Rijkers and Rodriguez Gomez Pneumonia
Ger T. Rijkers 0
Maria Rodriguez Gomez 0
0 Science Department, University College Roosevelt , P.O. Box 94, 4330 AB Middelburg , The Netherlands
Ever since Chuck Berry coined the term “rocking pneumonia” in his 1956 song “Roll over Beethoven”, pneumonia has been mentioned frequently in modern blues and rock songs. We analyzed the lyrics of these songs to examine how various elements of pneumonia have been represented in popular music, specifically the cause of pneumonia, the risk groups, comorbidity (such as the boogie woogie flu), the clinical symptoms, and treatment and outcome. Up to this day, songwriters suggest that pneumonia is caused mainly by the cold and rain and that treatment is hardly possible, aside from a shot of rhythm and blues.
Rocking pneumonia; Lyrics; Symptoms; Comorbidity; Treatment
In 1926, Virginia Woolf published an essay “On being
ill”, in which she wondered why “illness has not taken its
place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime
themes of literature” [
]. Illness has not been a prime
theme of literature, or music lyrics, for that matter, yet it
has a significant impact on the human condition.
Pondering this oversight, Woolf specifically called for odes
to pneumonia, novels devoted to influenza, epic poems
to typhoid, and lyrics to toothache.
Now, more than 90 years after Virginia Woolf ’s essay,
this question regarding illness’s representation in
literature can be addressed with modern search techniques.
The lyrics database www.lyrics.com considers itself “the
web’s largest resource for music, songs and lyrics” and it
is the latter functionality that was used for this research
into how illness—specifically pneumonia—has been
represented in music lyrics.
Search results revealed that the word ‘pneumonia’ is
found in 239 song lyrics, which is a rather modest number
when compared to the word ‘jealous,’ which is found in
3879 lyrics, and ‘love,’ which found in 324,016 lyrics.
Pneumonia, however, clearly outperforms the other diseases
suggested by Virginia Woolf: (novels devoted to) influenza,
29; (epic poems to) typhoid, 11; and (lyrics to) toothache,
73. In her essay she suggested “love and jealousy are states
that spark the language but that the sufferer has the pain
in his head but the language runs dry” [
]. This suggestion
of the experience of pain overruling the ability to of
language to adequately describe it warrants an analysis of
the language that is used in songs about pneumonia.
“I got a rocking pneumonia, I need a shot of rhythm
and blues” [
] is a famous line from the song “Roll over
Beethoven”, a Chuck Berry original (1956) which has
been covered by many others, including The Beatles
(1963) and Electric Light Orchestra (1973). Briefly, to
highlight one way in which an understanding of
pneumonia in lyrics can be utilized in an academic setting,
Chuck Berry’s lyric about pneumonia could be used in a
creative multiple-choice question in an immunology or
microbiology exam, structured as follows:
Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause a) otitis media, b)
meningitis, c) pneumonia and d) bacteremia. Which one
of these four manifestations of a pneumococcal infection
did Chuck Berry have for which he needed a shot of
rhythm and blues?
We have put this question to bachelor students at the
University College Roosevelt (The Netherlands) and the
frequency distribution of the answers is an almost
perfect 25% for each possibility, so the general knowledge
of university students of classical rock and roll song
texts appears to be limited. It can only be hoped that
their knowledge of the pneumococcus is better.
Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven” was recorded in
1956 (Fig. 1). The top position the song reached in the
Billboard Hot 100 was a modest 29th place. About a year
later, “A Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie
Flu” by Huey Smith and his Clowns made its first
appearance on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart. In his
biography, Huey Smith admits that he had heard Chuck
Berry sing “I got the rocking pneumonia, I need a shot
of rhythm and blues” [
]. He was inspired to use this
term and added “the boogie woogie flu” himself.
As indicated above, a number of songs have been
published since Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven”, dealing
with many aspects of pneumonia. Below, we analyze
lyrics that deal with the cause of pneumonia, risk
groups, comorbidity (the boogie woogie flu), the clinical
symptoms, and treatment and outcome.
Cause of pneumonia
In most songs about pneumonia, standing in the rain or in
the cold is indicated as cause of the disease. For example,
Rod Stewart in “Lost Paraguayos” sings: “it appears to be
raining again,. .. honey hurry I'm catching pneumonia”
(from the album Sing It Again Rod, 1972). The Easybeats
in “Come In You’ll Get Pneumonia” sing “Standing in the
rain, [.. .] all right, come in you'll get pneumonia” (from
the album The Easybeats, 1981). As recently as 2013,
Pusha T in his song ‘Amen’ (from the album Still Ya
Pusha) sings/raps “And you might get pneumonia, I'm
colder than an elf on a sleigh”. The last example is Elvis
Presley, from the movie GI Blues the song “Didja’ Ever”
(from the album G. I. Blues 1960), who sings, “Ya get up in
the morning and turn the shower on, you're gettin’
pneumonia, the hot water is gone”.
In fact, there is only one song in which an infectious
nature of pneumonia is described, “I'll Never Fall in Love
Again”, with the lyrics: “What do you get when you kiss
a girl? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia”,
originally composed by Burt Bacharach in 1969. At the
time he composed the song, Bacharach himself was in
hospital with pneumonia. There are many different
artists who have recorded this classical song. Among them,
Dionne Warwick who sings, as all female interpreters
do: “What do you get when you kiss a guy?” All male
singers kiss a girl. In none of the versions is there a
single same sex relation. We can debate on the mode of
transmission implied in the lyrics. True, S. pneumoniae
is readily detectable in saliva. Wyllie et al., using
molecular techniques, found 88% of primary school children
tested positive for S. pneumoniae in saliva [
]. In 1932,
Gundel and Okura, using conventional culture
techniques, reported 66% of saliva samples from teenagers to
be positive for S. pneumoniae with point prevalence as
high as 85% for boys and 71% for girls [
]. The actual
volume of saliva exchanged during intimate kissing is
less than 0.5 ml, but it can contain up to 80 × 106 (total)
]. Still, unlike the Epstein Barr virus, kissing
as route of transmission hasn’t been firmly established
for S. pneumoniae.
Pneumonia can affect people of all ages, but the age
groups with highest risk of infection are infants below 2
years of age, and people over 65. This is reflected in
popular music, with the lyrics in “Streets of New York”
from Wolfe Tones describing one of the risk groups
when they sing, “little baby daughter … has pneumonia”.
Both “Angel of Mercy” from Black Label Society (2014)
and “Speed Break” from Abscess also refer to this age
group (infants below 2 years of age) as having
pneumonia. The older age category is described in “Swing ‘em
High” from The Tiger Lillies (1999) “and the old lady’s
pneumonia did rage”. Unlike causative agents, as far as
risk groups are concerned, these song lyrics accurately
describe a fact about pneumonia.
The intricate association between pneumonia and
influenza is mentioned in a number of songs. The classical
“Rocking pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu”, by
Huey Smith already alludes to this association. Also Otis
Redding in his 1966 song “Hawg for You” sings, “I got
rockin’ pneumonia, asiatic flu, I got something to tell
you baby!” The Squirrel Nut Zippers in their song ‘La
Grippe’ (from the album The Inevitable, 1995) also sing,
“There's an Asian influenza, infecting us all by the scores,
and it's turning into pneumonia”. In more recent songs, in
fact since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, pneumonia as a
manifestation of an underlying HIV infection is also
indicated. This is seen in the song “The Kids” by Eminem (from
the album The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000) where he sings,
“Mr. Kaniff is out with pneumonia (HE’S GOT AIDS!)”.
The clinical symptoms of pneumonia (high temperature,
pleuritic pain and a dry cough, next to shortness of
breath, fatigue, confusion, hypothermia, nausea,
vomiting or diarrhea) are not at all adequately described in
song lyrics. Lightnin’ Hopkins in “Pneumonia Blues”
(1964) sings that his “head hurt me so bad till I'm almost
to go blind”. Although a few cases have been described
in the medical literature, blindness as a complication is a
rare event [
One of the prominent clinical signs of pneumonia,
fever, is rarely mentioned in songs about pneumonia.
Danko Jones, in his 1999 song “My love is bold” sings, “I
got a fever baby's givin’ me pneumonia”. He is implying
that the fever is the cause of the pneumonia, rather than
Just a few songs have the single word ‘pneumonia’ as a
title. For the purposes of this discussion, which focuses
on lyrics, we can ignore “Pneumonia” by Kool and the
Gang, because that is an instrumental. Perhaps the most
intriguing is Joe Tex’s song entitled “Pneumonia”. In his
early career, Joe Tex claimed he was the author of
another song, “Fever”, but that he sold it for 300 dollars.
According to the label, “Fever” was written by Otis
Blackwell in 1956 and first recorded by Little Willie John but
made famous by Peggy Lee, Etta James, Madonna,
Beyoncé, the Black Keys, and many others. Joe Tex was
never recognized as the writer, but 2 years after “Fever”
was released, he published his song “Pneumonia”. The
melody bears strong resemblance to “Fever”, and even the
lyrics are related (see Table 1). At the place where you
would intuitively sing “Fever”, he sings “Pneumonia”. There
never has been a court case for plagiarism, so maybe Joe
Tex actually did write “Fever”. A direct comparison of the
lyrics of “Pneumonia” and “Fever” (Table 1) shows how
close the relation between pneumonia and fever is.
Treatment and outcome
In most songs, pneumonia is described as a serious
disease for which no treatment is available. In the 1949
musical romantic comedy “Neptune’s Daughter”, made
during a time when antibiotics were not yet generally
available, Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams sing
the Academy Award winning song “Baby it’s cold
outside”, which includes the line, “If you got pneumonia
and died”. The only intervention that could help is a
shot of rhythm and blues: “I got a rocking pneumonia, I
need a shot of rhythm and blues”. Other treatment
options put forward in songs about pneumonia are even
less evidence-based; for example, treatments such as
“soy bologna”, according to Nellie McKay’s song
“Suitcase Song” (2004), and “prayers” from Rod Stewart’s
In the song “Lost Weekend” (2004), Lloyd Cole
mentions treatment but complains about the costs of
antibiotics (“It took a lost weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam,
and double pneumonia in a single room, and the sickest
joke was the price of the medicine”). Lloyd Cole must have
travelled on a tight budget, because the price of a course of
amoxicillin is well below €60, less than a single night in a
cheap Amsterdam hotel. This shows us that it took almost
half a century of pneumonia being mentioned in song
lyrics before the ability to treat pneumonia with antibiotics
also found its way into popular music. We may have to
wait another 50 years before songwriters will realize that
pneumonia can be prevented by vaccination, rather than
by an umbrella, or refraining from kissing girls.
Rather than waiting for current knowledge of vaccine
efficacy to filter down to popular culture, perhaps the next
step in raising awareness about pneumonia is to take our
knowledge of the disease and pen a song about
pneumonia prevention—who knows, it might just be a hit!
Thus, the Pneumonia journal has a holiday challenge
for you: to compose lyrics for a song that highlights
vaccination as a means of preventing pneumonia. The most
fitting submissions will be published as responses to this
We thank Anya Luscombe (University College Roosevelt) for editing the final
All references to songs are listed by year of release. If the song is published
as part of an album, the name of the album is also indicated.
No external funding for this research was requested.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available
from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
GTR conceived the original idea for this commentary. GTR and MRG analyzed
and interpreted the lyrics data and co-wrote the manuscript. Both authors
read and approved the final manuscript.
GTR is a medical immunologist, studying the interaction between S.
pneumoniae and the immune system and is an editorial board member of
Pneumonia. In his private life he is a big fan of classic blues and rock music.
MRG is a bachelor student of the premedical program at UCR, Middelburg.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Consent for publication
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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