Glossary entry for

Tuberculosis and other diseases have often been the subject of blues songs and I have always assumed VM "got" "TB Sheets" from this tradition. It's interesting to think that he may have really had a friend with TB or nursed someone with TB but I would tend to think this is apocryphal and he simply wrote the song as an homage to older blues tunes and performers who had been so eloquent on the subject. But I'm sure vansters will correct me if I'm off base here.

One good source on this subject is Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues by Paul Oliver (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press,1990). [Ed: see another citation from this work in the Glossary entry for "jelly roll"] Chapter 10 is entitled "Going Down Slow" and is concerned with the subjects of disease, death, and dying in blues lyrics. Oliver notes that the diseases covered in blues lyrics are always diseases of class. That is, diseases that would have afflicted the poor, rural, black (and white) populations of the American south. Pellegra results from a dietary deficiency of green vegetables in the southern staple diet of cornbread, meat, and molasses. Hence the mention in so many blues songs of the singer's love for "greasy greens," "collared greens," and "turnip greens." Another disease of the lungs, silicosis, resulted from the inhalation of dust particles in mines. Here are Pinwood Tom's (a nom-de-blues of Josh White) lyrics as quoted by Oliver:

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

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

I says "Mama, Mama, Mama, cool my fevered head
I says "Mama, Mama, Mama, cool my fevered head
And when I meet my Jesus, God knows I'll soon be dead

Here's what Oliver has to say about TB and the blues (pp. 246-247):

Amongst the most virulent diseases in the 1930s was tuberculosis which attacked young and old, eating its way through the lungs of its victims. Generally it lay undetected until the sufferer had reached too advance a stage in the disease for a cure to be effected. By that time the members of the family and his associates could have become infected, the coughing consumptive spraying the seeds of the disease. "Everybody spit in your face ain't friend to you," sang Jim Jackson, but his words had a deeper, more tragic significance. In the later stages the disease becomes apparent to all who see the sufferer and their elementary knowledge of the killing germs warns them to keep away.

Said "Lord, don't you go baby, 'cause you sure really worryin' me,"
"Don't you go, now baby, 'cause you really is worryin' po' me,
I leave in the morin' now, sweet mama, I'm goin' back to Jackson, Tennessee

She said, "Don't go, baby! Oh baby, I believe to my soul I'm dyin',
(twice) (yes, yes, yes)
If I ain't dyin' now, black man, I believe to all my soul I'm lyin."

...Mmmmm, oh well dyin' is hard to me,"
Says, "Oh well, baby, dyin sho is hard to me."
My baby told "You don't die easy baby, but you sho's gonna have the doggone T.B."

Robert Petway came to Chicago from Mississippi to record this blues. Tuberculosis was rife in the northern cities where the overcrowding had created so much suffering.

Oliver goes on to discuss other songs about TB and other diseases and there is an illustration of an original advertisement for Victoria Spivey's 1929 recording of "Dirty T-B Blues."

Contributed by Jim Chiarelli

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