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The History of Music About Diseases

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2020

From Retro Report, a short video about how epidemics, past and present, have been represented in music. Blues musicians sang about the 1918 flu pandemic and pop stars wrote songs about HIV/AIDS.

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.’”