A Brief History of Witchcraft in Music
Just in time for Halloween, the most noteworthy witches in modern music.
As icons of the occult, witches loom with a shadowy presence. The mere suggestion of one can conjure a great song, imbue it with otherness. Entire rock and roll personas have been molded from their mysticism. At the risk of being cursed, I’ve been considering the most noteworthy witches in modern music. A sonic coven, of sorts. And my research reveals a longstanding parallel between songwriting and pagan chants. It turns out the treble clef is actually a smoldering cauldron.
Born out of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga has been a continued source of inspiration. First among the forest witches, she wields a mortar and pestle and is said to dwell in a hut that stands on chicken legs. Her influence is found in both the lo-fi hiss of Amen Dunes and a German psychedelic band who assumed her namesake. Yaga’s most defining trait is her severe dualism: she either consumes children, or as in the tale of Vasilia the Beautiful, she rescues them. The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky explored this duality in his piano composition “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” one of ten suites from his Pictures at an Exhibition. The album was revisited one hundred years later by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, as well as by Japanese Moog pioneer Isao Tomita. Both offer a progressive interpretation of “The Hut of Baba Yaga.”
Deep in the bayous of the South, a very different type of witch is lurking. The practice of Hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, was brought to America during the slave trade. Unlike voodoo, the spells of these witches are focused on self-preservation and protection. References are particularly present in rhythm and blues, recounted by hoarse-voiced singers with quixotic names. In 1956, Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins launched a thousand covers with the ubiquitous single “I Put a Spell on You.” One such cover artist, Creedence Clearwater Revival, also described “chasin’ down a hoodoo” in their classic rock testament “Born on the Bayou.” There is even a compilation dedicated to the genre, Voodoo Blues: Hoodoo & Magical Practices, featuring the tracks “Black Cat Bone” and “Root Doctor Blues.”
With its whimsical process of improvisation, jazz also lends itself well to witchcraft. Near the end of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis “runs the voodoo down” through a captivating instrumental catharsis. Before that, Wayne Shorter arranged a “Witch Hunt” and Art Blakey orchestrated the wild “Witch Doctor.” Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, and Donald Byrd Sextet each sang about “Witchcraft”—and according to an early biography of Charles Mingus, the musician once employed an instructor of the dark arts.
Nowhere, however, is witchery more present, more violent, and more misunderstood than in rock and roll. The electric guitar might as well be a stringed broomstick. The Sonics sang of a “girl who’s new in town” with “long black hair and a big black car.” Donovan’s ode to stitch-work followed a year later with “Season of the Witch.” On her album Clouds, Joni Mitchell sings about Rose, who has “gotten into tarot cards and potions.” In 1969, a band named Coven released Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls. Their live performances were rumored to include a Black Mass and a roadie strung from an inverted crucifix.
Across pop music, witchiness came to embody empowerment.
While references were originally in the derogatory vein, the identity of the sorceress changed over time. Across pop music, witchiness came to embody empowerment. Stevie Nicks spent a good portion of her musical career denying any affiliation with black magic, and on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” she sang about a woman who was “like the cat in the dark” but also “the darkness.” Decades later, Nicks embraced the image by appearing as herself and performing a song in the witch-themed season three of American Horror Story: Coven.
It is ultimately the power of spells that binds witchcraft so closely to music. As listeners, we want to be spellbound. Lyrics are magic words in and of themselves, repeated in rhyme and sometimes nonsensical. The strongest songs captivate the consciousness. And as in music, there is a performance involved and a specific set of arrangements for an invocation. In “Witches’ Song,” Marianne Faithfull celebrates the ceremony:
Shall I see you tonight, sister bathed in magic greet?
Shall we meet on the hilltop where the two roads meet?
We will form a circle hold our hands and chant
Let the great one know what it is we want
These supernatural practices extend to the use of musical instruments. For his 1830 piece about a witches’ Sabbath, Hector Berlioz instructed violinists to strike the back of their instrument with the bow—a technique known as col legno. His intent was to mimic the sounds of skeletons, bubbling cauldrons, and gusts of wind.
But for all their magical endeavors, witches have endured a long history of persecution. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, it was commonplace to publicly capture and burn one—or an entire family. A few rumors and marking characteristics could result in a fiery death at the stake. Kate Bush sings about “Waking the Witch” on her seminal album Hounds of Love. This “waking” refers to the sleep deprivation that was forced on suspected sorceresses. Going without sleep for days at a time, the accused would begin to hallucinate and confess to acts they may or may not have committed. The brutal history of these burnings is a continued fascination; in the opening lines to Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch,” Thom Yorke conveys the chaos of an actual hunt: “Stay in the shadows / Cheer in the gallows / this is a round up.”
Even when there is no direct mention of broom-riders, certain albums contain an inherent, stirring sense of witchiness. A few artists have even managed to cultivate an aura of authentic sorcery. Given her penchant for provocative album art, Patti Smith has become the elder stateswoman of this spooky school, posing with piercing eyes and doves on her wrists for the cover of Wave. In the closing lines of “Down By the Water,” PJ Harvey seems to cast a jangly little incantation of her own. Liz Harris of Grouper was once proposed as the ambient “bad witch” to Julianna Barwick’s choral goodness. With her ability to transform at will, Fever Ray also embodies a state of bewitchment, as does Jenny Hval, whose forthcoming novel Girls Against God includes a Nordic coven. In February of 2017, shortly after the inauguration, Lana Del Ray tweeted a series of cryptic dates. After some research, her dedicated followers determined it was part of a hex against Donald Trump.
But the Wiccan identity is not reserved for the fairer sex; the practice upholds a remarkable gender fluidity. In 1999, George Harrison was attacked in his home by a man who believed The Beatles were witches who flew around on broomsticks. Post-punk soothsayer Mark E. Smith was particularly interested in the science of sorcery. The debut studio album by The Fall was named Live at the Witch Trials, and their fourth effort was called Hex Enduction Hour. With his gothic baritone, Peter Murphy has cast a few aural spells of his own, singing of “witches too” on the Bauhaus song “Hollow Hills.” And Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius once professed that he could destroy Eminem with his singular “witch glance.”
Having become such a fixture of the zeitgeist, witches now possess a world of their own, replete with history, geography, and mathematics. A “Witches’ Multiplication Table” was once put forth by the late Can wizard Holger Czukay. The modern sorceress is a citizen and a patriot, per Rob Zombie’s “American Witch,” and more specifically, the indie band L.A. Witch. They are members of a community and a subculture, according to Jeff Buckley’s “Witches’ Rave,” on which he sings “Your witchcraft’s all around me in your ragged pagan scene.” But there is also inclusiveness within the group, as Liars reassure us on “There’s Always Room on the Broom.” On the Guided by Voices track “Cut-Out Witch,” Robert Pollard asks, “Do you think she can change your life?” His earnest tone makes us wonder.
In 1999, George Harrison was attacked in his home by a man who believed The Beatles were witches who flew around on broomsticks.
As it became ever-present in music, the title of “witch” was employed both as a prefix and a suffix. Now, we have an entire genre of spectral techno called witch house, with key releases by Salem. Witch Cults of the Radio Age were investigated in 2009 by Broadcast and The Focus Group. As a grammatical appendage, the term is used ad nauseam in metal. The genre epitomizes a kind of shopping list of witches: Skeletonwitch, Bell Witch, Witch Sorrow, Witch Vomit, or the more embellished, Temple of the Fuzz Witch. And lest we not forget J Mascis’ heavy psychedelic side band, simply named Witch.
For all their newfound notoriety, witches have suffered their fair share of clichés. Not every artist can summon a genuine likeness. The Eagles struggled to reach beyond the stereotype in their country rock ear-worm “Witchy Woman”; surely you are familiar with the generic refrain—“Woo hoo, she got the moon in her eyes.” Donovan revisited the theme in 1973, but lost the charm on “Wild Witch Lady.” In spite of these missteps, witchcraft has managed to retain all of its majestic power over music. It’s widespread and inextricable, and we haven’t even begun to explore the realm of film soundtracks, where the occult drama Suspiria has manifested two different scores, one for each version, both acclaimed.
Over time, Hollywood has exploited the image of the witch, reduced it to a caricature. But in the realm of music, their identity remains sacred, cloaked in secrecy. The witching hour is long playing, and we can only hope it always will be (for their 2018 release Bad Witch, Nine Inch Nails employed synthesizers and droning saxophone to enchant listeners). So the next time you find lyrics or a particular rhythm lodged in your head, or feel compelled to replay a song over and over again, be sure to thank a witch. FL