The spectre of disease, pandemic, and death have been with us since life emerged on this rock. And once we got around to discovering music, homo sapiens (and perhaps Neanderthals, whose numbers were probably drastically culled by disease), began reacting to these periods of widespread sickness with stories, art, and song.
The first recorded pandemic hit the people of Athens between 429 and 426 BC. No one knew why, other than the gods must have been displeased with mankind.
We still don’t know what caused the death of up to 100,000 — Typhus? Typhoid Fever? Some sort of viral hemorrhagic disease? — but it left an unusual mark on the city. Those were the peak years of Greek tragedy, a form of theatre that had tremendous influence on both ancient Rome in a few centuries and the Renaissance more than a thousand years in the future. From disease came great art.
Speaking of the Renaissance, scholars point to the city of Florence as its birthplace around 1350. The Black Death killed much of the population in 1348 (and maybe as much as 60 per cent of all of Europe between 1331 and 1353) yet Florence rallied, becoming a flashpoint of intellectual and artistic evolution that was felt for centuries.
Meanwhile, the hot musical genre was “pestilential music,” a series of compositions inspired by rampant illness. Some believed that music could be medicine while others were sure that it was a moral poison that made it easier for disease to take hold. God apparently didn’t like popular songs, so anyone singing such ditties could expect to be struck down.
But not everyone felt this way. In the 1500s, an Italian physician named Niccolo Massa prescribed music therapy to prevent getting sick: “It is especially advantageous to listen to songs and lovely instrumental music, and to play now and then, and to sing with a quiet voice.” In other words, stay positive by chilling out with some music.
London, England, was plagued with, er, plagues through much of the 16th century (Henry VIII was forced to self-isolate during the Sweating Sickness of 1529, much in the way we are today) and saw a spike in fatalities in the early 1600s. But as England slowly recovered, Shakespeare was somehow inspired to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all in 1606. At exactly the same time, composers began to experiment with new musical modalities, resulting in the rise of Baroque music and stars just as Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel.
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Fast-forward to the late 1800s to New Orleans, a city that not only served the riverboat traffic from the Mississippi, but also ships coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and beyond. It was a thriving port, but also one of the most unhealthy. Thanks to the heat, humidity, the swamp, poor hygiene, and the constant turnover of the population, it was a terrible place to live if you were an African-American. On average, a Black man could hope to live to 36 before he was taken by cholera, yellow fever, typhus or influenza. Yet in spite of this, New Orleans was the birthplace of ragtime, which later evolved into jazz, the most important music genre of the first half of the 20th century.
Not all pandemics left behind such magnificent albeit unintended artistic consequences. Some were more subtle.
For example, who doesn’t know the playground song Ring Around the Rosie? Some folklore scholars trace its origins to the Great Plague of 1665 describing a rosy red rash (a plague symptom) and a necklace of herbs designed to ward off disease. But that didn’t help because in the end “we all fall down” and died. (Quick point of clarification: Other historians dispute this interpretation, saying it only appeared after WWII.)
Another rhyme with deadly origins appeared during a worldwide influenza pandemic in 1889-1890. Certain the disease could be stopped by sealing up the home from the poisoned air outside, this safety tip emerged in schools:
There was a little girl, and she had a little bird
And she called it by the pretty name of Enza;
But one day it flew away, but it didn’t go to stay
For when she raised the window, in-flu-Enza
Not exactly Shakespearean, but that little poem endured for decades, especially after the 1918 H1N1 pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world over just 24 months.
When tuberculosis once again became a major problem in the 1920s and 1930s, sickness songs spread like, well, a contagion throughout blues and country performers. Same when polio hit in the late 1940s and early ’50s. And after the Hong Kong flu epidemic of 1968-69 (death toll: one million), certain things became ingrained in our psyche. We certainly otherwise wouldn’t have had a cartoon character like this.
And let’s consider HIV/AIDS for a moment. No other disease of the last several centuries inspired more art, from music and musicals (e.g. Rent) and plays (e.g. Angels in America) to books (The Band Played On) and movies (Philadelphia).
And here we are again facing the worst pandemic since the end of the Great War. We’re all shut-ins as we try to flatten the curve of infections. That includes plenty of musicians who do what musicians do best: explain to the rest of us how we’re feeling.
The last time I checked, there were nearly 500 coronavirus-related songs on Spotify (call it “pandemic pop,”) all of which have been written in the last couple of months. One might become the anthem of our times. Or maybe we’ll have to wait for this enforced isolation to give us a new storyteller.
We will get through this. And who knows what great art COVID-19 will leave behind?
Meanwhile, enjoy this playlist as you give humanity a wide birth.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play
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