Thursday, August 19, 2010

Show 48 - Disease Blues




Pneumonia -- it’s a disease of the lungs. Even by the first part of the twentieth century, medical developments had improved the prognosis for people with pneumonia, but it was still dangerous in the 1920s (as it is today). In 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson sang about the aches and pains after catching pneumonia while running down alleys in a cold rain trying to catch his woman cheating. Pneumonia Blues:

I'm aching all over, believe I got the pneumonia this time
I'm aching all over, believe I got the pneumonia this time
And it's all on account of that lowdown gal of mine


Slinking around the corner, running up alleys too
I said slinking around corners, running up alleys too
Watching my woman trying to see what she going to do


Stood out in the street one cold dark stormy night
I stood out in the street one cold dark stormy night
Trying to see if my good gal going to make it home alright


I believe she's found something that probably made her fall
She must have found something that made her fall
I stood out in the cold all night and she didn't come home at all


Wear BVDs in the winter, traveling around in the rain
Wear BVDs in the winter, traveling around in the rain
Last time my baby give me this pneumonia pain


Now when I die, bury me in a Stetson hat
I said when I die, bury me in a Stetson hat
Tell my good gal I'm going but I'm still standing pat

Big Bill Broonzy talked about aches from pneumonia in Pneumonia Blues (I Keep on Aching) in 1936:
I’m feeling sick and bad, my head is hurting too
Go get the doctor so he can tell me just what to do
Because I keep on aching, yes I ache both night and day
Yes, doctor, doctor please drive this old pneumonia away


I have got the pneumonia, I’ve got it in both my sides
My friends treat me so bad, til I just cant keep from crying for me
I keep aching, yes I ache both night and day
Yes, doctor, doctor please drive this old pneumonia away


I have used big fan(?), I used everything my friends say
Now I believe I’ll drink a hot toddy and go to bed
Because I keep aching, yes I ache both night and day
Yes, doctor, doctor please drive this old pneumonia away


My friends told my wife they had did all they could
They said put him in the hospital before he ruins the neighborhood
I keep aching, yes I ache both night and day
Yes, doctor, doctor please drive this old pneumonia away


The doctor said my fever was 103
The nurse said put him in crowded room, that’s where he ought to be
Because he keeps aching, yes I ache both night and day
Yes, doctor, doctor please drive this old pneumonia away

Influenza or the flu killed countless millions around the world in the twentieth century. One of the pandemics broke out in 1918. This was a few years before blues music was being recorded, but given the incredible virulence of what they called Spanish Flu, it’s surprising there aren’t more blues records about it. At east a couple recording artists did mention the flu including gospel great Blind Willie Johnson when he recorded Jesus is Coming Soon:

Well, we done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon


In the year of 19 and 18, God sent a mighty disease
It killed many a-thousand, on land and on the seas
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon.


Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere
It was an epidemic, it floated through the air
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon


The doctors they got troubled and they didn't know what to do
They gathered themselves together, they called it the Spanish influ
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon


Soldiers died on the battlefield, died in the count too
Well the Captain said to the lieutenant, "I don't know what to do"
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon


Well, God is warning the nation, He's a-warning them every way
To turn away from evil and seek the Lord and pray
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon.
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon.


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"
We done told you, God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon
We done told God's done warned you, Jesus coming soon

Read the book of Zacharias, bible plainly says
Said the people in the cities dying, account of they're wicked ways

Ace Johnson was recorded for the Library of Congress by John Lomax at Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Brazoria County, Texas.  Influenza:
In nineteen hundred and twenty-nine, men and women sure was dying
From the disease, what the doctors called the flu
People was dying everywhere, death went creeping through the air
For the groans of the sick sure was sad


It was God's almighty hand, he was judging this old land
North and South, East and West can be seen
Yes, he killed the rich and poor, and he's going to kill more
If you don't turn away from your sins


It was Memphis, Tennessee, doctors said it soon would be
In a few days, influenza we’ll control
But God showed that He was head, and He put the doctor to bed
And the nurse they broke down with the same


It was God's almighty hand, he was judging this old land
North and South, East and West can be seen
Yes, he killed the rich and poor, and he's going to kill more
If you don't turn away from your sins


Influenza is a disease, that makes you weak all in your knees
Tis a fever everybody sure does dread
Puts a pain in every bone, a few days and you are gone
To a place in the ground called the grave


It was God's almighty hand, he was judging this old land
North and South, East and West can be seen
Yes, he killed the rich and poor, and he's going to kill more
If you don't turn away from your sins

Silicosis, is a lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. It’s common to tunnel diggers and mine workers. Josh White sang something of a labor protest song called Silicosis is Killing Me:
I said silicosis, you made a mighty bad break of me
Awww, silicosis made a mighty bad break of me
You robbed me of my youth and health
All you brought poor me was mis..


Now silicosis, you're a dirty robber and a thief
Awww silicosis, dirty robber and a thief
Robbed me of my right to live and all you brought poor me was grief


I was there digging that tunnel for six bits a day
I was there digging that tunnel for six bits a day
Didn't know I was digging my own grave, silicosis eating my lungs away


I says mama, mama, mama, cool my fevered head
I says mama, mama, come and cool my fevered head
I’m going to meet my Jesus, God knows I'll soon be dead


Six bits I got for digging, digging that tunnel hole
Six bits I got for digging, digging that tunnel hole
Takes me away from my baby, it sure done wrecked my soul


Now tell all my buddies, tell all my friends you see
Now tell all my buddies, tell all my friends you see
I'm going way up yonder, please don't grieve for me

Blind Blake used the parasitic hookworm as a metaphor for that man you don’t want hanging around:
Hookworm in your body and your food don't do you no good
Hookworm in your body, your food don't do you no good
Same way with a rounder come in a nice neighborhood


Dirty old hookworm got into my room, causes me to walk, groan and moan
Man like a hookworm got a hold to my baby
He got to point it fast people and I don't mean maybe


Never can tell what a hookworm man will do
You never can tell what a hookworm man will do
Take your baby and make her stop loving you


I'm going to leave my baby and let her have her way
I'm going to leave my baby and let her have her way
She’ll want me back some day when he throws her down


Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm
Her man like a hookworm taking a hold to my babe

Bumble Bee Slim used or a cold or tonsilitis to address a fear of pain and death in I Done Caught My Death of Cold:
Doctor, please give me something just to ease these awful pains
Doctor, please give me something just to ease these awful pains
I done caught my death of cold and it’s settling on my brain


I can’t hardly breathe, I got a wheezing in my chest
I can’t hardly breathe, I got a wheezing in my chest
Well, I’m having tonsilitis, doctor you should know the rest


Give me Oil of ninety-nine, three-sixty , anything
I done caught my death of cold
Lord have mercy


Ay doctor, is there any cure for me?
Ay doctor, is there any cure for me?
Well I’m in so much misery, I’m in so much misery


I done caught my death of cold, now my friends cannot be found
I done caught my death of cold, well my friends cannot be found
Well I been wading deep water and I been sleeping on the ground

It’s great to see how these different musicians use diseases. Blind Lemon Jefferson sees the aches and pains of pneumonia as yest another consequence of being with a no-good woman. Big Bill sees the aches and pains as a blues situation themselves and Bumble Bee Slim does something similar singing about his tonsilitis. Blind Blake uses the hookworm as a metaphor for a man showing up where’s he’s not wanted. The common thread is the abandonment of friends, family, or lovers with the disease. The fear of sickness and death was all to real, but the fear of the blues that comes from being truly alone never leaves.


Songs:
Pneumonia Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Pneumonia Blues (I Keep on Achin') - Big Bill
Jesus is Coming - Blind Willie Johnson
Influenza - Ace Johnson
Silicosis is Killing Me - Josh White
Hookworm Blues - Blind Blake
I Done Caught My Death of Cold - Bumble Bee Slim

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