Why does B.B. King sing the blues?

Among other reasons—according to his apologia, “Why I Sing the Blues”—he does it because he has “laid in a ghetto flat, cold and numb” and “heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some,” which raises an uncomfortable question: Should music lovers be grateful for bedbugs?

Violetta G. Maloney, writing in the Hoosier Folklore Bulletin in 1942, relates the lyrics to a song called “Shovelling Iron Ore,” which her brother had learned from some hoboes outside Pottstown, PA. The narrator of the song is offered a job shoveling iron ore, which he declines on account of the paltry wages offered. He then spends the night, accompanied by a bottle of rum, in a boxcar. He:

woke up late next morning,
And looked upon the wall;
The roaches and the bedbugs
Were having a game of ball.

The score was 19-20,
The roaches were ahead;
The bedbugs hit a home-run
And knocked me out of bed.

It seems like half the articles written about bedbugs mention that bedbugs have been mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, but they never provide quotes or tell you where to look. You are hereby tantalized. Your humble scholar intends to share this important information with you, but not just yet. Partly because they always get to go first, and partly because I need time to reread some plays and track down the key passages in Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, the Greeks will be covered in a later installment.

Time magazine is occasionally useful. We learn from the issue of Monday, September 09, 1929, that “Athens is still so buggy that angry visitors with a learned background call it Koreopolis (bedbug city).” According to the article, roaches and bedbugs are enemies (because roaches eat them); although, if the songs are to be taken literally, they seem to be able to coexist in relative peace, even if they do require rat arbiters. However, “the insect of choice,” when it comes to murdering bedbugs, “is Thanatos flavidus Simon, a spider.” (If I ever produce an heir! I almost definitely won’t, but still, nobody take that name.) This spider (although I’m terrified of him and his ilk) will have to be further investigated.

The new Bedbug City is New York, thanks to a headline in the New York Times: “Buying and Selling in Bedbug City.” The Times is the New York Yankees of the newspaper world. True, they have their scandals and blunders, but when they’re playing well there’s nobody better. So it’s no surprise that the coverage in the New York Times is superior to any other paper.

There is a risk that the next quote will turn extremely patriotic or reactionary readers pro-bedbug, but it’s still worth sharing this excerpt from “Autumn Night,” a poem from Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary:

“A guard stands armed and ready just outside our room/ Poised beneath the scudding clouds that bear away the moon/ Once again the bedbugs, relentless armies of the night/ Take to the field as once again mosquitoes take their flight.”

According to a writer at bedbugger.com, “You know you’ve arrived when people write about you in McSweeney’s,” but I would argue that point occurs when you get written into TV shows, and bedbugs have been pivotal in at least two of them. They serve as a major plot point in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (“The World Series Defense,” which aired on October 22, 2009). Bedbugs, through their malignity, prevent the gang from attending a World Series game. And in a recent episode of 30 Rock (“Audition Day,” November 5, 2009) Alec Baldwin’s character enters scratching and trying to deny his problem—"I don’t have bedbugs. I went to Princeton"—but his infestation ultimately turns him into a man of the people. My thanks to the writers for giving us “Blue Ridge Quilt Ticklers.”

Before we part, let’s all join hands in prayer (recorded, in 1959, by Ray B. Browne in The Journal of American Folklore, in an article called “Parodied Prayers and Scripture”):

“Here I lay me down to sleep,
Bedbugs all around me creep.
Should one bite me before I wake,
I pray the Lord its jaws will break.”