Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women. Jeffrey Anderson has been researching blues lyrics relating to disease, and has written about the 1918 flu pandemic's impact on Philadelphia.
By Janet Golden and Jeffrey Anderson
Blues music, a soulful and powerful American art form, includes a number of songs about disease in history and about diseases still with us today. Here are some of our favorites.
1. “TB Blues / Jimmie Rogers
Jimmie Rogers knew of what he sang; he died of tuberculosis in 1933 at the age of 35. This one-time railroad worker became a southern country music star, famous for his yodeling. He wrote enduring songs that have been covered by many artists.
Tuberculosis was the greatest killer of the 19th century and while it can be treated with antibiotics, multi-drug resistant strains have arisen and it remains a global threat. In 2011, 8.7 million people fell ill with TB, and 1.4 million died.
Health departments around the world observe World TB Day each March 24 to make residents aware of this continuing threat, prevention, and, if need be, cure.
2. “Dust Pneumonia Blues” / Woody Guthrie
First recorded in 1940, this song is part of legendary American songwriter Woody Guthrie’s musical chronicle of the depression-era dust storms that swept through the prairies following devastating droughts.
People who suffered with dust pneumonia experienced chest pains and fever; some died as the dust prevented their lungs from being cleared.
3. “1919 Influenza Blues” / sung by Essie Jenkins
The great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed an estimated 50 million people around the world. In the U.S., 675,00 perished, with an perhaps 28 percent of all Americans infected with the virus. By the time public health officials reacted, the flu was already well on its way to becoming the deadliest pandemic in modern history.
Philadelphia was the hardest hit city in the United States. Struggling to contain the flu from late September through November 1918, city officials led a campaign against spitting, sneezing, and coughing, and shut down schools, saloons, churches, and theaters in an attempt to combat the inevitable. In one October 1918 week, 4,597 Philadelphians died of flu. At times, the city morgue had ten times the number of bodies as coffins, and five supplementary morgues were eventually opened. One funeral home even hired a security guard to protect the coffins from thieves. In the end, approximately 13,000 Philadelphians died from the flu and its complications over an eight-week period.
History shouldn’t scare us; it should teach us. We now have the means to slow the spread of flu pandemics and to protect ourselves from "normal" seasonal epidemics like this year's, which has arrived at the earliest point in nearly a decade. Flu shots for city residents are now available free at Philadelphia Department of Public Health clinics around Philadelphia. There are plenty of flu vaccine clinics organized by county health departments in the suburbs and at pharmacies and supermarkets as well.
4. “Jake Walk Papa” / Asa Martin
Asa Martin was a medical school dropout who made a living in music for a time. He recorded this song in 1933 — one of many songs to report on the Prohibition Era outbreak of “Jake Leg,” a motor impairment affecting thousands who consumed an adulterated alcoholic beverage.
We know about the rich musical history of Jake Leg thanks to John Morgan and Thomas Tulloss who published a fascinating article in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1976 describing the musical legacy of this tragic epidemic. Martin's work has been widely profiled and collections of the many “Jake Leg” songs have been issued.
The current exhibit on “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” at the National Constitution Center also discusses Jake Leg.
5. “Bacteria” / Jonathan Coulton
For us, public health songs don’t provide the same thrill as the true blues, with its rich heritage and emotional power. Nevertheless, we have to end with a nod to the bacteriological revolution that transformed the practice of disease prevention and treatment. In this quirky song, Jonathan Coulton samples the voices from a Kentucky Fried Chicken training video.
It is odd, but it makes clear the risks posed by raw chicken — and reminds us all to wash our hands! (For more professional encouragement, see the singing staff of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.)
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