Known as Asheville’s village witch, Byron Ballard practices what she calls “hillfolk hoodoo,” a form of Appalachian folk magic. Ballard came by hoodoo naturally, growing up in a poor community in the mountains of Western North Carolina where hoodoo was practiced. She laments that the practice is disappearing: “Local hillfolk are no longer practicing hoodoo, but it’s within living memory. There’s a kind of sadness that the culture of the hillfolk is fading.”
Hoodoo is different from voodoo, she explains, even though the words sound alike. Voodoo originated in Haiti and follows the West African Yoruban religious tradition. Hoodoo, on the other hand, is a nonreligious practice with cross-cultural roots. It grew out of the interactions of three cultural groups — the Scots-Irish who immigrated to Western North Carolina, the indigenous Cherokee and the Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) who migrated to the area through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
Ballard goes on to say that immigrants from Europe, fleeing religious persecution, settled in isolated mountain coves that gave them the privacy and freedom they sought. Theirs was a hardscrabble way of life, but it gave them independence, she says. In the 1930s, when the textile mills moved into the area, the culture began to shift from agricultural to industrial. The money was better, but it took away the independent streak of the mountain people, who were selling just enough of their cash crop to buy coffee and other goods they couldn’t grow. With contact from outside people, their folk practices began to erode, she continues.
“I call myself a forensic folklorist,” says Ballard, “because I’m excavating the practices from older generations.” She aims to preserve what she can of the traditional folk practices, and her book Staubs and Ditchwater is the result of her research into her Southern Highlands roots and its practices.
Although Ballard admits she is attempting to dispel the “hillbilly” and “redneck” stereotypes in her book (she prefers “hillfolk” to “hillbilly”), she nevertheless reclaims them: “I am totally a redneck. I grew up wild and poor in the country … understanding that violence is a way to solve problems. I am stubborn and willful, and I hate authority. I’m always having to suppress my tendencies toward violence.”
As the hillfolk culture is thinning, Ballard says, it is also becoming gentrified by “outlanders” — the affluent people who move into the area. These outsiders are hungry for folk traditions that feed them spiritually and are willing to appropriate any of the practices for their own benefit, she says. But she calls this process of stripping away pieces of the local culture by outsiders “cultural strip-mining.” The culture itself gains nothing and is in fact left weaker by the exchange, she says, comparing it to mountaintop removal and clear-cutting.
Ballard confesses that she is torn about whether it’s better to let the cultural practices die with the people who practiced them or pass them on to the larger world, which may be able to use them for spiritual and environmental purposes.
Although she’s “excavating” a dying culture, she is also actively practicing it, relying on what she learned as a child. Like the “cove doctor” of her forebears, Ballard’s carrying on the tradition of “workings,” or magical spells, to help people heal or get what they want. She gives an example of a working she might do to help someone get a job: “It could require dressing a candle with particularly potent oil and having the person burn it while focusing on their intention to get a new job.” Ballard adds that she tells the person to keep looking for a job meanwhile. “This is definitely a belt-and-suspenders type of magic,” she says.
Most people who come to her for help want healing work, she notes. “Healing is a big thing. The culture we live in is diseased. Hoodoo can help on a one-to-one basis.” She uses herbs, or “yarbs,” for the healing of many physical ailments, noting that they are often more effective than allopathic remedies. Ballard tells the story of her daughter, who saw many doctors to get rid of a wart. None of the treatments she received was effective. Finally, she tried bloodroot, an indigenous herb, and the wart went away.
Many people in the mountains are known for doing disease-specific healing, Ballard reports. “I had a great aunt who could rub a wart or a mole between her fingers, and it would disappear,” she says. “The whole time she would say something like, ‘I don’t know why people think I can do this,’ and in three days it would be gone.” A characteristic of folk magic, Ballard continues, is that practitioners deny they have the ability to do the healing — perhaps out of humility, acknowledging that the power is merely passing through them. She points out that other hillfolk use a different remedy to remove warts — wrapping the affected area in a dirty dishrag, then counting or saying the Lord’s Prayer, followed by burying the dishrag off the property.
Ballard says we often don’t know why traditional folk remedies work. She gives the example of catnip tea, which is given to infants to prevent hives. One theory about how it works, she explains, is that after some of the tea is given to the child, the mother drinks the rest of it. Since it’s a soporific, the mother is more relaxed, which helps her milk production. As a result, the child is healthier from being better nourished.
Often Ballard is called upon to do love spells, but she always refuses. “The problem,” she says, “is that they work. And sometimes the person asking for the spell ends up not being as interested as they thought they were, or they draw a person to them in an unhealthy way, such as stalking.”
Although hoodoo is not a spiritual or religious practice per se, Ballard notes that it can often involve a spiritual or religious overlay. She says that although there are religious-specific pieces, such as reading a part of the Bible to stop the flow of blood, hoodoo works regardless of the lens that’s used. “Religion can be an important part of the cultural practice,” she says, but “utilizing the earth energy is what works. It just depends on how you access it. … Hoodoo is about using earth energies in the quest for personal agency. It’s all about moving your position in the world to where you want it to be.”
Ballard points out that folk magic practices were developed by cultures in the Old World that lacked a sense of agency. “When you live in a feudal system, you don’t have a lot of access to justice or healing,” she says. “Their practices became a form of peasant medicine and psychology.”
When folk magic practices were brought to southern Appalachia, they took hold there as well because they helped provide a sense of personal agency and justice for impoverished mountain dwellers. “The ability to access justice is thin unless you have money and time,” she says, “and the hillfolk had neither.”
Acknowledging the issue of class and economics in the discussion of folk magic “honors the people who developed and practiced it, who are either our literal blood ancestors or … our spiritual and practice ancestors,” she says. “It honors them to say they were not people of great means for whom personal agency was easy.”
Ballard continues the tradition of using hoodoo to bring about justice. “I don’t work for peace. I work for justice,” she says. “I believe, and I think tribal people in Europe believed, that when you have justice, peace is a byproduct of that.”
Ballard teaches local courses about hoodoo. Information about them can be found on her Facebook page, Asheville’s Village Witch, or at myvillagewitch.com.