Josh White, also known as Pinewood Tom, wielded the power of the blues to tell the story of the early 20th century miner who develops silicosis, most likely from unsafe working conditions below ground. Silicosis is a lung disease that, at the time White was writing in the 1930s, commonly occurred in miners who had inhaled crystalline silica dust. Silicosis is characterized by inflammation in the upper lobes of the lungs. Today, the disease remains limited to people who are exposed to silica dust on the job, including in mines and on construction sites.
“Silicosis Is Killing Me” was written during a time of emerging recognition of occupational hazards, especially for miners. In 1932, lawsuits began to be filed on behalf of miners involved in the construction of a tunnel near Gauley Bridge, W.V. The workers, predominantly African Americans, had been exposed to lethal amounts of silica dust and many had developed silicosis and died. The disaster was later named the Hawk’s Nest Incident for the name of the tunnel that was built.
The song is sung in the voice of an afflicted tunnel digger who’s lamenting his lost youth and dim future prospects. At one point, he pleads with his mother to cool his fevered head, a symptom commonly associated with the disease. Silicosis still has no cure, making White’s lyrics all the more haunting today: “Didn’t know I was digging my own grave/Silicosis eating my lungs away.”
Listen to “Silicosis is Killing Me” here:
While much of White’s music centers around themes of racial segregation and racist behavior – an understandable theme given White’s upbringing in Jim Crow South – this song is his first that also advocates for occupational health standards. White’s career was damaged after the Red Scare, when he was accused of being a Communist based on his anti-segregationist and international human rights speeches at rallies. After fighting to clear his name, White relocated to London to continue his recording career and perform in concert halls around the world. This was primarily due to the blacklisting of White’s work, in which he was not allowed to appear on radio shows or U.S. television. Blacklisting of White’s music in America was broken in 1963, six years before his death.
Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.
Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional Research by Lauren Weisenfluh.