Local musician and organizer of WKU Libraries’ Noon-time Concert Series, Jack Montgomery has written a fascinating book about his academic research and personal experiences with the Powwow tradition, a Folk belief practice found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. It is similar to Folk magic and healing practices found here in Kentucky as well. All are generations, even centuries, old. He took the time to talk with me about it in a recent interview.
What led to the writing of this book? It describes such an amazing journey!
“American Shamans” is a personalized narrative of my experiences with several American shamanic healers and their traditions. I included a lot of social history to try to convey the context and historical background so they would not be just stories. I began this journey of the mind and spirit in 1974 as a college student looking for a novel topic on which to research and write a single term paper in folk religion.
My major at the University of South Carolina was religious studies with a minor in psychology and significant coursework in anthropology. It was out of the reading of anthropological ethnographies (field research accounts of contacts with a foreign culture) that I became fascinated with the idea of actually going into a community and studying the people and the traditions. I continue to be interested with community beliefs systems, ideas and concepts that develop in a community outside the realm of formal educational and religious instruction.
This is often a knowledge passed from parent to child, sibling to sibling and throughout the greater community. I eventually wrote several papers in addition to the thesis, presented lectures to university classes, civic and religious groups and taught a short course on the topic as part of USC’s Free University program. The paper was submitted in 1976 as a senior thesis and I thought that was the end of it.
Boy was I wrong! Some 25 years later, I had dinner with a group of folks in New Orleans and among them was a publisher. I mentioned some of my old research and he was fascinated and offered me a book deal and that is how I got to where I am today.
What is shamanism and in what way is it an American tradition?
The term shamanism is from eastern Siberia and refers to a traditional physical and spiritual healer in tribal societies of that region. The religious historian Mircea Eliade called it “a technique of religious ecstasy.”
In traditional societies, shamans are also believed to be connections between the human and the spirit worlds. They approached healing in a holistic manner, where the spiritual and physical were intertwined, and believed treating the spiritual would help the physical by restoring the person to a state of wholeness. Many of these healers were experts in herbal medicine and often were the only source of medical help in very rural communities.
In the U.S., they were called Conjure doctors, Powwow doctors, Power doctors and Granny-Women and they often got called witches as well when they employed “magic.” They were sought out by the community for help to determine what is causing problems of all types from love to ghosts to just plain bad luck. Sadly, when things went wrong they also risked becoming a community scapegoat.
In every community in the U.S. since colonial days, there were people who acted in this sort of manner. It is interesting to note that I have found a lot of evidence of these sorts of practices here in southcentral Kentucky. When I have spoken publicly about the book people always come up to me to tell stories of their grandma’s magic, how they were cured by a healer and how they remember being treated with herbs and so forth.
By the way, I am not referring to the New Age folks in very recent times who have tried to adopt these techniques to what is called the Neo-Shamanic movement. This is the magic and folk wisdom that Grandma and Grandpa used to employ.
A great deal of the book’s focus is placed on the Pennsylvania Dutch Powwow tradition. What is it and how does it relate to Shamanism?
Powwow is a German-American folk-magic tradition firmly based in the Christian tradition that can be traced back to Medieval Europe and in some specific charms, to pre-Christian sources. When Native Americans saw the colonial settlers practicing their tradition they likened it to their medicine-men and called it “Powwow.” Other common names for the tradition are Braucherei, Heleen, Using for Sympathy and Hexerei.
Many Powwows were simple charmers who stopped bleeding, healed burns and dispensed herbal remedies by reciting Bible verses and making motions over the afflicted areas. Other Powwows went further and, like the Siberian shamans, enter into profound trance-states to help clients recover lost items, find missing people and remove bad energies from their houses, their animals and their person. This trance-work also allowed for communication with and interaction with spirits and angelic beings that can be called upon to assist the Powwow.
A Powwow considers him or herself a mere vehicle through which the Divinity acts and therefore no reputable Powwow will take money for what services they provide. Like Divine love, it is given freely as a sacred blessing, reflection of Divine Grace. The client is often instructed not to even thank the Powwow after the healing but they usually do anyway. I might add that Powwow as a tradition is very much alive and even has a presence on the Internet.
You also refer to “root-doctors.” What are they and what are some of the traditions are they encountered in?
A “root-doctor” as they are called in my home state of South Carolina is one who practices a folk magical tradition called “Conjure” or “Hoodoo,” which is principally a folk magic tradition of West African origin mixed with Native American, Scots-Irish and German folk magic.
Hoodoo is not Voodoo, by the way. Voodoo is the mixture of indigenous African beliefs with Roman Catholicism and Hoodoo are those beliefs without the Catholic overlay. In the southeast, slaves were not baptized or considered human and so they held onto their traditional beliefs in secrecy. Hoodoo, as a result, has none of the ceremonial ritual trapping of Voodoo and deals with an exotic world of spirits, curses, charms and magical events.
I met and spent time with a famous root-doctor named James McTeer of Beaufort, S.C., who was known to treat clients from all over the world. A former High-Sherriff, Mr. McTeer was an amazing man with a magnetic personality. It was a privilege to be in his company and witness his magical work. After his death in 1979, the county named a bridge for him bearing a plague that honors him as a “legendary lawman, author, spellbinder and raconteur.”
Hoodoo, by the way, is enjoying a sort of renewed popularity nowadays as people are looking for a more authentic form of magical practice. In the southeast, it was and is still practiced equally by both races. Remember the movies “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Skeleton Key?” Hoodoo was featured in both those films although clearly with the Hollywood touch.
You had many learning experiences with a man named Lee Gandee. Who was he and what was his unique interpretation of the Powwow tradition?
Sadly, Lee passed from this plane of existence in 1998 in West Columbia, S.C., at the age of 81. He was originally from West Virginia and when I first met him in 1974 was a retired state employee, published author and history teacher who did genealogy for clients.
To Lee, the practice of Powwow was as natural as breathing and simply a way of responding to the world around you. He learned it from his grandmother. Lee was considered to be a Hexenmeister in his community and, like many Powwows, was a person who was respected and yet viewed with some fear and trepidation by his neighbors.
His methods and magic had a natural flowing character about them often employing elements of the natural world like herbs, trees, water and stones. He healed both humans and animals, found missing items and people, communicated with spirits and interceded with evil presences on behalf of his clients. To be in his presence was to be immersed in his world where the miraculous was commonplace.
Gandee painted some of my favorite Hex signs, an art form that is not unusual here in Kentucky and is often found on barns. What is their function outside of decoration and how were Gandee’s designs unique?
Lee called them “painted prayers” and they were a way to manifest ones hopes and desires by creating a symbolic representation of your need. Like the mandalas of eastern art, they have symbolic as well as spiritual benefit if nothing else to remind you of the Divine presence in your daily life. Lee created his in a state of trance. Now, having said all that, many “modern folks” use the traditional Hex signs as simple decorations and give them no spiritual meaning whatsoever.
You also write about a ‘Granny Woman’ in your book . Who was she?
I met her through her granddaughter while I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s. She was a traditional mountain granny-woman who healed the sick, delivered babies and fought with witches and evil in her small rural community. She was a devout Christian who was as holy a person as I have ever met and believed her magical work to be a sacred gift. She was ordinary in her appearance much like anyone’s grandmother but inside she was very special.
Like many healers, she discovered as a girl that she had the “gift” as did her father. She lived an incredibly hard life and yet bore no bitterness or dissatisfaction. She had a special gift of being able to call wild birds to her, which she would hold and whisper to and then release. It was a very special thing to see although she made nothing of it herself. She, like the other principle contacts in my book has passed through the veil of this life into the world of spirit and this world is a sadder place without her and them.
Do you plan on writing another book/any upcoming writing projects?
Yes, as an academic, I am always researching and writing. I also do research on conflict management and organizational culture in the workplace. As for my other folklore interests, I have come into possession of a group of 54 letters written by Lee Gandee to a friend in Wisconsin. They are a compilation of everyday issues mixed with his spiritual insights. I believed they provide a unique insight into the mind of an aging mystic. I am working through them now with an eventual publication in mind.
You also play music – do your writing and music have similar themes?
What an interesting question. I do not have any specific references to Powwow of Hoodoo in my original music, but I consider the creation of music to be a spiritual practice. I guess I do have a lot of spiritual themes in my music but not the ones most folks would think about in that way.
Speaking of music – as with books, are there upcoming projects/shows planned?
I am always working on my music but have recently taken some time off from performing in 2012 as I have had some health issues to address. I have been blessed to meet and work with some of the most incredible musicians here in Bowling Green on my musical projects including Molly Kerby, Susan Morris, Janine Kiernan, Graham Hudspeth, Chris Carmichael, Mark Owens, Skip Clevenger, Michael Franklin and Elizabeth Bissette, to name a few.
I have developed and released four CDs of my music since 2002 and all have sold really well and received positive reviews and airplay in the U.S. and overseas. In addition, Bowling Green and Southern Kentucky has an incredibly rich musical culture which I and some other locals are committed to writing and preserving. I write columns and CD reviews for The Amplifier and work to secure donations of local musical memorabilia to the Kentucky Museum in a project called SKYMAPP (Southern Kentucky Musical Archives and Preservation Project). Local luminaries like Tommy Starr of D93 have made incredible donations and I hope one day to publish a book on the musical history of the area.