Many songs tell of legendary figures, but the jaunty country tune “Marie Laveau” is more of a cautionary tale than a heroic epic. In the song’s meaning lies arguably the sagest advice: When you run into a swamp witch, just leave her alone.
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“Marie Laveau” was written by The Giving Tree author Shel Silverstein with Baxter Taylor. The howling story song was originally recorded and released by the eccentric rock outfit Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. It appeared on their 1971 debut Doctor Hook.
The song’s subject, Marie Laveau, was actually a real person. She was a famed Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans during the 1800s. Throughout the years, her memory has been kept alive, however farcically, in popular culture with songs such as this one.
Silverstein’s nephew and the author of Silverstein Around the World, Mitch Myers, has explained his uncle’s take on the historic figure.
“Marie Laveau has been described and conjured in history books and legends of voodoo women in New Orleans for decades and decades,” Myers said in an interview with Songfacts. “And all the research points to the fact that there was a Marie Laveau, and she lived at a certain time, and she was supposed to be a witch of certain powers. But beyond that, she was repeated in fable-type proportions in song and in oral storytelling for as long as I can remember.
“I don’t know how far back it goes, to the early 1900s or whenever, but the legend of Marie Laveau has been repeated in books, in song, in poems, every way you can.” He explained that Silverstein’s version of Laveau portrayed her in a particular situation, simply adding to the fable of the character.
The most famous interpretation of Silverstein’s song came from country singer Bobby Bare who released his rendition in 1974. He took the song to No. 1 on the country charts. It would be the singer’s only No. 1 song and his last to grace the top 10.
“In Nashville at that time there were not that many people that would do a whole album of anybody’s songs,” Myers added. “But Shel and Bobby had a very unique relationship … not very often did a particular artist become a sole interpreter of a particular songwriter. And Bobby did that with Shel on more than one album, the most famous album being Lullabies, Legends, and Lies.”
Listen to Dr. Hook’s version of “Marie Laveau” below.
In his version, Bare can be heard introducing the song, saying in a low country drawl, “The most famous of the voodoo queens that ever existed is Marie Laveau, down in Louisiana. There’s a lot of weird ungodly tales about Marie. She’s supposed to have a lot of magic potions, spells and curses….”
A swampy rhythm begins to bubble up beneath his words as the song opens, Down in Louisiana, where the black trees grow / Lives a voodoo lady named Marie Laveau / Got a black cat’s tooth and a Mojo bone / And anyone who wouldn’t leave her alone / She’d go *screech* another man done gone.
The tune introduces a fictitious Marie Laveau in which she is an ugly witch with a bent, bony body and stringy hair. She lives in the bayous of Louisiana with a one-eyed snake and a three-legged dog, and spends her time casting spells and making men disappear.
One night, a no-good man called Handsome Jack comes around looking for the witch. He said Marie Laveau, you lovely witch, Bare sings in his matter-of-fact baritone, Give me a little a little charm that’ll make me rich / Give me a million dollars and I tell you what I’ll do / This very night, I’m gonna marry you / Then it’ll be another mmhmmm man done gone.
So with the shaking of some sand, Marie Laveau conjures up money and gives it to Jack. Then she giggled and she wiggled, and she said Hey, Hey / I’m getting ready for my wedding day, the song shuffles before all hell breaks loose.
But old handsome Jack he said goodbye Marie / You’re too damned ugly for a rich man like me, Bare sings. Then Marie begin to mumble something under her breath, her fangs started gnashing and her eyes started flashing and then she went *screech* another man done gone.
Handsome Jack made the mistake of crossing Marie Laveau, something the song warns against from the very beginning. In closing, Bare again offers his words of advice. So if you ever get down where the black trees grow / And meet a voodoo lady named Marie Laveau / If she ever asks you to make her your wife / Man, you better stay with her for the rest of your life / Or it’ll be *screech* another man done gone.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images