Coronavirus Has a Playlist. Songs About Disease Go Way Back.
A disease that killed tens of millions of people, more than the number who died in World War I, might not seem like a promising subject for a song, but the legendary Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson didn’t see it that way. In Dallas in 1928, Johnson recorded “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” an intense chronicle of the ravaging influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. In a growl that conveyed the horror of the illness, as well as its scarifying ubiquity, Johnson declared that the “great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere / It was an epidemic, it floated through the air.”
Other lines seem as if they could have been written yesterday: “Well, the nobles said to the people, ‘You better close your public schools / Until the events of death has ended, you better close your churches, too.’”
If you substitute “elites” for “nobles,” you can imagine even more closely the relationship between the events of a century ago and today. For an evangelical preacher like Johnson, who performed his holy blues on street corners but whose recordings, at times, outsold even the great Bessie Smith, the prospect of closing “your churches” was not necessarily welcome. Indeed, preventing people from public worship, however wise from a health standpoint, might have seemed precisely the sort of secular action that brought on the epidemic in the first place.
Essie Jenkins’ rendition of “The 1919 Influenza Blues,” with its rollicking piano accompaniment and her unadorned vocal, is friendlier than Johnson’s jeremiad, but its message is no less stark. “It was God’s almighty plan,” Jenkins sings, “He was judging this old land.” And, once again, the wealthy, viewed as prone to seeing themselves immune from life’s hardships, come in for particular comeuppance, as Jenkins wryly notes that “the groans of the rich sure was sad.”
Nor is influenza the only illness to manifest in the blues. Victoria Spivey’s sultry “Dirty T.B. Blues” evokes a lonely descent to death, while John Lee Hooker’s harrowing “T.B. Sheets” (which borrows a title and little else from a Van Morrison tune) treads similar ground. The point of all these songs is to remind us that, rich or poor, black or white, our ultimate destination in this world is “that hole in the ground called your grave.”
Race, class, economics and mortality – and in the case of spirituals, faith – have always been woven into the blues, along, of course, with sex and love. The music was largely written and performed for an adult African-American audience that faced no shortage of problems and used the music to grapple with and comprehend them.
For the generation of young white English musicians who popularized the blues in the 60s, that grown-up quality had a great appeal. “They’re singing about having woman problems when you didn’t even have a woman to have problems with,” Mick Jagger once jokingly told me. “It was socially aware music, as opposed to the other popular music at the time, which was pretty much candy-floss stuff. The blues was a much more directly spoken real experience – even if it wasn’t a real experience for us. It was a learned experience for us.”
These days, hip-hop is the musical form that draws most immediately from public events, and that’s certainly proven true in the case of Covid-19. A flood of songs like Gmac Cash’s “Coronavirus,” DJ iMarkkeyz’s “Coronavirus (Feat. Cardi B) and Psychs’ “Spreadin’ (Coronavirus)” combine dark humor (“I’ma chill at the crib, because I’m safe here / I ain’t even ‘bout to drink me a Corona beer”) and dread. But socially conscious stalwarts like Bob Dylan, Bono and Jackson Browne (who became infected with the virus) have recently weighed in with songs that speak to the Covid-19 crisis.
So can these songs help us in these perilous times? No one who has watched the videos of Italians singing from their balconies as the coronavirus ravages their country can doubt the ability of songs to both comfort us and strengthen our resolve. But we are sending messages not only to ourselves but to our descendants. These songs say: This is what we went through, how it affected us, what we thought it meant, and how we tried to survive.
ANTHONY DeCURTIS is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of “Lou Reed: A Life,” and the coauthor of Clive Davis’s autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” a New York Times best-seller. He won a Grammy for his essay accompanying the Eric Clapton retrospective “Crossroads.” He holds a PhD in American literature, and he lives in New York City.