Staff Benda Bilili perform their song Polio
I n 1948, when singer-songwriter Judy Collins was nine years old, she and her family moved from Los Angeles to Denver. During the spring, they visited relatives in the mountains. “I saw a saddled horse out the window,” Collins recalls while on tour promoting her 2011 memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes . Like many girls her age, Collins loved horses. She didn’t know who owned the animal but didn’t let that stop her. “I chased it and got on,” she says. “I came riding back on the horse.”
Not long after, she developed pain in her legs. A spinal tap revealed that she had polio. Her mother blamed the ride on a stranger’s horse – no one knew for certain how the disease spread. “That was the year everybody got polio,” Collins says.
Doctors at the children’s hospital in Denver placed her in an isolation ward. “There was a baby in the room with me,” she says. “He was there two days and died. I didn’t have a roommate for another month. They had to put my letters, flowers, and books through this big machine that sterilized everything. I read a lot of Jack London. There was a lot of pain.” She underwent extensive rehabilitation to regain the use of her afflicted leg.
Singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Neil Young also had polio. So did violinist Itzhak Perlman, jazz saxophonist David Sanborn, Cockney Rebel singer Steve Harley, the late punk rocker Ian Dury, folk-pop singer Donovan, and other music icons.
“There is a longstanding view about the ‘polio personality’ – a stubbornness, a bloody-mindedness, a determination to get on with life,” explains British musician and academic George McKay, author of Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability , to be published by the University of Michigan Press.
McKay, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Salford, England, has muscular dystrophy and spent time in a polio ward as a boy, before his condition was diagnosed. The “suffering, physical transformation, and isolation” that young polio victims endure can foster a sensitivity that’s vital to the work of songwriters and musicians, he says. “One can see the artistic compensation of the isolate in the music of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Steve Harley, all of whom have talked or sung about their childhood separation,” he says.
Sanborn was three years old when he contracted polio in his native St. Louis. He spent a year in an iron lung. “It was like getting hit by lightning,” he says. “My parents couldn’t be in the room with me. My mother told me the neighborhood parents wouldn’t let their kids go near our house, even when I wasn’t there. It was a panic reaction to the unknown.
“I was pretty much paralyzed from the neck down after I got out of the hospital,” he continues. “From [age] three to five, I was a mess.”
Neil Young came down with polio in the summer of 1951, during the last major outbreak in Ontario, Canada, after swimming in the Pigeon River with his father. He was five years old. According to Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, he wore a surgical mask and clutched a toy train while his parents drove him 90 miles to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Young spent several months learning to walk again. His left leg was permanently damaged, but his feisty character was already emerging.
“When Neil makes up his mind he’s gonna’ do somethin’, he does, y’know, and nothing could stop him,” his mother, Rassy, says of his recovery in McDonough’s Shakey . (Young used the alias Bernard Shakey when directing films.)
These musicians were among the final generation in the West to contract polio before the mass vaccinations of the mid-1950s. “They were also the generation that expressed their experiences and vulnerabilities in the new rock music,” McKay observes.
Their songs range from Young’s poetic “Helpless,” believed to describe his time as a child with polio, to Dury’s caustic “Spasticus Autisticus,” which championed people with disabilities who were coping in what he called “normal land.” Dury released the single for the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons. The BBC banned it. “Ian could exploit his disability – or people’s perception and fear of it – in manipulative and threatening ways,” McKay explains.
As the lead singer of the late-1970s punk group Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Dury was the highest-profile pop artist with disabilities in Britain. He contracted polio at age seven in 1949. Like Sanborn, he came down with the disease after swimming in a public pool. He spent six weeks in a full-body plaster cast.
Singer-songwriter Nick Lowe recorded and toured with Dury between 1976 and 1984, when they were on the renegade Stiff Records label in London. “I would have been far too British to ask him about polio,” Lowe says. “Ian was an artist and is revered in the U.K. But he sometimes used the fact he had polio in a rather unpleasant way. How can I explain it?”
Lowe pauses. “He would sort of frighten people, which I witnessed on a couple of occasions. Especially younger fans. I would think he regretted that when he got a bit older.”
Dury, who died of cancer in 2000 at age 57, spent the last few years of his life campaigning against polio for UNICEF. He traveled to Zambia in 1997 to help Rotarians immunize 2.1 million children.
Other musicians have stepped up to support the eradication effort, including Staff Benda Bilili, a Congolese band that includes several polio survivors, and Itzhak Perlman, who has performed in several concert fundraisers. And in May, Donovan busked for polio in Regent’s Park in London, wearing purple and playing a purple guitar in honor of the ink that marks the pinkie fingers of children who have received polio vaccine. All three are part of Rotary’s “This Close” polio awareness campaign,
While Dury fought back with angry satire, Sanborn, 66, says he coped by keeping quiet about his polio experiences. “I felt self-conscious. My left arm was so much thinner than my right arm. I felt like a cripple. Certainly going through early adolescence was traumatic. I never wanted to wear a bathing suit. At that point, I considered myself to be a little freaky. After a while, you learn to live with it. But it took me a long time to really come to terms with it.”
Sanborn was 11 years old in 1956, when Ray Charles came to town with his band, which included saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman. “That was my epiphany,” Sanborn says of the performance, held after a St. Louis Hawks basketball game. “I was at the other end of the field house, and the band did about 40 minutes before Ray came on. [Newman] was playing this solo – a ballad – and the sound system suddenly cut off. I could still hear him. I thought that was magic.”
Doctors had recommended that Sanborn play a wind instrument to help him recover from polio. After the concert, he chose the saxophone. “It taught me how to adapt,” he says. “Sometimes you have to do an end run around problems. I was encouraged to play to strengthen my lungs. It did do that. But I don’t have a lot of dexterity in my left hand. I can’t raise my arm above my head. And my right leg is shorter than my left leg.
“I subconsciously adopted a certain way of playing that didn’t involve a lot of dazzling technique,” he continues. “I was always much more interested in the sound because that was where the character and personality came from. That’s your signature.”
Sanborn and other jazz musicians with disabilities face a particular challenge. “What do you do when you can’t even play an instrument ‘properly?’” McKay asks. “In jazz, a music of technique, that disqualifies you.” West Coast jazz pianist Carl Perkins, another polio survivor, became known as ‘The Crab’ because he held his left arm sideways across the keyboard. “He used his physical difference to create a musical difference.”
Today, Sanborn has postpolio syndrome, which was identified in the mid-1980s and strikes survivors decades after their bout with the disease. Its symptoms include muscle and joint pain and severe fatigue. “I’m having balance issues,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like MS [multiple sclerosis]. Sometimes it feels like chronic fatigue syndrome. I have certain muscle weakness, tremors, especially in my left hand. Your good muscles have to compensate for the weak ones for all those years, and finally they give out.
“I just try to manage it. You cope. You accept it. Traveling messes with you anyway,” Sanborn says after returning from a trip overseas. “Frankly, these last couple of years have been really difficult, just getting around on the road. I’ve been back from Japan for five or six days, and I’m totally useless to the point of being incoherent. A wreck.”
He is mindful of his diet, and breathing and physical therapy sessions also help, he says. “I try to be aware and stay in tune with my body: ‘What do you need today?’”
Collins was luckier than many. “I didn’t have a limp or ancillary problems,” she says. She runs, swims, and lifts weights to stay healthy, and she gave up alcohol long ago. “I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, although I do think once polio is in you – it is in you.”