I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that my favourite song in the history of songs is “I Put a Spell on You”. I am fortunate to live in a reality where I can’t even remember the first time I heard the song, it was just always there. Every halloween every version available would be on the radio (though CCR’s version dominated my local stations), and everyone in the family knew all the words. I’ve never been able to get enough, and I’ve never found a version that didn’t set my damn soul on fire.
It’s the most amazing and expressive song in the history of time, and the man who wrote it is a legend.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, folks, Screamin’ J was one of the greatest singers of all time. Don’t @ me. Before I Put a Spell on You, Jalacy Hawkins was an average, but talented, blues singer writing a ballad for his lost love. His voice was wonderful, and his song writing was good – but once he started screamin’, Jay Hawkins became something almost OTHERWORLDY. I Put A Spell on You is loud, slow, and full of gutteral screams and moans that could make Marilyn Manson clutch his pearls. I start to sweat every time I hear it. Of course, the song would have been a slow blues ballad if it weren’t for a huge order of bourbon and ribs. (Rock n’ Roll, there’s just nothing like it.) They were so intoxicated that Jay himself blacked out less than half way through and to re-learn the song based off the recording. Not only did this change the song, it changed Jay and the history of rock and roll forever.
Not everyone likes “shock rock”, or overly theatrical Rock n Roll, but I personally think the world is a better place having Alice Cooper, Bowie and Queen in it. To capitalize on the visceral energy of IPASOY, Screamin Jay started rising out of a flaming coffin on stage, brandishing bones and skulls, and working old school voodoo all over the stage. He definitely scared white people, but I’m of the mind that this was on purpose. Jay donned hilariously stereotypical and clichéd hollywood witch-doctor and voodoo garb and costumes. He jumped and acted like a “savage” often to milk white people for all they were worth. Of course white audiences were happy to laugh at his antics on late night tv, but his version of the song didn’t receive the awards and accolades it deserved. (In fact the first time the song received an award, it was for a cover by a white artist!) Now his performances read as a strong black man thumbing his nose at white people who wanted to enjoy or even straight up appropriate black culture and music (*cough* ELVIS *cough*) without confronting it’s own disturbing role and internal biases in the culture.
Though this message doesn’t seem as obvious in every version of the song, Nina Simone harnessed this energy and added her own strong, black femininity in her version. Her incredibly sensual and daring version of the song became so much a part of her identity that the title was used for her own autobiography. The voodoo and magickal energy of the original was transformed from desperate gutteral groans, to controlled and strong feminine notes.
Though the grunts and hollers of Hawkins have never even been attempted in any of the hundred covers of the song, every single version sounds different and bewitching in different ways. The song is magic that way. The song is so simple and so organic and human that it applies to anyone and can help anyone express their sexuality, longing, creativity, control, or power. When some female singers sing the song the sensuality and sexuality of the song says “you’re mine”, while many male singers are often really saying “I’m yours”. The song can be flamboyant and erratic, or sultry and smooth, it can be cheesy and family friendly, or overtly sexual and alarming.
Of course what would a witch’s take on I Put a Spell on You be without bringing up the incredible performance by Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus? The song’s lyrics change a bit, and function as the spell itself when Midler’s 300 year old Winifred Sanderson curses the residents of Salem Massachusettes to dance until they die. The house band even paid homage to screamin Jay in costumes reminiscent of the Barons of Voodoo. Not only did this introduce the song to an entire generation of kids, but it reconnected the song to magick and witchcraft… and made it perfectly acceptable to have multiple copies of the song on your own Halloween playlist.
The song is full of longing, sexuality, desperation, power, energy, and magick. It’s heartbreaking, and life affirming, It’s energetic and exhausting. Every time you hear it you fall further and further under its spell, and it’s so good you never want to be set free.