Monday, April 06, 2020

Coronavirus Special - Disease Blues

This time we’ll revisit songs about disease. There have been a lot of comparisons to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. The epidemic was still fairly recent when Blind Willie Johnson recorded this song in 1928 and surely remembered well by Johnson who would have been 21 years old in 1918. The song is pure religion, but Johnson uses the pandemic to make his point that Jesus is Coming Soon. The lyrics should resonate with anyone stuck at home right now. He sings: ‘The doctors they got troubled and didn’t know what to do. They got themselves together, they called it the Spanish Flu.” And “Well, the nobles said to the people, "You better close your public schools" and "Until the events of death has ending, you better close your churches too."

Blind Willie Johnson - 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 their wicked ways

Ace Johnson recorded this for John Lomax as part of a series of recordings made in prisons for the Library of Congress. This song was recorded in 1939 at Clemens State Farm. Like Blind Willie Johnson, Johnson is singing about a flu epidemic from ten years earlier and using it as for a religious song. This time it’s not the worldwide pandemic of 1918, but a local outbreak in Memphis in 1929. Johnson’s version is based on the gospel song Memphis Flu recorded by Elder Curry which was recorded in 1930. As a convict, Johnson would have known the danger of disease in the confined spaces of a prison. 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
These songs are about diseases, but this is the blues and these songs are also going to be about being mistreated or left by a lover. Even Bukka White’s doctor recognized this in High Fever Blues recorded in 1940 for Vocalion in Chicago with Washboard Sam. He sang “I want to know what’s the matter, how come it’s hard on a man. Doctor said it ain’t the fever, it’s that your lover had another man.”

I'm taken down with the fever and it won't let me sleep
I'm taken down with the fever and it won't let me sleep
It was about three o'clock before he could let me be

Wish somebody would come and drive my fever away
I wish somebody come and drive my fever away

This fever I'm having sure is in my way
The fever I'm having, sure is hard on a man
The fever I'm having, sure is hard on a man
They don't allow my lover come and shake my hand

I wonder what’s the matter with the fever, sure is hard on a man
I want to know what’s the matter, how come it’s hard on a man
Doctor said it ain’t the fever, it’s that your lover has another man

Doctor get your fever gauge and put it under my tongue
Doctor get your fever gauge and put it under my tongue
Doctor says all you need, your lover in your arms

I want my lover come and drive my fever away
I want my lover come and drive my fever away
Doctor said she do me more good in a day than he would in all of his days

Blind Lemon Jefferson also made the connection between disease and a mistreating woman. In Pneumonia Blues, he blames his woman for his condition. He describes standing outside in the cold waiting for his woman to come home. She never does and he ends up with the aches of pneumonia.

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 dark and 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 please 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
That’s Blind Lemon Jefferson with a song that blames the woman for the disease in Pneumonia Blues recorded in 1929 for Paramount.

Memphis Minnie recorded a couple versions of Meningitis Blues including this one where she’s backed up by the Memphis Jug Band from 1931:

I’m coming home one Saturday night, pull off my clothes and I lie down
I’m coming home one Saturday night, pull off my clothes and I lie down
And that morning just about the break of day the meningitis begin to creep around

My head and neck was paining me, seems like my back would break in two
My head and neck was paining me, seems like my back would break in two
I hurried to the neighbors that morning, I didn't know what in the world to do

My companion take me to the doctor, "Doctor, please tell me my wife's complaint"
My companion take me to the doctor, "Doctor, please tell me my wife's complaint"
Doctor looked down on me, shook his head, said, "I wouldn't mind telling you, son, but I can't”

He take me round to the city hospital. The clock was striking ten
He take me round to the city hospital. The clock was striking ten
I done hear my companion say, "I don't believe I'll see your smiling face again”

Then the nurses all began to set around me, the doctors had done give me out
Then the nurses all began to set around me, the doctors had done give me out
Every time I'd have a potion, I would have a foaming at the mouth

Mmm, the meningitis killing me
Mmm, the meningitis killing me
I'm failing, I'm failing, baby, my head is bended down onto my knee

Bumble Bee Slim may be best remembered these days just for his name. But he made a lot of great records including “I Done Caught My Death of Cold” from 1936. Initially I thought this was a song describing suffering from sickness. But the more I listen to it the more I think it’s about a guy who desperately wants drugs from his doctor and is willing to describe just about any symptom that might get him that prescription.

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
Caught my death of cold, swear my friends cannot be found
Well I been wading deep water and I been sleeping on the ground


Jimmy Oden’s Going Down Slow is incredibly influential with several great covers of the classic he first recorded in 1941. St. Louis Jimmy himself would return to the cong in the recording studio many times. It’s a truly haunting of a man in failing health beyond the help of a doctor wanting to get word to his mother.

I have had my fun if I don't get well no more
I have had my fun if I don't get well no more
My health is failing me and I'm going down slow

Please write my mother, tell her the shape I'm in
Please write my mother, tell her the shape I'm in
Tell her to pray for me, forgive me for all my sins

Tell her don't send no doctor, doctor can't do no good
Tell her don't send no doctor, doctor can't do no good
It's all my fault, didn't do the things I should

On the next train south, look for my clothes home
On the next train south, look for my clothes home
If you don't see my body, all you can do is moan

Mother please don't worry, this is all in my prayer
Mother please don't worry, this is all in my prayer
Just say your son is gone, I'm out in this world somewhere


People have been dealing with Tuberculosis for centuries and we still don’t have the answers. Victoria Spivey first sang about it in 1926. T.B. Blues would prove to be a hit inspiring a string of follow-up songs about Tuberculosis including several by Spivey herself. She sings about going to Denver, presumably for treatment. The worst part of it all is the abandonment by her friends. This reflects something we’ve seen with the current epidemic. The challenges of isolation are the hardest part for many. Older people who can’t have visitors are truly suffering whether sick or not. Spivey sang it about it powerfully and it’s one of the reasons T.B. Blues is a classic:

It’s Too late, too late, too late, too late, too late
It's too late, too late, too late, too late, too late
Well, I'm on my way to Denver
And mama, mustn't I hesitate

TB's alright to have if your friends didn't treat you so low down
TB's alright to have if your friends didn't treat you so low down
Don't you ask 'em for no favors, they even stop coming around

Mmm, TB's killin' me
Mmm, TB's killin' me
I'm like a prisoner, always wishing he's free

When I was up on my feet, I could not walk down the street
For the men looking at me from my head to my feet
But oh now, the TB's killing me
I want my body buried in the deep blue sea
The tuberculosis, the consumption's killing me


Let’s finish with one that’s not about disease. After all most of us are on stay-at-home orders not because we’re sick, but to prevent spreading the virus. By now everyone’s been told about washing your hands, but here’s Charley Jordan reminding us it take soap and water to keep it clean:

Keep it Clean:

I went to the river, I couldn't get across
I jumped on your papa because I thought he was a horse no
Rode him over, give him a coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

Up she jumped, down she fell, her mouth flew open like a mussel shell
Now ride him over, give him coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

You sister was a tabby, your daddy was a bear
Put a muzzle on your mama, because she had bad hair
Ride him over, give him coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

If you want to hear that elephant laugh
Take him down to the river and wash his yes yes yes
Got him over, give him coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

If you want to go to heaven when you D-I-E
You got to put on your collar and your T-I-E now
Ride him over, give him coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

If you want to get the rabbits out the L-O-G
You got to put on the stump like a D-O-G
Now ride him over, give him coca-cola lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Takes soap and water for to keep it clean

Run here doctor, run here fast
See what's the matter with his yes yes yes
Now ride him over, give him a coca-cola and lemon soda, saucer of ice cream
Soap and water for to keep it clean

Disease is one of those classic situations that these songs use to describe suffering either through metaphor or a straightforward description of pain. A lot of it feels very familiar right now. Stay healthy everybody.

3 comments:

Nigel Twine said...

Welcome back. Been missing these.

Jhansen R. Machado said...

Heyyy... it's been a long time... Welcome back m8.

Brad S. said...

Hope this means we’ll be seeing more from you!

Coronavirus Special - Disease Blues

If you cannot see the audio controls, your browser does not support the audio element This time we’ll revisit songs about disease. Th...