People sometimes talk about bed bugs as if they were a new problem. However, as Robert L. Usinger wrote in Monograph of Cimicidae, bed bugs have been biting people for as long as history has been recorded.
While it’s true that there was a brief period of 50-60 years — beginning in the 1940s — when bed bugs almost disappeared in the U.S., old books, pamphlets, advertisements, and even songs remind us of how prevalent they once were.
Dr. Bob Peterson, a professor of entomology at Montana State University who is also a blues music enthusiast, has written a soon-to-be-published article for American Entomologist that provides a short history of “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues,” a song which was originally recorded by Furry Lewis in 1927, and was later covered by Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith, and many others.
“The lyricist and the singers and musicians of the era who performed the song probably had firsthand experiences with bed bugs and therefore had the motivation to sing passionately about them,” Dr. Peterson wrote. “With the resurgence of bed bugs and renewed attention to them, the song ‘Mean Old Bed Bug Blues’ causes us to pause and reflect on how these insects were perceived nearly ninety years ago. Life in the United States is very different now than it was in 1927, but the bed bugs are still with us.”
Lonnie Johnson also recorded the song in 1927. An advertisement from his record label implies that there’s humor in the song.
“One hard bitten singer squirms and kicks … Lonnie Johnson is singing misery into this creeping, biting blues. A good laugh at his woe for 75 cents,” it reads.
However, it’s more likely that Johnson and others were using the insects as metaphors “for disturbing aspects of African American life in the first third of the twentieth century,” according to Dr. Peterson.
“The song works on two levels,” he said. “It is about the singer being tormented by a bed bug, but the bed bug is also a metaphor for a person who is tormenting the singer.”
The best-known recording of the song was by Bessie Smith — also in 1927. Again, the slightly-changed lyrics in Smith’s version seem to imply that the song is not just about insects.
“Although her lyrics are very similar to Lewis’, Smith’s version is more clearly a double-entendre affair,” Dr. Peterson wrote. “The bed bug is a metaphor for men with less than noble intentions toward women. The sexual imagery is palpable and far from subtle.”
“Mean Old Bed Bug Blues” is the third article in a series by Dr. Peterson about insects in blues songs.
Read it and the others at: