Blues and pandemics


Blind Willie Johnson was an early 20th century musician, a famous gospel blues singer, and perhaps the most brilliant slide guitarist after Robert Johnson. He is most famous for his song Dark was the night, cold was the ground, which was one of 27 pieces of music launched into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record.

Johnson also sang Jesus is coming soon,which interpreted the 1918 flu pandemic as a sign of the imminent return of the messiah. It also talks about quarantine and the closing of schools. A selection of lyrics:

We done told you
God done warned you
Jesus is coming soon

In the year of nineteen and eighteen
God sent a mighty disease
It killed a many thousand
On land and on the seas

The doctors they got troubled
And they didn’t know what to do
They gathered themselves together
And called it the Spanish-en flu

The nobles said to the people
You better close your public schools
To prevent this epidemic
You better close your churches too

(The characterization of public health authorities as “nobles” is not atypical of Johnson’s style. For example, in his song When the war was on, he refers to US President Woodrow Wilson as “sitting on his throne”.)