The Hillbilly Epidemiologists

Before the medical professionals figured out what was causing an outbreak, country and blues musicians were on the case.



Jamaica Ginger Paralysis was one of the nastier byproducts of Prohibition. Jamaica Ginger, a patent remedy, contained alcohol, and the feds eventually realized that people were using it to get drunk. So the government demanded that the drug's makers change their formula. The new recipe tasted terrible, so some manufacturers tried to circumvent the rules by adding an ingredient that turned out to be a neurotoxin. By 1930, the resulting set of symptoms was starting to show up, including a partial paralysis that prevented people from walking normally.

Doctors eventually identified the source of the problem. But before they figured out what was going on, the culprit had already been identified on several "hillbilly" and "race"—that is, country and blues—records. Clark Stooksbury, drawing on the work of the late pharmacologist John Morgan, tells the tale in The American Conservative. Here's an excerpt:

Morgan speculated to Dan Baum that "no other incident has inspired as much popular music as the jake-walk epidemic."…The most likely reason for the large number of songs is that the category of people who were recording roots music records around 1930 overlapped with that of people who were looking for ways to get drunk during Prohibition—mostly male, both black and white, and often economically marginal. Morgan didn't report on which songs were works of journalism carved in wax and which were the work of memoirists, though it is a good bet that Tommy Johnson's work falls into the latter category. But Morgan did note that most of the songs were "devoid of the sentimentality and moralizing that are an integral part of most narratives of tragedy in American ballads recorded commercially."

"Jake Walk Blues" by the Allen Brothers is indeed devoid of sentimentality, moralizing, or self pity on the part of the sufferer. The song features a changing point of view from that of the shiftless jake sufferer to that of his woman, who is lacking in sympathy: "Listen here, Papa, can't you see, you can't drink jake and get along with me. You're a jake walkin' papa with the jake walk blues; I'm a red hot mama that you can't afford to lose." Alas, her man won't change—shiftlessness runs in the family: "My daddy was a gambler and a drunkard too; if he was living today, he'd have the jake walk too. When I die, you can have my hand; I'm gonna take a bottle of jake to the Promised Land."

To read the rest of Stooksbury's story, go here. To hear the Allen Brothers' song, dig in: