Songs About Tuberculosis and Death


With the terrifying new strain of “indestructible” tuberculosis discovered in India this week, it’s a good time to revisit the music made about the deadly disease in the past. Like lots of terrifying things, tuberculosis has inspired some truly great music. The “T.B. Blues” that Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey sings above, for example. Like she says, it’s no joke. But she also says that she wrote it, in 1927. According to Smithsonian Folkways, it was written by Lead Belly, and he recorded it in 1944. Hmm!

Josh White recorded it in 1944.

Country forefather Jimmie Rodgers wrote a different song with the same title in 1932.

And Merle Haggard covered that in the ’60s. Haggard is sick with pneumonia in a hospital in Georgia right now, so here’s wishing him a speedy recovery.

Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets,” from 1967, is one of the most harrowing songs about disease and death that anyone’s ever written. The discomfort in his voice as he talks himself out of the room where his girlfriend lies dying—”We got Darren coming around here later with a bottle of wine for you, baby. But I gotta go…” It puts your heart in your throat every time. There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese used it in Bringing Out the Dead. (Man, that whole soundtrack is devastating.)

Van must have been awfully proud when another Texas blues great, John Lee Hooker, covered it on his 1972 album, Never Get Out of These Blues Alive. (The two dueted on the album’s title track.)

I’m not sure how Van felt about Ghostface Killah sampling “T.B. Sheets” in 2006, for the song, “Greedy Bitches.”

I mean, I guess he was okay with it, he had to clear the publishing rights. And it’s a good song, too. But when you think of the thematic roots, and then the sentiment of Ghost’s rap, yikes, that seems like a pretty sick joke indeed. Gallows humor, I guess. Here’s to it.