Inevitably I’ve been thinking recently about viruses and disease, along with most of the world’s population. I’ve also been thinking about the blues, that great musical outpouring of pain and suffering from a downtrodden black population in the USA in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Like all young teenagers, I was blown away by the pop explosion of the early sixties from the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones etc., but in a very short time the Blues became my passion. While many of my friends were still only hooked on the latest new number one single, I was exploring the music of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and dozens of other familiar and unknown musicians singing songs of suffering and despair.
Together with the occasional optimistic song, the majority of this music dealt with poverty, money troubles, unhappy love, sex, alcohol abuse and inevitably illness.
So I have decided to investigate how the various blues and country singers and songwriters have dealt with infection and disease and how this tragically often led to an early death. I can think of no other genre of music that deals so openly and honestly with the impact of illness on the lives of the performers and their families.
I was familiar with some of the songs that dealt with Tuberculosis, but I was amazed in my research at the sheer range of music and the range of diseases covered. In my search I have uncovered two songs that refer directly to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918/19, but there may be more. The first one is the 1919 Influenza Blues by a rather obscure singer (at least to me) called Essie Jenkins, recorded well after the event in the 1940s. It is probably a much older song and the opening verse gets straight to the point:
“It was nineteen hundred and nineteen;
Men and women were dying,
With the stuff that the doctor called the flu.
People were dying everywhere,
Death was creepin’ all through the air,
And the groans of the rich sure was sad.”
This song is belted out with gusto by Essie, rather inappropriately, to a jaunty blues beat with a gorgeous boogie woogie piano accompaniment.
At the other end of the spectrum, the famous Gospel and Blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, also recorded a song in the late 1920s about the 1918 flue pandemic, but he disguised this under the title “Jesus is Coming Soon”. Blind Willie sings, or should I say growls, through a gloomy song about man’s wickedness and the resulting punishment by God in the form of a pandemic.
Another virulent disease that became a topic for blues singers in the early part of the twentieth century was meningitis and the great female singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie recorded a great number called ‘Meningitis Blues’
Sickbed songs of a more generalised nature were also common and below you can hear ‘Pneumonia Blues’ by the famous singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who when he toured the UK in the early 1950 had a profound influence on the burgeoning blues and folk scene.
Another tortured soul was Skip James, who after recording a few songs in 1931, disappeared into obscurity until the early 1960s, when he was rediscovered by a younger generation of blues enthusiasts. His minor key tuning and high plaintive singing is totally unique and is both beautiful and chilling at the same time. ‘Sickbed Blues’ was recorded in the 1960s; his ghostly voice and guitar sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it:-
“The doctor came, lookin’ very sad
He diagnosed my case and said it was awful bad
He walked away, mumblin’ very low
He said, “He may get better but he’ll never get well no more
I hollered, “Lord, oh Lord, Lord, Lordy, Lord
Oh Lordy, Lord, Lord, Lord
I been so badly misused and treated just like a dog”
And then there’s TB. In the 19th and 20th centuries, more people died in the USA of tuberculosis, than any other disease. People of all classes and background caught and died of TB, but as in all infectious diseases, including the present pandemic, it was the deprived areas that bore the brunt of the disease.
TB cut a swathe through the downtrodden and poverty stricken communities of America, both black and white. It was inevitable, therefore, that TB was the subject of much blues music.
One of my favourites is the “T.B. blues” by Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a convicted murderer, whose trademark was the 12 string guitar and a powerful baritone voice.
To demonstrate the amazing variety of blues styles, this is exactly the same song as recorded by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Spivey was a blues and vaudeville singer whose style was closer to Jazz than the folk style of Leadbelly and she often sang with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Here she sings an impassioned version of the TB blues accompanied by a simple piano and guitar.
I couldn’t write a story of epidemics and blues, without talking about the tragic story of Jimmie Rodgers , the father of American Country music and arguably the greatest white blues singer that ever lived. Rodgers was an itinerant railroad worker, who in his his travels absorbed the folk music around him from black blues singers to the white hillbillies of the Appallachian mountains with their music brought over by their Scots and Irish forefathers.
Rodgers also incorporated a yodel in his music, which he claimed he heard from a group of Swiss singers that he heard in a church. The result was a new and unique sound.
There is a common misconception that there was no musical cross fertilization between the races, but this is totally disproved by the evidence; Jimmie Rodgers became one of the great blues songwriters, Leadbelly picked up ballads and popular songs from the white inmates in gaol and there are many other examples.
Rodgers had caught TB when he was 24 and the rest of his life was a relentless fight against this terrible disease. He wrote and recorded his own TB Blues in 1931 and it is an unflinchingly dark song, accompanied by wonderful guitar and tender singing. The song ends with these verses:-
“Gee but the graveyard
Is a lonesome place
Lord that graveyard
Is a lonesome place
They put you on your back
Throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the T.B. blues“
This is a stark and unsentimental acceptance of how this disease will inevitably end. Two years after he recorded this blues, Jimmie Rodgers was dead at the age of 36.
These songs served a profound purpose, expressing deep and powerful emotions on behalf of their oppressed community. We need these honest and uncompromising songs, that speak truth to power, more than ever. In this year of pain, sorrow and discord, who will sing our 2020 blues.