Musicians with disabilities

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Black and white photo of a trumpet player in a cobblestone road using a wheelchair.

Making music

Question:  Musicians who have disabilities make reference to disability in their lyrics:

A. Frequently.

B. Often.

C. On occasion.

D. Almost never.

Answer:   D.  Almost never.

Ludwig van Beethoven is considered by many to be the greatest musical composer of all time. His masterpieces are regarded as the most sophisticated of their kind, and – despite having been created during the 18th century – their influence is still profound today. Two centuries after his death, “Beethoven” remains a household name.

Yet, it comes as a surprise to some when they learn that Beethoven was deaf during the second half of his life, when he wrote many of his greatest works. They assume that having an auditory disability would bar someone from making great strides in an auditory discipline – music. Though it is reasonable to think that Beethoven may have had to devise new methods or strategies to craft his music after developing his impairment, most scholars agree his deafness certainly did not “interfere much with Beethoven’s music”(Bartel). Beethoven is not alone in this regard; there have in fact been countless famous musicians with disabilities throughout history. These musicians are especially well-documented during the last 100 years or so.

Starting in the early 20th century, “musical styles founded on oral transmission were an especially welcoming place for blind performers in the United States” (Encyclopedia). Guitarists who were blind became especially popular around the turn of the century – Lemon Jefferson, Willie McTell, and Gary Davis were just a few of the best known (Encyclopedia). Throughout the second half of the century musicians who were blind also made strides in jazz, piano, and pop music. Recently, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, both singers and pianists who are blind, have become immensely popular.

Other popular musicians, similar to Beethoven, developed their physical disabilities later in life. Acoustic folk singer Vic Chestnut and soul singer Teddy Pendergrass were both paralyzed in car accidents and continued to perform. Likewise, soul artist Curtis Mayfield continued making music after he had an accident onstage that resulted in quadriplegia (Encyclopedia). And, of course, many singers – from Bing Crosby to John Mayer – have developed damaged vocal cords throughout their careers.

Though it’s clear that people with disabilities have had a considerable impact on the production of music, it’s less clear how themes of disability have been represented in this music. Many scholars believe that the development of Beethoven’s disability ushered in a new introspective period in his music, a reaction to his new socially isolated status. A later, more concrete example displaying a theme of disability is the returning solider anthem “Empty Sleeve,” released during the American Civil War. “Empty Sleeve’s” lyrics contain allusions to amputation:

“What a story goes with an empty sleeve,

Tho it points to a myriad wounds and scars,

Yet it tells of a Flag with its stripes and star” (Bader).

In contrast to the introspection of Beethoven, the song sheds disability in an exclusively patriotic light. A more recent example of disability-based lyrics is Randy Newman’s 1977 hit “Short People,” which has been perceived both as a satiric attack on prejudice and an approval of intolerance (Encyclopedia).

Though these are a few examples of disability appearing in music, it generally doesn’t appear in most artists’ lyrics – even those with disabilities. For example, modern artists who are blind like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles rarely acknowledge their disabilities in their music.

According to writer and activist Leroy Franklin Moore Jr., this is due to a prejudice against people with disabilities in the mainstream music industry. He cites the Black Eyed Peas song “Let’s Get Retarded” as an example of this bias. When hip-hop first started, Moore claims, he saw many people in wheelchairs and in crutches participating in the street music scene. But now that hip-hop has become more commercialized, it is harder for artists with disabilities to break through. He hopes that, with a greater understanding of the rich history of musicians with disabilities, current musicians with disabilities will be able to break into the music industry (Writer).

Works Cited 

Bader, Henry. “The Empty Sleeve.” 1864. Library of Congress. Online. 15 Aug. 2013.

Bartel, Dennis. “Understanding Beethoven and His Disability.” The Baltimore Sun. 29 March 2013. Online. 15 Aug. 2013.

“Music.” The Encyclopedia of American Disability History. 2009. Print.

Writer Speaks on Disabled Musicians.” The Daily Emerald. 26 May 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2013.