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Songs of Prohibition’s Poison

The song begins with a litany of complaints: “I can’t eat, I can’t talk, been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now I can’t walk.” “Jake” refers to Jamaica Ginger, a patent medicine that was legally available during Prohibition in spite of its high alcohol content.

When patients started showing up with a frightening new constellation of symptoms—the most prominent being an exaggerated gait caused by pain and weakness in the legs—medical professionals struggled to identify the cause. But several recording artists, largely confined to the “race” and “hillbilly” genres, accurately diagnosed the source of the affliction. The tale of woe quoted above was put to wax by the Allen Brothers (Austin and Lee) in a Memphis recording session for the Victor label in June 1930. Though “Jake Walk Blues” tells of personal loss and failure, it is an upbeat number, accompanied by a banjo, kazoo, and guitar.

The earliest report of Jamaica Ginger Paralysis, as it would come to be known, occurred in February 1930, when Dr. Ephraim Goldfain of Oklahoma City started seeing  a series of patients, all men, exhibiting the same symptoms. A March 7, 1930, article in The Oklahoman told of “spinal afflictions, believed to be the result of poison whiskey, which has afflicted 60 men in Oklahoma City in the last ten days. … The strange malady affects the spine, causing a partial paralysis, especially of the feet, resulting in inability to walk normally.”

Jamaica Ginger had been used as a patent medicine for decades without side effects. But under Prohibition, the Treasury Department required that jake be sold with a higher concentration of ginger solids, resulting in an incredibly bitter taste, and tested bottles by boiling the contents and weighing what was left over. To pass this test without rendering jake unpalatable, some bootleggers added castor oil. Harry Gross and Max Reisman, two brothers-in-law from Boston, instead added a chemical plasticizer known as tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate. TOCP was tasteless and cheaper than castor oil. It was also a neurotoxin.

The nexus between American roots music and epidemiology might have been lost to history but for the efforts of John Morgan, a former professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York who styled himself a “pharmacoethnomusicologist” to Dan Baum for a 2003 New Yorker profile and wrote about the phenomenon in a 1976 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine (with coauthor Thomas Tulloss). Morgan, who died of leukemia in 2008, was an advocate of drug-policy reform and the coauthor of the book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts.

The Annals article was subtitled “A Toxicologic Tragedy Mirrored in American Popular Music.” In it, Morgan briefly discussed the medical background of Jamaica Ginger poisoning before moving on to the songs. Morgan apparently felt it necessary to engage in Cliff’s Notes-style explanations such as “commercial recording of rural southern artists (black and white) began in the 1920s.” He helpfully instructed his readers on a particular guitar style requiring that “some hard object … be placed against the strings … and slid back and forth for the desired pitch. This method is sometimes called ‘slide guitar.’” One can almost picture a suburban doctor, relaxing in his Scarsdale study with a martini while listening to Mantovani, contemplating this “slide guitar”—while his teenage son blares the Allman Brothers’ At the Fillmore East from his upstairs bedroom.

One of the songs Morgan considered is by the Mississippi Sheiks, an African-American string band who recorded “Jake Leg Blues” at about the same time as the Allen Brothers recorded their similarly titled song. The Sheiks, apparently having witnessed the ill effects, warned that “if you sell him jake, you’d better give him a crutch too” and “if he drank this jake, it will give him the limber leg.”

The second line refers to another problem alluded to in a number of songs, perhaps most clearly by Mississippi Delta Bluesman Ishmon (sometimes spelled “Ishman”) Bracey. In “Jake Liquor Blues,” Bracey explained: “You have numbiness [sic] in front of your body, you can’t carry any lovin’ on.” To make the point clearer, the next verse featured a second opinion: “Aunt Jane, she come runnin’ and screamin’, tellin’ everybody in the neighborhood ‘that man of mine got the limber trouble, and his lovin’ can’t do me any good.’”

Bracey, along with Tommy Johnson, made the first recordings to allude to Jake poisoning in March 1930, as doctors were first grappling with the crisis. According to Morgan, “Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey were friends, and both were from Central Mississippi near Jackson. … Both performances, [Johnson’s] ‘Alcohol and Jake Blues’ and [Bracey’s] ‘Jake Liquor Blues’ were backed by the New Orleans Nehi Boys, leading one to believe that they resulted from the same recording session in early 1930.”

At the time of Morgan’s article, there were no extant copies of Tommy Johnson’s record, and Morgan speculated that it had never been issued. It has since surfaced. Johnson was evidently a troubled man who drank heavily; in 1967, about a decade after Johnson’s death, his older brother told journalist and blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlaw that the musician would “drink anything—bay rum [aftershave], canned heat [Sterno fuel], shoe polish, moonshine, Solo [paint thinner]—anything that had alcohol in it.” Johnson’s taste for Sterno served as the basis for his better-known song “Canned Heat Blues,” which provided the name for the blues-rock band Canned Heat.

Reliable demographic data about victims of jake poisoning do not exist, though the profile of the typical suffer was an itinerant, male heavy drinker. Estimates of the total number varied from fewer than 5,000 up to 60,000, out of a population of 122 million according to the 1930 census. In addition to poor record-keeping and black victims’ being blocked from segregated hospitals (some health-care professionals thought blacks to be immune), the affliction carried a stigma. “On April 1 cards were sent to about 2,500 physicians in the 77 counties [of Oklahoma]. On April 23 approximately 40 per cent of these had been returned and showed 536 cases in 39 counties,” wrote the American Journal of Public Health in 1930. “Because of the tendency to be ashamed of the affliction it is safe to assume that this number represents only about one-third of the cases and that there are therefore between 1,500 and 2,000 in the state.”

Whatever the total number of victims, the outbreak inspired an unusual number of songs. Morgan speculated to Dan Baum that “no other incident has inspired as much popular music as the jake-walk epidemic.” (Another contender may be the 1927 Mississippi River flood: It affected several hundred thousand people, mostly in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and and inspired numerous songs, including “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton, “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” by Barbecue Bob and Kansas City Joe, and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” later covered by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.)

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.”

Toward the end of the Annals article, Morgan reflected on the ephemeral nature of popular culture and looked forward to what we might lose in the future. “These performances, valuable in many ways, were not saved systematically. … We have never located the Johnson [since found] and Daddy Stovepipe [still missing] recordings, and the Allen Brothers song that generated this project came to us from a German collector.” He included a helpful table of where to locate the songs he discussed, several of which were only available on tape from archives and collectors.

He suggested that “perhaps in 2016 a scholar will bemoan the loss of all prints of ‘My Little Margie,’” a fate that has yet to come to pass.

Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tenn.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Songs of Prohibition’s Poison"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 1, 2016 @ 10:01 am

“By December 1930, Harry Gross and Max Reisman were indicted by a federal grand jury. Given the thousands who had already been paralyzed by the tainted jake…the penalty was surprisingly light. After a successful plea bargain, Harry Gross served a two-year sentence while Max Reisman avoided serving any jail time. Despite various lawsuits launched on behalf of the victims, consumer protection legislation allowing class-action lawsuits was still in its infancy. Hub Products had gone bankrupt and none of the other companies involved had direct responsibility for the tainted jake. In 1931, the United Victims of Jamaica Ginger Paralysis was formed. Claiming to represent 35,000 affected people across the country, the group petitioned Congress for financial support but to no real effect. Since almost all of the victims of ‘jakeitis’ were immigrants, migrants, or itinerants, their political influence was minimal and the pressure to act on their behalf was never great. The epidemic was especially common among lower-class African-American men, many of whom were not allowed in hospitals where they might have sought treatment. Public support was nonexistent and jake victims were largely left to fend for themselves. Reliable statistics on the full extent of the epidemic were never really collected but the number of victims may have been as high as 100,000. Although the paralysis condition is now formally recognized as organophospate-induced delayed neuropathy (OPIDN), the informal name of “jake leg” became more popular. Largely forgotten by mainstream society, paralyzed beggars became a common sight during the 1930s and 1940s…Autopsies showed damage to the central nervous system including the spinal horn’s anterior nerve cells and the spinal column’s pyramidal tract cells.”

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#2 Comment By Bob K. On July 1, 2016 @ 11:14 am

Just as a matter of historical curiosity; what happened to the two bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman?

#3 Comment By Junior On July 1, 2016 @ 11:15 am

I listen to a lot of old blues from the pre-WW2 era and LOVED this article, Mr. Stooksbury. Thanks for writing it!

I have heard a lot of songs with Jake in the title from that era and always just assumed that it was a liquor but never knew the story behind it. Very interesting.

I also really liked the nod in the article to two of my favorites, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

One of my faves from Kansas Joe McCoy, “Well, Well” from 1935:
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One of my faves from Memphis Minnie, “I’m A Bad Luck Woman” from 1936:
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“Morgan speculated to Dan Baum that “no other incident has inspired as much popular music as the jake-walk epidemic.” Another contender may be the 1927 Mississippi River flood”

Another contender may also be the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis, Missouri on Christmas, 1895.
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Below are a couple of my favorite takes on the incident from the pre-war blues era.

The Down Home Boys, “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues” from 1927:
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Furry Lewis, “Billy Lyons and Stack O’ Lee” from 1927:
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Mississippi John Hurt, “Stack O’ Lee Blues” from 1928:
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Although I think that there might be hundreds of versions, including modern ones, of songs inspired by this incident on a Christmas in 1895, I have a feeling that there may be another contender for most-songs-inspired-by-incident that has them all beat which occurred on a Christmas in 0001 when a certain birth inspired a whole genre called Gospel. 🙂

Thanks again for the great article!

#4 Comment By Fred Bowman On July 1, 2016 @ 11:32 am

As a person who loves old blues & root music, enjoyed reading this article about the “Jake Walk Blues”.

#5 Comment By Chris Travers On July 2, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

For those of us who love the study of folklore this is not at all surprising. The uneducated masses are no less observant than the educated elites and are often moreso. They just express it differently.

We should remember that women knew there was something wrong with the obstetric profession even before Semmelweis did. And medical historian (and big pharma pioneer) Henry Welcome gave a lecture to the AMA in 1912 on the close parallels between 10th century and early 20th century medical literature (particularly Bald’s Leechbook, not generally considered a highly educated book by the day like the Herbarium was, and what was known about medical uses of plants and other substances in the 1910’s).

#6 Comment By Hal Fiore On July 3, 2016 @ 8:59 am

“Jake leg” or “Jack leg” is still an expression in Mississippi, though now that I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I heard it. It usually has the connotation of something cheap, shoddy, or not built to last, or someone who produces such things.

#7 Comment By Bet Mulligan On July 3, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

What a wonderful article! I hope you don’t mind if I share it with a few friends on Facebook.

#8 Comment By Displaced Californian On July 4, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

I loved reading this. The music resulting from Prohibition might very well be the only good to result from that time period.

#9 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 5, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

@ Hal Fiore: “Jackleg” means just what you say it means, but the word “jackleg” came into use around 1850 and – as far as I can determine — has no connection with the term “jake leg.”