John the Conqueror, also known as High John de Conqueror, John, Jack, and many other folk variants, is a folk hero from African-American folklore. He is associated with a certain root, the John the Conqueror root or John the Conqueroo, to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic. Muddy Waters mentions him as Johnny Cocheroo in the songs "Mannish Boy" and "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man". In "Mannish Boy", the line is "I think I'll go down/To old Kansas too/I'm gonna bring back my second cousin/That little Johnny Conqueroo" and in "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man", it is called "John De Conquer Blue".
Folk hero[edit | edit source]
Sometimes, John is an African prince (son of a king of Congo) who was sold as a slave in the Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken. He survived in folklore as a reluctant folk hero, a sort of trickster figure, because of the tricks he played to evade those who played tricks on him. Joel Chandler Harris's Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories is a similar archetype to that of High John the Conqueror, outdoing those who would do him in. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of his adventures ("High John de Conquer") in her folklore collection The Sanctified Church.
In one traditional John the Conqueror story told by Virginia Hamilton, and probably based on "Jean, the Soldier, and Eulalie, the Devil's Daughter", John falls in love with the Devil's daughter. The Devil sets John a number of impossible tasks: he must clear sixty acres (25 ha) of land in half a day and then sow it with corn and reap it in the other half a day. The Devil's daughter furnishes John with a magical axe and plow that get these impossible tasks done, but warns John that her father the Devil means to kill him even if he performs them. John and the Devil's daughter steal the Devil's own horses; the Devil pursues them, but they escape his clutches by shape-shifting.
In "High John De Conquer", Zora Neale Hurston reports that:
like King Arthur of England, he has served his people. And, like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call him again ... High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time.
This is from Hurston's published article in American Mercury magazine in 1943. In this article, she relates a few stories about High John, enough to define him, but not an exhaustive survey of the folklore. The purpose was to present the nation with the hope-building and the power of this inspiring figure during the darkest days of World War II. The article ends with:
So the brother in black offers to these United States the source of courage that endures, and laughter. High John de Conquer. If the news from overseas reads bad, if the nation inside seems like it is stuck in the Tar Baby, listen hard, and you will hear High John de Conquer treading on his singing-drum. You will know then, that no matter how bad things look now, it will be worse for those who seek to oppress us. ... White America, take a laugh from out of our black mouths, and win! We give you High John de Conquer. — The American Mercury, October 1943, pp. 450-458