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Words I Might Have Ate: Rememering Dr. John's 'Gris-Gris' after Mardi Gras

At the crispy intersection of funk, psychedelic rock and blues sits New Orleans legend Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., better known as Dr. John — or the night tripper, or the gris-gris man. And on the first Fat Tuesday since he died, Dr. John’s influence on jazz and New Orleans is still abundant.

His first album, Gris-Gris, released in 1968, is pulled from the swampy waters around his native city. Gris-Gris uses the voodoo traditions that fascinate Dr. John, combined with a persona gleaned from the man who brought voodoo to New Orleans. The album is mystical, putting on a show for those unfamiliar and lulling those who are with thoughts of home. 

Taking blues elements like heavy, clanky percussion and repetitive lyrics means that it’s distinctly southern, but it keeps New Orleans at the forefront. “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” the first song on the album, plunges the listener into a mysterious world, with distant vocals and loose drumming. 

The drumming on the album is ornate still, guiding the chants through the mystical world that Dr. John creates. Not only does he use voodoo traditions to heighten the cultural aspects of his music; he expands on it, creating his own world of voodoo. “Jump Sturdy,” is the swampiest of the songs, the drums guiding the easy rhythm, Dr. John’s voice oozing from behind his backup singers, dripping with culture and hot swamp water.

“Mama Roux” is especially pulled from the jazz clubs around New Orleans, its sweet Haitian beat bopping behind Dr. John’s gruff, hardened voice. The background singers featured on “Mama Roux '' and most other songs on the album make it more mystical, but it doesn’t gatekeep voodoo. Instead, it communicates it in a way that, while intimidating, shares the feeling of being in the voodoo culture in New Orleans. It’s not an album for the faint of heart.

“I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” the final song on Gris-Gris, exemplifies the mysticism that envelops his music. The vaguely Hatian horns on the album drip off the transitions, with reminders of French folk tales repeated incessantly throughout. Dr. John’s reliance on chants, metallic chimes and melodic horns mystifies the genre, existing almost to defy what genres should sound like. 

Dr. John’s long career later took a jazzier turn, but Gris-Gris exists as a reminder to listeners that he once was a leader in developing psychedelic rock. Although a different route from what other bands did, he carved his own niche out of an already sparse psychedelic scene. There’s hardly an album that reflects better on what should be a more crowded genre — New Orleans psychedelia.  

Shelby Campbell is a junior studying strategic communication at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Shelby know by tweeting her @bloodbuzzohioan. 

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