recorded January 31st, 1934) he sings:

“I wake up every mornin’ with a jinx all around my bed; (twice)
(spoken: “You know I’ll have them jinx hereafter”)
“I have been a good provider but I believe I have been misled.”

Other examples of the use of “jinx” in blues occur in:

Tampa Red’s JINX DOCTOR BLUES (Vocalion #1596, recorded January 28th, 1931);

Buddy Moss’ JINX MAN BLUES (Banner #33432, recorded August 9th, 1934);

Kokomo Arnold’s OLD BLACK CAT BLUES (JINX BLUES) (DECCA #7050, recorded January 15th, 1935);

Casey Bill (Weldon)’s JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03496, recorded September 3rd, 1936);

Red Nelson’s WHO PUT THESE JINX ON ME? (DECCA #7256, recorded September 9th, 1936);

Black Boy Shine’s GAMBLIN’ JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03687, recorded June 15th, 1937);

Son House’s JINX BLUES, Numbers 1 & 2 (Library of Congress, recorded July 17th, 1942);

Johnny Temple’s JINKS LEE BLUES (BLUEBIRD #B-8913, recorded September 11th, 1941);

Big Joe Williams’ JINX BLUES (Storyville LP #SLP 163, recorded October 16th, 1963) and JINX BLUES (Milestone LP #3001, recorded during 1964).

Son House’s JINX BLUES, NUMBER 1 and JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2 (Library of Congress, recorded 1942) share virtually only the title verse in common with each other, that verse being augmented by a number of floating verses which generally describe the lonesome feelings of the rejected lover. House’s songs employ the melody and, in the case of JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2, a verse from Willie Brown’s FUTURE BLUES.

Ignoring small variations, Son House’s title verse runs:

“I woke up this morning with the jinx all around, jinx all around, around my bed; (twice)
You know, I thought about you now baby, and it like to kill me dead.”

Taking into account the sense of the augmenting verses, House is using the word “jinx” primarily to mean evil spirits, unless “jinx” is intended to convey an enveloping blanket of gloomy thoughts. The word “it” seems to refer to his reaction to his thoughts, rather than to “the jinx.” Several of House’s augmenting verses describe “the blues” in terms of it being a feeling rather than as a personification of evil.

Taking up again the Chaldaic notion of a “spiritual intelligence,” one possible explanation for the above blues usage for “jinx” is found in the notion of the two inner “voices” sometimes used in popular stories to highlight an inner personal conflict: one voice, the conscience, is intent upon influencing the person to be “good,” while the other wants to lead the person into error or mischief.

The notion is similar to the Latin term, “genius,” which originally referred to either of the two opposed, but personal, spirits or angels which were presumed to “attend” each individual.

However, the personalization may derive from an African concept similar to the “genie” of Arabic lore, or the “genius” of classical text. In the case of “genius,” each person was regarded as being possessed of a good and an evil genius that struggled for control of the soul and the mind. The terms “jinx” or “the blues” may represent the evil genius within the individual.

In Arabic, there is a term “jinnee” (sometimes “djinn” or “jinn”) which described a spirit at a level lower than that of the angels. Solid evidence is lacking, but the Arabic word may be related to the Latin word “genius.” The modern notion of a “genie” appears to have come into English as a result of the French adaptation of the Arabic.

Therefore it is suggested that the above blues usage of “jinx” refers to the more sinister of the pair of spirits seen as attending the blues performer. It is suggested that a person regarding himself as the victim of bad luck or misfortune would usually feel that the more sinister spirit was continually attending him.

Despite the fact that Charley Patton, in his REVENUE MAN BLUES, sings “a jinx,” the context of both Patton’s quoted songs, and the title of Red Nelson’s song, and the title verse of House’s songs, is that there is more than one jinx, as is illustrated by Patton’s reference to “them jinx” and by Nelson’s reference to “these jinx.” Possibly the word should, after all, be transcribed as “jinks,” rather than “jinx.” As an extension of that notion, it is possible that, in black usage, the term “jinx” is related to the verb used in Scots dialects, “to jink,” which means to trick, or to dodge or move elusively. In the context of modern contact sports, its usage is to mean to trick the opposition by nimble movement. This usage may be related to the idea of “high jinks,” referring to boisterousness or merry-making.

It is also faintly possible that the use of “jink” as meaning “to play a trick upon” some body, was applied to the situation where fate plays a trick upon someone, leaving that person feeling dejected or “blue.”

The term “jinx” is sometimes used interchangeably for the term THE BLUES. An example of the use of the latter term to refer to spirits occurs in Coot Grant’s HEY DADDY BLUES (King Jazz unreleased/ Storyville (Dutch) LP #SLP 153, recorded September 18th, 1947).