What Syphillis taught me about Songwriting


A few months ago Christella Litras began musically directing a show by emerging Director John Rwoth-Omack. The play, Bad Blood Blues, explores the (true) process of HIV drug trials in Africa and the ethical questions raised.

As the two lead characters in the play give us insight into these African trials the scenes are segued by the repeated return of a character called the Bluesman, a subject/victim of a different, infamously unethical experiment - The Tuskegee Study (of Syphillis in the Negro Male). - Never heard of it? Click here...

Stella suggested me for the role and, after a meeting, I was on board. For this show I got to do something I have been longing to do;  to tell a story that was not my own through music.

The character has no spoken lines, and instead progresses his narrative through existing blues songs. Pieces by incredible musicians like Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller and Skip James occur throughout and gave me a whole new playlist of music to get familiar with.

Accross the board the artists are doing melodic work on their guitars to make way for their most emotive instrument, their voices. The aches, the squeaks, the blemishes boldly contributing to character of the song. On paper the lyrics are concise and oft repeated which highlights the heavy responsibility the vocal has. Even three identical lines can be delivered with different textures and intentions deepen the understanding of the artists perspective.

John is an incredible director, and approached this subject with sensitivity but also a veracity that hungered for truth. The bluesman is rooted in a troubling historical moment (Again. You NEED to read about it.) that at first was almost too daunting to consider. But over the time of working in this show it has taught me so much about story telling, about what happens when you strip a song down to almost nothing to channel it all through the vocal. 

There’s definitely a fear as a male vocalist/songwriter that being truly exposed, letting all of your emotion flow and mingle with itself, the resentment and the hope and the anxiety and the joyful abandon; all at once for all to hear; weakens you. To not put across a sense of control. Or worse, to put across a sense of not having the solutions to your problems, has no place in the vocabulary of the modern male. Yet here are these men; unapologetically giving us all of that. ALL of it. 

I think I’m still processing how impactful this show has been for me. 

If you haven’t heard much blues music, and wonder what all the hype is about I just added this AWESOME Spotify playlist! Click here to see my latest Artist Pick!


Can’t wait to get writing. 


Rob x