Academic Disability Music Public engagement

Music and epidemic: polio in the 1950s #1

I’ve written several times about the polio and pop generation–in fact, it was, became, my way into thinking about the relation between popular music and disability more widely. I was inspired originally by the English singer and lyricist Ian Dury (1942-2000), who I had first come across in the punk scene in 1977. Parts of that research have been coming back to me during COVID-19 lockdown, rock ‘n’ rona … a virus sweeping through society, health service staff contracting it while caring, an international race towards vaccination, world leaders experiencing it, suppressed panic, quarantine and isolation, ventilators….

While we are in lockdown you can freely open access read the relevant chapter from Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (2013), ‘Crippled with nerves: polio survivors in popular music’. My publisher for that book, University of Michigan Press, has made over 1,000 academic books free to read during COVID-19. Click here.


So, the rock ‘n’ roll generation of polio survivors: children and young people from the late 1940s to the early 1950s who contracted poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) during summer epidemics in the last few years before reliable vaccinations were widely available (in the west). US jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman has observed, of his own experience, aged three, in 1949, ‘I’m the last of the last to get polio’. I am interested in the historical specificity of the disease in the post-war west. The introduction of the vaccines that successfully eradicated polio within a few years made that generation dramatically the last (in the west), while the chronological coincidence of the rise of pop culture would lead in a decade or two to a remarkable generation of pop and rock musicians who had been shadowed by ‘the crippler’, as polio was known colloquially in the USA.

In respiratory centres in 1950s America, groups of young ventilator-dependent polio survivors often produced mimeographed newssheets. Referencing the ‘rocking’ technique of physical movement recommended to aid artificial breathing for some, newssheet titles reflected youth and pop music tastes of the time: The Rocking ReporterThe Rock ‘n’ Roll. Minor evidence of the generational correspondence of (late) polio and (early) pop.

Through the twentieth century, increasing public awareness of polio outbreaks (epidemics in New York in 1916, Los Angeles in 1934, Berlin in 1947, Copenhagen in 1952) caused periodic panic among local populations. As polio survivor Marc Shell writes in Polio and its Aftermath, ‘For seventy years, polio traumatized the world…. An American president suffered from its paralyzing effects. So did sixty million other people worldwide. Even when polio did not kill its victims outright, it often crippled them for life. The survivors were the visible reminder of polio’s ever-increasing power to slay, maim, and deform…. No one knew what caused the disease, and there was no cure’.  

But, according to polio survivor Tony Gould in A Summer Plague, ‘everything to do with polio in Britain, not least the disease itself, was on a minor scale’. This changed with the epidemic of 1947, in which 7,776 people contracted the disease. Over the following decade some 58,000 were affected, around 4,000 of whom died, and of the survivors 35,000 were left with a degree of paralysis (Compare figures for the scale of the disease elsewhere: in the 1980s in the USA there were over 600,000 polio survivors, and in India an estimated 12 million.)

One medical student working in a London hospital during one outbreak in the 1950s, when hospital staff were themselves coming down with the disease, described this plague-like situation as ‘absolutely bloody terrifying’.

At this time, the 1950s being the high point of the ‘polio zeitgeist’ (Gould’s phrase), the Salk vaccine was available in Britain for young people (by injection), though not yet widely used. (It would be superseded within a few years by the Sabin vaccine, dispensed nationwide to schoolchildren on sugar cubes.) Some early vaccinations malfunctioned, and infected the patient with the disease. Such an iatrogenic family disaster is what happened to 1960s folk singer Donovan as a boy in Scotland, as he explains in his autobiography:

In the disruption following the Second World War, three epidemics hit [Glasgow]: scarlet fever, diptheria, and polio. The children were hardest hit. The vaccines were too strong, and I was actually given the polio disease this way. So my right leg began to show signs of ‘wasting.’ An operation was performed, cutting the Achilles tendon in the foot, and I wore an ugly leg brace for some time after. It was a long boot made of a hard substance that I wore only at night to give the little leg support. Removing the device would tear the hairs and hurt so much that I cried each morning, painful for my mammy and daddy to watch.

Polio is a highly contagious viral disease that can attack the body’s nervous system. Transmitted by faecally contaminated food and water, in temperate climates it can be a seasonal disease, therefore summer swimming in pools and lakes was a childhood activity feared and discouraged by many parents. Also, polio is primarily a disease of children. Its characteristic operation is that by attacking nerve cells the virus permanently paralyses the activated muscles. So, while Ian Dury in the early 1970s would write and sing a halting love song, ‘Crippled with nerves’, a highlight of his band’s live set (released as a single in 1975), the title phrase itself was both resonant and neurologically informed: Dury was indeed crippled with (by) his nerves, and the audience saw him perform the singing of that….


Academic Connected Communities Disability Knowledge Exchange Media Music Public engagement

Israel Vibration, reggae, disability, polio, alla zoppa

[cross-posted from the Reggae Research Network website]

I thought I should add to the network a little of the research on reggae music that I have done. In the 2013 book Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability, I explored the relation between polio and pop music, which includes the reggae vocal trio Israel Vibration. While in the network we have talked a lot about reggae bass, and felt it through sound systems, this work gave me a chance to think about the other end of the register, as sounded by the offbeat guitar / keys chopped chords that do so much to define the music too.

From Shakin’ All Over:

… In the case of reggae group Israel Vibration, the fact of institutionalisation was formative for the group: separation from the majority effected a stronger minority identity, since the three original members met and began to sing with each other while they were long-term residents at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, near Kingston, Jamaica.  The three young men had several points in common: a passion for the close harmony reggae singing popular at the time, an interest in Rastafarianism, and the experiences of polio and institutionalisation. Their first public performance was at the Theological College next door to the centre in 1974. When they left the centre, some other Rastafarians rejected them, seeing their impairments as a punitive sign from God.

Song titles like ‘Tippy tippy toes’ and ‘Level every angle’ emphasise the visual and sonic narrative of disability. It is not difficult to hear the latter as extending the fairly standard post-civil rights and post-Bob Marley rhetoric of one love reggae into a kind of disability rights context. So ‘Level every angle’ becomes at least in part Israel Vibration’s plea for public spaces and design to consider the access requirements of mobility-restricted people, as they sing:

‘Some people are blessed while others are cursed… / From every angle things should be level / And everything would be all right.’

When performing live onstage the singers are able to stand and move around by use of their crutches, while on the cover photography of their 2002 album Fighting Soldiers, they pose with their walking aids in a rundown street. In one image, they hold the metal crutches like rifles and point them at the viewer—a mix of gangster and ‘fighting’ polio survivor. Occasionally Israel Vibration sing songs that resonate with their experience of impairment, while even the reggae accompaniment, with its characteristic and insistent offbeat rhythm and chords, seems suddenly more fitting for musicians with mobility difficulties, where a lilt is no longer so far removed from a limp.

Indeed Israel Vibration invite us to consider reggae music per se as a music of disability, precisely because of its alla zoppa characteristics. Alla zoppa: a musical term for ‘uneven rhythms in a melody’, meaning ‘“limping” or “halting” in Italian … this rhythmic figure is part of the instrumental tradition of representing physical impairments’ (Lerner). In this context, alla zoppa makes us reconsider reggae’s characteristic offbeat rhythm guitar and keyboard, and even more so reggae’s sometimes out-of-time echo dub practices, as less lilt, more stilt. Here may be the appropriate moment to suggest that there is a potentially related observation to be made about tonal ‘imbalance’ and disability too: Joseph N. Straus argues that ‘[i]mbalance and unrest are desirable aesthetically. They propel the piece forward and provide an essential contrast with the normatively balanced and restful beginning and ending’.

The terrific video below shows Israel Vibration performing their 1995 song ‘Rude boy shufflin’.’ It’s all about the male body, and how it moves in the street, contrasted between the rude boy, all the TAB dancers, the youngster skipping, and the band’s movements. Wonderful polio dancing (pun!) throughout and especially from 3.42. A classic of late reggae. One of the 10m+ viewers left this comment on Youtube: ‘Only a Jamaican can dance with crutches and make it look good’. I don’t know about that, but it made me smile. You know, and discuss.