pandemics in history and folk music

Pandemics tend to leave traces, …

… not just in history but also and probably at first in popular culture.

During the 1918/19 Influenza pandemic – a major killer of the twentieth century (remember, there were more than 50 million horrible deaths) – children were singing a rhyme:

“I had a little bird, its name was Enza.
I opened the window and in flew Enza.”

Flu was everywhere.

Music was – and still is – one way to cope with disaster. There are quite a few examples of popular music dealing with the impact of infectious diseases. Here is a far from complete, and very personal list:

“There’s a man going around taking names”

The first time I heard this song, I was mesmerized. My father played it to me on the old-fashioned stereo. The tune was performed by Huddie Ledbetter, an American folk singer better known as Lead Belly. It was recorded sometime in the 1930s, the origins of this song I do not know. It has got all the characteristics of a spiritual. What is hooking me is the fact that this song is dealing with the deaths of all family members, mother, father, sister, brother. This is exactly what happened during the 1918 Flu pandemic. There was a man going around taking names. Listen to the tune at:

Around 70 years later, Johnny Cash published a cover version with some additional text of his own (, featured in the movie “Dawn of the Dead”, yet another piece of pandemic popular culture. “The hairs on your arm will stand up”.

There are more pandemic viruses dealt with in popular culture. Take Dengue Virus. This virus has been haunting Southeast Asia for centuries. Millions of people have been infected, yet it is the re-infection with the virus that makes it such a bad player. A first infection is merely a nuisance. The second one is life threatening with a painful and often deadly hemorrhage. There is one beautiful and enlightening piece by Jimmie Vaughan: “You got your fever and your rash all over me!” is a first glimpse at the disease, followed by the second round of infection with “bones are aching”. Now, that is a R0 of 1. And, yes, this is a link to a movie dealing with a highly contagious disease. Rash all over you!

Another one is “Fever”. What a great embodiment of ‘kissing disease’, transmitted by a virus of the herpes virus family. Ray Charles would be the one to perform, together with Natalie Cole.

Herpes viruses are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. You got them, too. Just face it: “Chicks were born to give you fever.” True, you caught the virus as a child, and you gave it to your loved ones.

The last one of today’s entries would be “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.

All the features are there, just listen: “Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat.”

It is peculiar that all the music dealing with pandemics is American folk music. Today, again a pandemic is ravaging the US. The United States have the world’s best virologists, yet they are not being heard! This, I do not understand, I am stunned.

I also don’t get it that many Germans are vacationing in hot spot areas, or partying without any precaution. This is not a sign of swarm intelligence but swarm stupidity.

However, it is never too late to learn.


 There’s a man going around taking names 
 There’s a man going around taking names 
 He’s taken a million names and he left
our hearts in vain
 There’s a man going around taking names 

Yours, Jörg

SAJO – for a healthy and better future!

The photograph is a reminiscence to my late father, thanks dad!