Jake Walk Blues
The Jake Walk Blues. A toxicologic tragedy mirrored in American popular music.
In 1930 thousands of cases of muscle pain, weakness of upper and lower extremities, and minimal sensory impairment occurred in the United States. The illness was caused by the consumption of an adulterated Jamaica ginger extract (“Jake”), an illicit beverage then popularly used in the southern and midwestern United States to circumvent prohibition statutes. The additive tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate caused severe, only partially reversible damage to the spinal cord and peripheral nervous tissue. Victims with resultant gait impairment, sometimes permanent, were said to have the “Jake Leg” or “Jake Walk.” Twelve commercial phonographic recordings made between 1928 and 1934 by southern rural artists, white and black, refer to Jake or Jake-induced infirmity. These reveal preepidemic cultural familiarity with Jake, and the later, postepidemic performances reflect a whimsical, even cynical, cultural attitude that those with “Jake Leg” were suffering the wages of sin and should not be regarded as objects of pity or sympathy.
My Collection of antique “jake” bottles.