Disability in Popular Song

My parents always shared their favorite music with us kids. My mother was a fan of string quartets and opera, my father, jazz. So, I don’t know where they got the compilation album Country Classics but the best song was “There’s a Star Bangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” It combined unabashed patriotism with a maudlin disability perspective. The singer asks, “Can the U.S. use a mountain boy like me… Though I realize I'm crippled, that is true, sir, Please don't judge my courage by my twisted leg.” The absurdity of a boy who wants to go to war when his disability provides him with an exemption and one of the few benefits of disability struck me even at twelve.

That started my collecting of songs relating to disability. My criteria is simple — the singer or songwriter has a disability or the song is about disability. The Who’s “My Generation,” with Roger Daltrey’s pronounced and affected stutter demands inclusion. Then there is “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The narrator declares that it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed.

With the advent of eBay I have been able to purchase semi-obscure records such as Christian author Joni Eareckson’s Tada album from the 70s. Little by little my disability songs notebook has been filling up.

Finally, the opportunity for action came. The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) has a dance at their annual meeting. I was not able to go this year, but a request for music to play at the dance prompted me to finally put together a collection of disability songs. I burned two CD’s, one for dancing and another for listening. To insure that the dance collection worked I engaged in a rare activity — dancing. I hopped around the living room in my wheelchair with the stereo going full volume to insure danceability.

This is only a preliminary take on the subject. I am in the process of cataloging singers and songwriters with disabilities and songs with a disability content. If you have suggestions please let me know, ATusler@AboutDisability.com.

Anthony Tusler in association with Krip Kulture presents

The SDS Annual Dance -- 2003

Santa's In A Wheelchair • The Kids Of Widney High, 3:13
Widney High is the Los Angeles area special school.

Move On Up • Curtis Mayfield, 8:56
Curtis spent the last few years of his life using a power chair.

I Don't Need No Doctor • Ray Charles, 2:33
Ray Charles is, of course, blind.

Take Me In Your Arms Tonight • Teddy Pendergrass, 5:27
A recording before his power wheelchair use.

What's in a Name • The Cripples, 4:12
Seattle’s openly disabled punk band singing about our old favorite, semantics.

Short People • Randy Newman, 2:55
Will the controversy never end?

Mongoloid • Devo, 3:45
Easier to rhyme than Down’s Syndrome.

Johnny's Blues • Johnny Crescendo and the P.O.P. Squad, 3:44
The U.K.’s disabled flag bearer and his Piss on Pity Squad.

Beautiful People • Marilyn Manson, 3:38
Marilyn’s early years in the hospital informs this dig at the mainstream.

Cowboy Brown • The Kids Of Widney High, 3:36
The Kids again.

Cracking Up • Nick Lowe, 3:02
The title says it all.

I Wanna Be Sedated • The Ramones, 2:30
Joey Ramone’s OCD might have lead to this plea.

Spasticus (Autisticus) • Ian Dury & The Blockheads, 5:11
The disabled author of Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll writes a BBC banned anthem for the 1981 International Year of the Disabled.

My Generation • The Who, 3:18
Who says stuttering isn’t a disability?

Destroy The Handicapped • Fang, 1:33
It’s unclear what we did to piss off these San Francisco, hardcore skinheads. NB: The lead singer is back on the streets after serving a prison sentence for murdering his girlfriend.

The SDS Annual Non-Dance -- 2003

Rag • Marcus Roberts, 3:47, Joy of Joplin, Jazz
Roberts is a well-known blind jazz pianist working in traditional and avante jazz modes.

T.B. Blues • Otis Spann, 4:12, Blues Masters Vol.10, Blues
Muddy Water’s long-time band mate and pianist died of TB.

I Have Had My Fun • Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, 3:33, California Blues, Blues
Since 1939 Brownie and Sonny have been instrumental in bringing country blues to mainstream audiences. Sonny lost most of his sight in early childhood.

Black Mountain Rag • Doc Watson, 1:46, The Essential Doc Watson, Folk
This flat-pick guitar phenomenon would have been an engineer if he had not been blind.

Wade In The Water • The Blind Boys Of Alabama, 3:34, Higher Ground, Gospel & Religious
Singing in the blind school and gospel traditions this Grammy winning group has enjoyed mainstream success.

Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town • Kenny Rogers, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Country
Ruby has it all — politics, anger, self pity.

There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere • Elton Britt, Country Classics, Country
World War II had its own disability candidate.

My Little Tune • Joni Eareckson, 4:01, Joni's Song, Pop
The Christian author sings about her relationship to her disability and God.

Jerry Lewis Blues • Peter Leidy, 2:33, More Songs For People Like You & Me, Books & Spoken
From an album of satirical songs directed at the disability helping professions.

Disabled People Do It! • Jane Field, 2:53, The Fishing is Free, Folk
Wheelchair-using folk singer singing about her experiences and perspectives.

In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine) • Danny O'Keefe, 3:19, American Roulette, Folk
Able-bodied (A.B.) folkie describing a one-night-stand with a braced and crutched woman. (“Creepiest song I’ve ever heard.” Anthony Tusler)

See You Around • Vic Chesnutt, 7:19, About To Choke, Rock
Doleful quad singing in the folk tradition.

Kentucky Avenue • Tom Waits, 4:49, Blue Valentine, Rock
A story of disability and an A.B.’s heartfelt desire to make things better.

Castles Made Of Sand • The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 2:46, Axis: Bold As Love, Rock
Another use of disability as a metaphor (flawed) and vehicle for transcendence.

Viva Las Vegas • Dead Kennedys, 2:29, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Alternative
Doc Pomus, the post-polio prolific song-writer, wrote this bubbly Elvis song. It’s interpreted by San Francisco’s bad-boy punks.

Article originally appeared in Disability World, #21, Nov-Dec 2003

 

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