The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
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Jessica Cassyle Carr

University of New Mexico
Instructor / Writer
New Mexico

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TB Blues: Infectious disease and health communication in pop music

Songs confronting COVID-19 were prominent in 2020. One of the biggest pandemic sonic successes was “Ghen Cô Vy” an adaptation of an already-popular song written by Khắc Hưng and sung by Vietnamese pop act MIN and ERIK.

Pop music has long been employed as a tool of health communication, but songs specifically commissioned by institutions for public service purposes rarely carry cultural cachet. On the flip side, recording artists who confront infectious disease may have more power to transfer knowledge, change behavior, and prevent (or encourage) the spread of infections. Iterations of songs about venereal disease, beginning with “The Unfortunate Rake” and ending with “St. James Infirmary,” are traced back to the 18th century. In the late 20th century TLC’s “Waterfalls” was one of many songs confronting the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

I examine how tuberculosis, an airborne infection like COVID-19, was interpreted through song. In 1927 Houston blues artist Victoria Spivey recorded “TB Blues (West End Blues),” a song about social isolation and death. Spivey also recorded “Dirty Tee Be Blues” in 1929 wherein she discusses, again, social isolation and death, as well as wandering gin mills and honkey tonks, and catching the disease in the process. Beginning with Spivey, I explore whether, and how, these tuberculosis songs acted as health communication tools in the early 20th century, and what that implies 100 years later. I also examine the differing power of secular versus institutional health messages through music.

Jessica Cassyle Carr is a writer, editor, and researcher based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She began her career as journalist, first as a public radio reporter (KUNM-FM), then as a music editor in the alternative press (Weekly Alibi). She now holds a Master of Public Health and a Master of Science, and works as an instructor and researcher at the University of New Mexico College of Population Health.