The National Blues Museum’s most recent exhibit explores the 1918 influenza epidemic—a.k.a. the “Spanish Flu”—and its effect on blues musicians and the music industry. Occurring during a period of rapid evolution in how Americans listened to and purchased music, the influenza pandemic exhibits many parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the music world. The exhibit is housed in one of NBM’s high-quality exhibition spaces, which are also available for hosting private events, as the museum provides some of the best and most unique event hosting in the area (with live music, drinks, and much more). If you’re visiting St. Louis, make sure to stop by the National Blues Museum to check out this fascinating new exhibit!
Pandemic Blues primarily analyzes how pandemics have historically affected live music and musicians. While COVID-19 has affected every industry worldwide, the music industry and musicians have faced many challenges in particular. In our era of music streaming, most every professional musician makes their living by playing live concerts. Playing live provides musicians with the merchandise sales, ticket revenue, and tips required to sustain their livelihood, as streaming payouts have proven unbalanced and inequitable. So, as public life ground to a halt in March of 2020, musicians everywhere saw their primary form of income slip away.
In 1918, another global pandemic saw musicians and the fledgling music industry adapt in parallel yet distinctly different ways. Theaters closed, performances ceased, and recorded music gained popularity. The culprit was influenza, which killed millions worldwide in 1918-1919, more than the first World War. The musical and technological landscape of 1918 was also incredibly different from 2020. Record-playing Phonographs and talking machines were a brand new invention, radio was not yet commercially available, and player pianos—which use paper scrolls and foot pedals to play tunes—were gaining prominence. Before influenza exploded in 1918 and 1919, essentially all music people heard was played live, either by professionals or friends and family. Accordingly, sheet music was the industry’s primary medium.
The blues, which had been developing in Black communities for over a century, had one of its many brushes with the mainstream during the early twentieth century through ragtime, a lively, syncopated style innovated by composers like Scott Joplin. But African-American artists faced discrimination and demeaning expectations, despite their forms of music becoming widely popular. Pieces that didn’t truly embody blues music were carelessly labeled “blues” to evoke the fad. This carried over to the influenza pandemic itself, as multiple compositions were entitled “Influenza Blues.”
Founded in 1845 in response to a cholera outbreak, St. Louis’s City Hospital was a primary site for influenza patients in 1918, especially the poor and uninsured. Run by the city of St. Louis, City Hospital quickly reached capacity during the pandemic’s height in the fall and winter of 1918-19. The hospital was officially segregated, only treating white patients. With influenza surging, Black city leaders called for the establishment of a City Hospital #2 for African-Americans in 1919, but the facility proved to be small and inadequate for the city’s rapidly growing Black population. It was replaced by Homer G. Phillips hospital in 1933, which is famous for training more Black physicians and healthcare workers than any other hospital of the period. The first two iterations of City Hospital #1 were destroyed, but its third incarnation, pictured here in 1910, still stands today and has been converted into a luxury apartment building. The building is located at 1515 Lafayette Ave between Lafayette Square and Soulard.
Blues musicians of the period took inspiration from the pandemic itself, coping with loss by writing music. Foundational blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson lost both of his parents and eight siblings to the pandemic and left his birthplace of New Orleans for St. Louis as a result. Legendary bluesman Blind Willie Johnson wrote the powerful “Jesus Coming Soon” about the 1918 pandemic, singing:
“In the year of nineteen and eighteen, God sent a mighty disease
It killed many a-thousand, on land and on the seas
Well, we done told you, our God’s done warned you
Jesus coming soon
We done told you, our God’s done warned you
Jesus coming soon”
– Blind Willie Johnson
Despite influenza, live music and entertainment didn’t die out forever in 1918, and advancements in science effectively combatted infectious diseases throughout the 20th century. Infectious disease used to have a much larger impact on Americans than it does today. Between 1900 and 1910, diseases like Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, and Pneumonia (frequently caused by influenza) caused around 50% of all deaths in Americans ages 5-44. When the influenza pandemic struck in 1918, The United States was still vulnerable to the rapid spread of different contagions, with crowded, unsanitary urban spaces and limited access to medical resources. As a result, the average life expectancy in The United States dropped 12 years during the 1918-1919 pandemic, with 25% of Americans contracting influenza.
Vaccination and improvements in sanitation led infectious disease to no longer be a primary cause of death in the United States, causing only 3% of deaths for ages 5-44 by the 1970s. As a result of these advances in sanitation and immunization, public life thrived throughout the 20th century. Americans got to experience packed shows of live entertainment in ballrooms, movie palaces, festivals, and dance halls.
When live music thrives, musicians thrive, and achieving high immunization rates for COVID-19 is one of the only routes through which live music can reach past levels of success. If you’re on the fence about getting vaccinated, think of the opportunities for public engagement and creativity that you and the rest of the country will miss out on if we don’t achieve widespread immunity. As music fans, we owe it to the creative professionals in the live entertainment industry and ourselves to reach these goals.
The National Blues museum would like to thank the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) Communities for Immunity program for supporting Pandemic Blues. Communities for Immunity provides funding awards and support to museums and libraries engaging their communities to boost COVID-19 vaccine confidence. The initiative is led by the Association of Science and Technology Centers and the American Alliance of Museums.
Photos courtesy of National Library of Medicine, Missouri Historical Society, Library of Congress, Joel Markowitz, and Illinois Digital Archives.
You can see our Pandemic Blues exhibit at the National Blues Museum, a great thing to do in St. Louis (featured by the New York Times). We also have fantastic live music programming here at the National Blues Museum. Come by Thursday nights for our FREE blues jam session, where musicians of ALL SKILL LEVELS can sit in and play (seriously). Friday nights are Howlin’ Fridays at NBM, where you can see the greatest in St. Louis and international blues performance. Visiting the museum is one of the best indoor activities in Missouri. You can catch us winter, spring, summer, or fall. If you’re looking for a great outdoor weekend activity in the summer, our Blues on the Block series brings FREE blues music to downtown St. Louis, where you can set up chairs, bring a picnic, and dance with our friendly regular fans to the sounds of fantastic Blues and R&B music, complete with group step-dancing in more. If you’re visiting the great river city of STL, make sure to come by the National Blues Museum—an excellent occasion for adults, kids, families, and blues and non-blues fans alike. Trust us; you’ll come to love the blues. We hope to see you here soon!