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
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
3. "1919 Influenza Blues" / sung by Essie Jenkins
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.
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.)