We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Chief among the maxims of Archy, Don Marquis’ Jazz Age vers libre cockroach, was the protest that “prohibition makes you/want to cry/into your beer and/denies you the beer/to cry into.” Too true, and in the absence of legal intoxicants, many consoled themselves with a variety of household substitutes and dubious patent medicines. A favored drunk throughout the South and Midwest was an alcohol-based extract of Jamaican ginger commonly known as “Jake.” But in 1930, Harry Gross, an unprincipled manufacturer, spoiled it for everybody when he replaced part of the ginger (a stomach irritant when consumed in quantity) with TOCP, an odorless, tasteless—and poisonous—paint ingredient. Tens of thousands of drinkers were afflicted with a permanent partial paralysis that became known as the “Jake Leg.” Though history generally turned its back on Jake victims, memory of their plight was preserved in a rash of topical songs by bluesmen and country singers. Jake Leg Blues collects 17 such selections including the Allen Brothers’ well-known “Jake Walk Blues,” a jaunty hit (25,000 sales in its day) with a catchy kazoo line, and Gene Autry’s “Bear Cat Papa Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers-style declaration of badass-ness directed at a wayward miss whose Jake drinking is the least of her sins. Moral sentiments range from the Mississippi Sheiks’ scolding the merchant (“if you sell him Jake, you better give him a crutch too”) and Byrd Moore’s survey of the sickness’ human toll to outright ridicule of the infirm. But some musicians were simply anxious to jump the Jake train, tacking mention of its effects, including the cruel “limber leg” (impotence), onto delightful instrumentals, cashing in, but casting light, on an affliction that has since stumbled into the national blind spot.