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Health

Music in the Time of Cholera

Body HorrorsBy Rebecca KrestonApril 12, 2011 5:07 AM

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This is more of a light-hearted post than usual. I have a few favorite songs and, of course, they’re about infectious diseases. I’m a microbiologist, what’re you gonna do? Case closed, moving on. I've been on the hunt for songs specifically about microbes and tracked down some real treasures.

The HIV/AIDs epidemic in the late 1980s sparked a wealth of inspired music, many that are not overtly recognizable about the disease itself. Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and TLC's "Waterfalls" are two of the most popular that come to mind. Songs about HIV/AIDs could be a sub-genre in of itself considering the sheer numbers devoted to the illness. As such, I'd like to focus on some of the less popular diseases but you can browse through this impressive list to get an idea of the impact of HIV/AIDs upon music-making.

The waves of influenza pandemics that killed millions throughout the early to mid-20th century were a popular topic for several artists. The devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was covered by the blues musician Blind Willie Johnson in his grungy, gospel-inspired "Jesus is Coming Soon". Johnson addresses the uncertainty and hopelessness that pervaded the world as the disease indiscriminately killed over 50 million people worldwide.

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvlLlljgAmM[/embed]

A few excerpted lyrics from "Jesus is Coming Soon" include,

"In the year of 19 and 18, God sent a mighty disease. It killed many a-thousand, on land and on the seas. Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere. It was an epidemic, it floated through the air.

The doctors they got troubled and they didn't know what to do. They gathered themselves together, they called it the Spanish flu. Soldiers died on the battlefield, died in the counts too. Captain said to the lieutenant, "I don't know what to do."

Well, God is warning the nation, He's a-warnin them every way. To turn away from evil and seek the Lord and pray. Well, the nobles said to the people, "You better close your public schools. Until the events of death has ending, you better close your churches too."

The rock-steady group The Ethiopians sang a ska-influenced song about the "Hong Kong Flu", the avian influenza H3N2 pandemic that swept the world in 1968 through 1969. This is one of my favorite songs and sparked my interest in finding more infectious-disease-influenced music.

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd-a0CJigT8&feature=player_embedded[/embed] The gospel and country singer Jimmie Rodgers sang about the chronic tuberculosis that he suffered in the bluesy "Whippin' that Old T.B." Unfortunately, the "father of country music" was instead whipped by the bacteria and died at the early age of 35 from lung hemorrhages brought about by chronic illness (a). Find the video and lyrics are below. [embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr5_Jh-kq_k[/embed]

“I went to see the doctor and he thumped upon my back Went to see the doctor and he thumped upon my back He say’s boy you’re travelin’ on a one way track

My lungs are rattlin’ and you ought to hear this cough of mine Lord my lungs are rattlin’ and you ought to hear this cough of mine Lord this dog gone bug must be working overtime.”

Another big killer of the early twentieth century was pneumonia and the two blues singers Blind Lemon Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy both sang tunes about the miserable achy and feverish symptoms in their identically named tune "Pneumonia Blues" in 1929 and 1936, respectively. Lemon Johnson blames catching pneumonia due to his relationship with a woman of ill-repute, falling ill while standing in the rain "watching my woman trying to see what she going to do". However, I particularly like Broonzy's take on the ailment as he spends the entire song whining about how ill he feels, with friends begging his wife to send him to hospital before "he ruins the neighborhood". Only Broonzy's take on the microbe was tracked down and you can hear him below. [embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdg8KD-CaWU[/embed]

Blind Blake (are you noticing a trend here?) uses the hookworm parasite as a metaphor for a lowlife in this jaunty tune “Hookworm Blues” recorded in 1929. There’s not much about the parasite itself but the song serves as a reminder of the ubiquitous of hookworm in the rural American South prior to the Rockefeller Anti-Hookworm Campaign prior to the 1920s.

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaEbJqJkjZ4[/embed]

A radical departure from the gospel and blues genres is the anarcho-punk band Choking Victim with another one of my favorite songs. “Infested” is a fabulous, profanity-laced paean to crabs, mites and lice. It truly represents the concept of body horrors and ought be the anthem of this blog. A selection of particularly evocative lyrics can be found below the video.

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAe9HD4Jgw0[/embed]

“If there was a God, Im sure he would be hated. For making bugs, in this hell he has created. Get on a coat, put on a hat, I am infested It happens just like that.

I’m sure I hate 'em There ain't no maybes, Bodylice, and crabs, Headlice, and scabies. You take your pick, they make me sick, While I scratch until I bleed Soon they'll be scabs for me to pick.”

Infectious diseases can serve as a profound source of inspiration to artists; I love how these musicians have moved from the history and symptoms of these diseases towards a metaphorical interpretation of these microbes and how they infect society.

References

A number of the blues songs mentioned in this post were discovered on a fantastically researched post at the Uncensored History of Blues blog examining the blues and infectious diseases. It was an invaluable resource. Please pay a visit!

Rugel, Mike. "Disease Blues." Uncensored History of Blues. August 19, 2010. Accessed April 4, 2011 here.

(a) Ownby, Ted. "Jimmie Rodgers: The Father of Country Music." Mississippi History Now. July, 2004. Accessed April 4 , 2001. http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/39/jimmie-rodgers-the-father-of-country-music

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