Big Sound Saturdays: Sanatorium Blues

S.A.: Ushering in a month of guest mix-ers, P.F. gives us an extensive collection of heavy jams that are either tuberculosis related or T.B.-proximal. Check out @digamericana and digamericana.com to see some of the other stuff he’s working on, and settle in for the night – this one’s a doozy.

Made up of songs about tuberculosis or by performers who suffered from the disease, Sanatorium Blues reflects consumption in the American cultural consciousness from the early years of the 20th century through the late 1960s. Tuberculosis cut across musical genre and our examples include jazz, blues, country, rock and roll, and classical. While the disease itself was awful beyond words, it did provide the pathos for moving performances.

We start with Link Wray, one of the few happy cases. Though he contracted tuberculosis while serving in the close quarters of the Army during the Korean War, he was successfully treated. It did however mean that he’d never have the lung strength to be a singer, which was fine because as an instrumentalist, “Rumble” proves he was more than capable. From there we move to Van Morrison, who, while not American, draws on the blues of the 1920s and 1930s to evoke the sights, smells, and horrors of the sanitarium in “T.B. Sheets.” Plus, if John Lee Hooker covers your song, that’s all the cred you need.

What follows are displays of virtuosity, of masterful storytelling, and lives cut tragically short. Each song features some annotations, if you want background about the performer, song, or context. Some of the highlights include the dazzling bass work of consumptive Jimmy Blanton, whose work with Duke Ellington, expanded the role of the bass and opened up new avenues of expression. Another Ellingtonian, trumpeter Bubber Miley is represented here by “Got Everything But You.” His introductory and closing statements on the solo distill the sounds and textures that initially made the Ellington band so famous.

A hidden gem is a solo guitar piece from Smith Casey, who recorded “East Texas Rag” for ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, while incarcerated in Texas. Casey’s impeccable slide work leaves you wishing he had had more time with us after his parole. Another instrumental is “Dry Bone Shuffle” from the Piedmont-style blues guitarist Blind Blake. His first name (Arthur) was only recently discovered, as was his cause of death (tuberculosis), but boy could he rag.

The most lighthearted take on illness might come from another guitar slinger extraordinaire, Earl Hooker. “Two Bugs and a Roach” packs a lot of humor into a funky groove. There’s also Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, that Blue Yodeler whose tuberculosis became part of his persona through his tragicomic ruminations on the disease like “T.B. Blues.”

The mix ends with a one-two punch. First up is American pianist Arthur Rubenstein’s take on one of Frederic Chopin’s meditative “Nocturnes.” A master interpreter, Rubenstein’s delicate performance broods in the dark truth that Chopin was consumptive. That set-up is followed by what may be the ultimate performance of the ultimate American murder ballad: Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack ‘O Lee Blues. Based on a historical event, Stack O Lee or Stagger Lee was actually Lee Shelton, who contracted tuberculosis while in prison and died soon after his release.

Sanatorium Blues is dedicated to the 1.5 million people around the world who die from tuberculosis-related causes each year.

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