‘Nation Sacks

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Hear a sample of the song “Come On In My Kitchen” which mentions the ‘nation sack.

Access the complete lyrics of this song.'nation sack

BluesNotes, October 1, 2003

This issue of BluesNotes concerning “Nation Sacks” comes to me courtesy of Jennifer Bleck, a resonator player and one-time student of mine at one of the music camps around the country.

It has been my understanding from Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt, that the term is a contraction of ‘donation sack’, and sprung from the double drawstring purses common for holding coins in the late 1800’s, and used by tent show revival preachers for their collected donations. And that these ‘nation sacs became fashion items for prostitutes who collected their ‘donations’ from their nightly ministrations and would wear the sacks under their skirts for security, and would further jingle the coins to attract customers.

The material that follows amplifies this idea in a marvelous way and comes closer than anything I’ve seen to nailing down this wonderful image and phrase from Robert Johnson’s song, “Come On In My Kitchen”— “I’ ve taken her last nickel out of her ‘nation sack”. Kudos to Catherine Yronwode, Lucky Mojo Curio Co., Forestville, CA.

The following documentation on the nation sack comes from Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork, a 5-volume, 4766-page collection of folkloric material gathered by Harry Middleton Hyatt, primarily between 1935 and 1939.

What follows is an extract from a long interview with Informant No. 1517, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee, and whom Hyatt described as “a hoodoo woman…a small-time worker or occasional worker” — by which he meant that she made conjurations for others, but was not a full-time professional at the trade. Says Hyatt, who did not reveal the names of his interviewees, “I have called her ‘The Nation Sack Woman’ because at the end of the interview she gave me an excellent account of the nation sack or nation bag — a fetish to some women and worn by them.” The interview runs from page 1449 to page 1459 of Vol. Two. The nation sack material is all on page 1458.

[The nation sack or nation bag {is} an article in my experience confined to the Memphis region. It is unknown along the East Coast and within the New Orleans area — {by} the name.]

A couple of notes on the regionalism of the term:

(1) In this interview, the informant compares nation sacks to “tobies” — a regional name for mojo hands used primarily in Maryland. From the context, it appears that Hyatt had asked her if she knew about tobies — and she responded by describing nation sacks.

(2) As to how the Delta blues musician Robert Johnson learned the regional term nation sack — although he was a native of Mississippi, Johnson spent much of his youth in Memphis, and later settled in the nearby town of Helena, Arkansas.}

The nation bag — dey make dis bag aroun’ — a belt aroun’ dem an’ dat bag hangs right down heah, and dey tote dere money an’ all dere diff’rent little conerns lak ah’m tellin’ yo’ ’bout.

{What she has been telling him about are numerous hoodoo spells that utilize bluestone, sugar, nails, lodestones, salt, urine, photographs, hair, a person’s name written on paper, and so forth. Thus, these ” diff’rent little concerns” are the physical objects women use in hoodooing.}

Dey tote some of de men’s concernin’s {that is, personal physical objects such as the man’s fingernail clippings, pubic hair, a 9-knot string charm with the man’s nature or name tied into it, or a fragment of cloth soiled with his semen} — dey got it in dat bag. Yo’ know, a man bettah not try tuh put dere han’ on dat bag; yo’ know, he betta not touch. He goin’ have some trouble serious wit dat ole lady if he try tuh touch dat bag, ’cause when she pulls it off at night — if she sleeps by herself, she sleeps wit it on; but if she got a husban’, yo’ll see her evah night go an’ lock it up in dat trunk. Nex mawnin’ yo’ see her go dere an’ git it. He never tetch it — she got her stuff in dere. All of her stuff, dat’s where she tote dat. She got her money in dere an’ her snuffbox an’ all dat othah stuff — yo’ say ‘tobies’ — dat’s what’s in dat bag. An’ don’t chew touch dat bag. If yo’ [a man] wanta have some serious trouble — prob’ly make him git sick.

Mah husband’s mothah, she wus a real ole lady ’bout 95 yeahs ole. She had a bag on her an ah’m de one dat fetched it ’cause she drew pensions, an’ ah’m de one got her money out ’cause ah had to take care of it, an’ so she had mo’ diff’rent little — ah don’ know, diff’rent little [things] tied up.

{The informant is subtly telling Hyatt something he does not pick up on — that although men cannot touch a nation sack, the old woman readily let her daughter-in-law — ANOTHER WOMAN — handle it.}

Ah know she did conjurin’ on Mr. Simpson, her husban’, fo’ yeah, ’cause she had ma’ed him ah ‘magine fifty yeahs ole [had been married to him 50 years], an’ she re’lly kept him, too. She had him in dat bag, in her nation sack.

She had dat nation sack an’ done wore it, an’ she sewed, she had so much confidence in dat dat she wouldn’t throw it away. She sewed it to anothah brand-new one, an’ dat wore out, put dat in ‘notha one — her nation sack was dat big [demonstrates].

Mah husban’, he say, “Mah mothah wouldn’t nevah let yo’ tetch dat,” say, “Mah daddy nevah has had his han’s on dat nation sack.”

{Here Hyatt fails to note that the informant is pointing out that her husband was wrong — his mother DID let her handle her nation sack. She is indicating that the taboo is only against men touching it, and that men are not always aware of the gender bias in the taboo.}

(Do women still wear them as much as they used to?)

Well, now, when yo’ find one dat’s be ‘customed to things lak dat. Ah know several women dat wears ’em, dat dey gotta wear ’em now. In wearing dat junk on ’em dey gotta have a nation sack, see. An’ if dey got a man sleepin’ wit ’em dey done got heaps of dese things, an’ dey cain’t have dese things aroun’ ’em untied. {A great many hoodoo style love spells involve folding, wrapping, tying, sewing, or placing objects in a cloth; “untied” objects would be liable to be touched or seen.}

Dey {the men} wanta know whut’s it about. An’ when dey {the women} git it covered down in dat nation sack, see, dey pull it off an’ lock it up, see, ’cause nobody ‘sposed tuh touch it. An’ when dey git up in de mawnin’ dey put it on, an’ den dey cain’t git in de bed. Well, yo’ see, dey’s ‘fraid dey might go tuh sleep, an’ he examine it yo’ know. Dere’s lots of ’em. Ah know several of us wearin’ ’em.

Quoted from Harry Middleton Hyatt, on a website by Catherine Yronwode, Lucky Mojo Curio Co., Forestville, CA

Contents of a Traditional Memphis-Style ‘nation Sack
Item Purpose or Comment
Red Flannel drawstring bag
Silver “Mercury” dime to draw fortune; success; luck
Licorice Root to gain power over others; to change another person’s mind
Queen Elizabeth Root (Iris florentina) to attract a man and cause him to love you
Lodestone to draw good luck to you
Magnetic Sand to draw good luck to you
Heart Charm to draw love to you
Calamus Root (Acorus calamus) for control in situations; to dominate a person
Dragon’s Blood (Dracaena draco) for good luck, making pacts; to attract riches
Two White Flannel Squares to be personalized by you

 

 

 

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