The Ballad of Pellagra

by Graduates Rise

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The Ballad of Pellagra is a punk rock murder ballad that seeks to help listeners better understand the complexity of pellagra, a nutritional deficiency that killed over 100,000 people in the Southern USA during the late 1800's. Pellagra presents with diagnostic criteria that have come to be known as the "Four D's of Famine,” diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. The real world story of pellagra is taught in medical schools and schools of public health around the world. It is considered to be a landmark case in understanding economic epidemiology, which is the study of how disease progression in populations is connected to economic conditions. In the case of pellagra, the symptoms were originally blamed on the "filth" of sharecroppers and other poor southerners who were dying of the disease. This stigma persisted for years, and southerners continued to die. Many researchers helped to address the pellagra outbreak, with Dr. Joseph Goldberger and Edgar Sydenstricker being standout leaders in the movement to properly diagnose and treat the condition. They noticed that the condition was not transmitted to nurses and doctors, so they began to examine the diets of sharecroppers, which they found to be quite poor. They went on to identify that pellagra was specifically a deficiency in niacin and tryptophan that quickly resolved with an improved diet. Economic conditions found to have contributed to the outbreak of pellagra were ultimately systemic functions of poverty and oppression. Specifically, the cotton monoculture, which required sharecroppers to plant the cash crop of cotton rather than to grow vegetables, grain, or to raise cattle; the extremely limited access to healthy and affordable food options from local markets; and the cornmeal they used that had been milled in a way to make it shelf-stable for transport to the south on trains, but that also robbed it of all nutritional value. Researchers found that women suffered the most from pellagra, often because they provided the best food to their men and children. Ultimately, the case led to federal policies requiring processed foods to be enriched with essential nutrients. As this has played out across time, we once again find that poor southerners are suffering from population-level health epidemics fundamentally tied to their poor access to quality food. Referred to as food deserts, too many areas where southerners live in poverty provide very little access to healthy food options, while very often providing things to fill the belly with synthetic nutrients and other junk food products. Stigma persists and poor people continue to suffer and die. A music video (to be released early 2020) complements the song, which takes participants on a 3-D, virtual reality tour through the story of Eshe, a sharecropper who dies from pellagra and the central character in the song. The video features embedded learning content and student assignments and reflections for use by faculty teaching pellagra in their courses that wish to do so by providing an opportunity for their students to apply a critical race lens in understanding how pellagra was connected to systemic functions that exacerbated the condition including racism, sexism, classism, and the evolution of slavery in the USA.


released March 27, 2019

released March 27, 2019
Lyrics and vocals by Dr. Cyn Corrigible
Music, guitar, and piano by The Grey A
Ganjo by Sarah Eitel
Upright bass by Michael Majett
Drums by Erik Dail
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Mike Purcell at County Q Productions in Nashville, Tennessee.

Cover art by Morf.


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Track Name: The Ballad of Pellagra

Eshe was a young girl
born on a farm in Tennessee
her parents had been brought here
on a ship held in chains

now she lived to sharecrop
between the white man’s hilltops
on the verge of deprivation
planting cotton over grain

one store to feed the masses
fatback, cornmeal, molasses
she did the best that she could
but her son he still grew sick

then the diarrhea it took him
and his skin began to blister
so weak he couldn’t whisper
his mind was gone in the end

cause none knew of pellagra
the oligarchs’ vendetta
control the poor in the south
by what they put in their mouth

deaths were blamed on sanitation
to prove the error of emancipation
take out the mothers of the race
who just don’t know how to live free

Eshe was not alone here
but with a hundred thousand women
sick to death of meeting needs
of the corrupted bourgeoisie

still the diarrhea it took them
their skin covered with blisters
their voices just a whisper
can you hear them on the wind

this is the ballad of pellagra
the oligarchs’ vendetta
control the poor in the south
by what they put in their mouth

but then two heroes emerged
Goldberger and Sydenstricker
saw the rich were not afflicted
and with this data they fought the scourge

observations from the real world
revealed a pattern of oppression
these famine-like conditions
were induced by poverty

still the diarrhea it took her
Eshe’s skin covered with blisters
still the doc leaned in and kissed her
her mind at peace in the end

cause now they all knew of pellagra
saved the south from this vendetta
essential nutrients we must have
to catabolize our fat

this is the ballad of pellagra
today it’s a food desert
control the poor in the south
by what they put in their mouth

this is the ballad of pellagra
the oligarchs’ vendetta
control the poor in the south
by what they put in their mouth

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