PopMusic: TB Blues

A 2x2 Project weekly series of the best songs about public health

Published on February 7, 2013by Joshua Brooks

Known as “The Father of Country Music” or “The Blue Yodeler,” Jimmie Rodgers had all sorts of blues, but the worst of them were the “T.B. Blues.”

“My good gal’s trying/To make a fool out of me,” Rodgers sang, “Trying to make me believe/I ain’t got that old T.B./I’ve got the T.B. blues.”

Tuberculosis, the pulmonary disease Rodgers sang about, has affected humans for thousands of years. At the height of the U.S. tuberculosis epidemic in the early 19th century, the disease accounted for 25 percent of deaths in New York City. Soon after, death rates began to fall. It was uncertain why, since the antibiotic used to treat TB, streptomycin, was not developed until 1946. Researchers have suggested that the decline correlated with improved socioeconomic conditions leading to better nutrition, living and working standards, the application of basic public health measures, and the acknowledgement that TB was an infectious disease requiring patients to be quarantined. Beginning in 1921, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine was administered, too, which immunized against the disease-causing Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

All of those advances came too late for Rodgers, who contracted the disease in 1924 at age 27. In 1933, during his last recording session, Rodgers’ symptoms were so bad, he had to rest on a cot between songs and died two days later of a lung hemorrhage. He was 35 years old.

“TB Blues” foretold Rodgers’ end. “I’ve been fightin’ like a lion,” he sang. “Looks like I’m going to lose.” Rodgers lost his life, but the song made him a heroic figure for people who had the disease or knew those afflicted. In recent years, antibiotic-resistant strains of the TB bacteria and co-infections in people with HIV have risen. In 2011, TB affected 8.7 million people worldwide and killed 1.4 million. In a new era of reemergence, “TB Blues” is a reminder of how common the disease once was and how, with strong public health measures and time, its spread was contained. For Jimmie Rodgers, these did not come in time, but in contemporary populations where the disease has reappeared, the song is a cautionary tale to act as soon as possible.

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 Arti Virkud.