Before free and easy access to doctors and medical care, many people struggled to understand disease. This is where folk and popular songs of the day played an important role in public awareness. The birth of the recording industry in the ’20s meant that the reliance on song for medical information was captured for posterity. Below are 10 songs about illness and they give an insight into how the human spirit can respond to challenging situations. While the peak of recorded songs about illness and disease was in the ’20s and ’30s there are also some more modern examples. Whatever the vintage, and despite the subject matter, these are all great songs and performances. We will have to wait and see what songs our own coronavirus pandemic inspires for the 2020s.
Take care and keep safe.
Jimmie Rodgers ‘TB Blues‘ This is the daddy of this genre. Jimmie Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of his day and had a very conflicted relationship with TB. When he contracted TB it meant he couldn’t continue working on the railroad and he was forced to try his hand as an entertainer. Unfortunately, it also killed him at the early age of 35 in 1933.
Blind Willie Johnson ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon‘ Blind Willie Johnson was a gospel blues artist and one of the most influential slide guitarists of all time. This song combines the 1918 flu pandemic with the second coming of Jesus Christ which shows the level of concern felt by the general population at the time.
Dock Boggs ‘Oh Death‘ Dock Boggs was a primitive banjo player who combined Appalachian folk with Afro-American blues and recorded a version of the traditional ‘Oh Death‘, or ‘Conversation With Death‘, in the ’20s. Ralph Stanley brought the song into the modern era with his version on the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou‘ soundtrack.
Memphis Minnie & The Memphis Jug Band ‘Meningitis Blues‘ Memphis Minnie was the most popular female country blues guitarist ever and had a career spanning over 30 years. Meningitis can kill within hours if the right treatment isn’t given and this is the key message of this song.
Arlo Guthrie ‘St James Infirmary‘ ‘St James Infirmary‘ was a pre jazz age song, with roots in the UK, brought to prominence by Louis Armstrong in the ’20s hence its association with New Orleans. Who better than Arlo Guthrie to deliver a great folk song.
Grateful Dead ‘Rockin Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu‘ This was originally written and recorded by Huey “Piano” Smith in 1957 and was inspired by a reference in a verse of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven‘. The Grateful Dead played the song on their tour of Europe in 1972.
The Rice Brothers ‘You’re Drifting Away‘ Tony Rice was a leading figure in the Newgrass movement owning and playing Clarence White’s 1935 Martin D-28 guitar. Here he is in a more traditional setting with his brothers playing a Bill Monroe song about a loved one nearing death.
Townes Van Zandt ‘Waiting Around To Die‘ This was Townes Van Zandt’s first, and one of his most covered, songs. It is a deep country blues reflecting on the perils of addiction which has added poignancy given his own death from alcoholism.
Bruce Springsteen ‘Streets Of Philadelphia‘ Bruce wrote this song for the film ‘Philadelphia‘, the first film to deal with Aids. It shows the power of song to deal with even a modern illness.
Sam Bush ‘Carcinoma Blues‘ Newgrass legend Sam Bush wrote this with Guy Clark and it was issued just after Guy’s death. It shows a fighting attitude to cancer, a disease both artists suffered from. The piano is by that great country pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins and the song is a modern nod to Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘TB Blues‘, a fitting way to end this list.