About The Dr
Below are the sleevenotes from the album "Doctor, write me a prescription for the blues". To download the full version of the original essay click on the link opposite.
Doctor, write me a prescription for
Music is the most powerful mind-altering substance generally available. The Blues has been the single most influential musical form across the world since the last century. It has shaped jazz, given birth to rock and roll and without it, there would have been no Presley, Beatles, Rolling Stones. Popular music would look very different. The Blues is the most powerful form of the most powerful form of mind-altering substance there is. Surely then, it should be prescribed by health services? The Blues doctors- including Dr Ross, Dr Feelgood, Dr John, Dr Clayton claim a title evoking the mystical belief in the musician as healer. The Blues is both state of mind and musical idiom- ‘a bout of depression; melancholic music of black American folk origin, often in the twelve bar sequence’. Any music can be therapeutic, inducing well-being. Only the Blues has, as its defining feature, catharsis: ‘a release of repressed emotion by association with the cause and elimination by abreaction: purgation; confessional’. A cathartic drug is a purgative. ‘The basic attitude of the blues is that joyful music can come out of real pain.’ Articulate your pain and you are not overpowered by it.
The Blues history is one of the unrelenting suffering of black Americans, set against their spirit of resilience and hope. The first Blues doctors were slaves with musical talent travelling with the patent medicine show bands in 19 th century southern United States. The power of music sold potions when orthodox medicine was largely ineffective. The Blues draws on voodoo, herbal remedy and ritual from Africa and the Caribbean, intricately linking, love, fertility, power, and well-being. The Black Cat Bone and John the Conqueror Root ‘Mojo’ are some of the potions available. The Classic Blues Race recordings of the 1920s marketed Blues catharsis. Cathartic Blues is psychoanalytical- the performer working through experiences to achieve personal understanding. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is more effective. The Blues CBT performer turns self-analysis to positive behavioural change, recognition and avoidance of risk situations, trying to find a healthier way of life. Cathartic Blues covered illness and death. Memphis Minnie battled with meningitis. Victoria Spivey, Dr Ross, Champion Jack Dupree, all fought TB. Bukka White described his sister’s death from hepatitis. Blues doctors criticized well-intentioned public health programs, misplaced amidst overwhelming economic inequality. Champion Jack Dupree’s Warehouseman said give us jobs and money not grapefruit juice to protect us from scurvy. Pellagra killed 7000 poor blacks (and whites) in the southern states in the early 1900s. The song, ‘Cornbread, peas and black molasses’ evoked a prison ‘holler’ alluding to Dr Joseph Goldberger’s experiments on prisoners, determining the dietary deficiency causing pellagra. Poor blacks felt stigmatized by handouts to protect them from diseases like scurvy and pellagra. They also found worse- press gangs dragging them into slave labour when they queued at Red Cross stations. Leadbelly sang about that. Goldberger was eventually vindicated when fortifying cornbread flour with yeast extract eradicated pellagra. The vitamin B3 niacin is there in your cornflakes every morning to this day.
Blues medicine became metaphor, the Blues an illness, Blues music, the treatment. For Charles Brown ‘the Blues is a virus’, Professor Longhair had the rockin’ pneumonia. Clara Smith gave us the full treatment.
What should health services learn from the Blues experience?
Ray Charles appealed for more sensitive recognition and diagnosis of mental ill health and for appropriate treatment. How often is the patient still receiving the medicated potion that don’t improve emotion? The social narrative and protest Blues tell us that health services must advocate better social and economic policies to achieve better health and reduce inequalities. The Medicine Showmen used their powers of persuasion to make people feel better. In health services today we have not developed our arts into effective communication, we have not managed placebo, or exercised enough empathy. The Blues is a complementary therapy. But seeing the art as treatment devalues the art. Blues therapy must be protected from the deadening influence of health service control and medicalisation. Keep paying the private prescription.
Health workers need to value the health enhancing qualities of non-health service human activities. The Blues has been a voice for Black America giving comfort, welfare and dignity to disenfranchised and downtrodden people. It has infected people across the globe. Medicine can only restore, or maintain, it cannot uplift, strengthen, fortify. Only the arts, music, culture can give us meaning and enable us to achieve a higher quality of life. The Blues shows us how a single artistic form has helped people to achieve a higher state of well-being. So doctor, write me a prescription for the Blues.