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Bed bugs, hookworms and mosquitoes: a public health playlist for the blues

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. Let's listen.

By Janet Golden and Jeffrey Anderson

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."

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

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.

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.

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." 

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