By Janet Golden and Jeffrey Anderson

The great blues songs of the 1920s have a lot to teach us about the miseries of what experts call insect vectors of human disease, many of which remain a problem throughout the world. Our last look at music  recounted blues bacterial lyrics through the ages.

Now, buggers of the '20s:

In 1927, Bessie Smith told us all about the misery of bed bug bites in her "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues."

Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith (1894/95-1937) delivered her songs with a soulfully haunting voice that left no doubt she drew from personal experience. Born into abject poverty in the segregated South, Smith became one of the highest paid African American performers of her era; she played with the greats, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. In 1921 she moved to Philadelphia. Killed in an automobile accident while in Mississippi in1937, her body was returned to Philadelphia, where over 10,000 people paid their respects. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970, when successful reissues of her music led to a media campaign, and Janis Joplin and others arranged for a gravestone.

Bed bugs were eliminated from most homes in the developed world thanks to indoor spraying of DDT. We learned about the dangers of DDT thanks to the work of crusading biologist Rachel Carson and her 1962 publication Silent Spring, which led the government to ban its use. But now they’re back.

In her lyrics, Bessie Smith tells us: “Gals, bed bugs sure is evil, they don’t mean me no good.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is somewhat more upbeat: “bed bugs should not be considered a medical or public health hazard.”

Arthur (Blind) Blake (1890-1933), deemed one of the finest pre-war blues guitarists and one of the first commercially successful black guitarists, gave us

“Hookworm Blues” in 1929. The lyrics begin with an accurate description of an infection: “Hookworm in your body and your food don’t do you no good.” See:

The hookworm is a parasite that lives in the intestines, causing blood loss, anemia and protein deficiency. In children, a hookworm infection can retard growth and mental development. At one time hookworm infected up to 40 percent of the population in the southern United States. The building of sanitary outhouses, careful waste control, wearing of shoes (hookworm larva in the soil can penetrate the skin), and new treatment of those who were infected led to its eradication.

Worldwide control of intestinal worms (helminths) that are transmitted through soil remains a daunting challenge. According to the World Health Organization, “recent estimates suggest that A. lumbricoides infects over 1 billion people, T. trichiura 795 million, and hookworms (Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus) 740 million. The greatest numbers of soil-transmitted helminth infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, China and East Asia.”

Blind Blake, also known as the "King of the Ragtime Guitar," died from tuberculosis (according to one report) or was run over by a Street Car (in another). The grave was unmarked for more than three-quarters of a century, until his stone was unveiled last October.

In 1929 Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929) gave us yet another great song: "Mosquito Moan." Jefferson was born in Texas and began singing on the streets and in "juke joints" before moving to Chicago in the 1920s, where he began recording the songs that made him an influential blues singer.

The mosquitoes that he complained about in his lyrics transmit many deadly diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and West Nile virus. In 1793, Philadelphia suffered a yellow fever epidemic that took an estimated 5,000 lives. Today yellow fever is found outside the U. S. in tropical and subtropical Africa and South America; there is a preventive vaccine.

Malaria eradication in the United States was achieved through mosquito control, often through the use of DDT. Worldwide malaria control has yet to be achieved, despite a coordinated effort led by WHO.

Blind Lemon Jefferson's death has been blamed variously on being caught out in a snow storm, attacked by a dog, and being beaten for money he had received from his recordings. His grave, too, remained without a proper marker until 1967, even though he expressed that it to be looked after in his song "See that My Grave is Kept Clean." 

In the years since these giants of the blues set the infections around them to music, we have vanquished many insect-borne threats. Yet new ones are arising. In 1999, West Nile virus, which moves from birds to humans via mosquitoes, arrived in the United States. (And some folks have already written songs about it!) There is no vaccine or specific treatment for West Nile, so we must take preventive measures.

Ultimately, public health security is a global problem that demands a coordinated global effort. With that in mind, learn about some world music supporting the Roll Back Malaria effort.

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.

Read more about The Public's Health.