From The Side of the Road… if you can make it to the phone

I recently came across this column from several years ago about determining if and when to perform when sick. I quickly realized how much has changed since the COVID era. Cancellation due to the possibility of infecting other band members or the public with COVID, or some other contagious illness, took some of the stigma away from show-cancellation in general. Prior to 2020, we were all fine with the risk of spreading the flu, mononucleosis, tuberculosis, meningitis, and certainly the common cold. All we worried about back then was our ability to get through a show without collapsing. So you may either read the following with a sense of nostalgia or perhaps horror, depending on your point of view. 

We’ve heard it countless times: “The show must go on.” But is that just a cliché that’s virtually meaningless in practice, like “don’t take any wooden nickels,” “a stitch in time saves nine,” or “must take delivery from dealer stock”? To be honest, I’ve never understood any of those sayings.

Are people in the entertainment field more obligated to show up for work and perform than people in other fields, like doctors, short order cooks, or gangsters? 

In the end, it really comes down to how replaceable you are. They can probably call up a substitute cook to work the breakfast shift, there might be another doctor who can trade a day off, cancel a golf game and stand in, and surely there’s another guy who can come in and hijack trucks on short notice. But how easily will you find a fiddle player who can play that weird kickoff that starts on a count of two, or a lead singer who knows all the words to Tall Pines, or that complex (more than three chords) original of yours.

In music, showing up for work is even more important than in other entertainment fields. In the theatre, they have understudies who can step in and play the part, if necessary. In the movies, they can delay shooting for a day and only be half a million bucks off budget.

We have no understudy banjo players or bass players. Sure, there are the ex-band members, but are you still on speaking terms with them, and are they up on the current material?

In Nashville, there is strong incentive to suck it up and play the show, even with an illness that’s considered dangerous, because bringing in a substitute is even riskier. Under Music City protocol, which can be heartless at times, if your sub is better than you are, you generally get fired and replaced permanently by the sub. If, heaven forbid, you are too sick to perform, it’s important that you find a sub who’s good enough to cut the gig for a night, but not as good as you are.

This brings us back to the question, though, of exactly when it is that you’re actually too sick to perform. Is there a standard we can use to make that important determination?

I know I’ve played a show or two I probably shouldn’t have. I can only recall cancelling two shows in my career, and in both cases, I was near-dead and lying in a European hospital (I only cancelled because I couldn’t get a ride). These are no-brainer cancellations, but what about the ones where a doctor has told you you shouldn’t perform, but you feel pretty sure the doctor is not operating under the same show business code of conduct that you live by?

Fortunately, I have unearthed a guide that can help you make these difficult decisions. It was in the form of a small booklet first published in 1933, written by a trombone player in a dance orchestra in Sheboygan, Wisconsin named Ernest Krankenbett. It’s entitled When the Show Mustn’t Go On: A Code of Conduct  for the Infirm Musician.

It’s a very practical and useful manual. I learned, for example, on page 41, about broken limbs and your obligation to perform:

“In general, a musician who has broken both legs, and/or both arms (I don’t even like to think about the ‘and’ part of that ‘and/or‘), is entitled to cancel an engagement, though someone who is a singer only (with no dancing required) may choose to perform anyway. With only one leg broken, the musician should keep the engagement, with drummers being a notable exception. One broken arm would depend on the kind of instrument and music being played (in bluegrass terms, I would take this to mean that a bass player should keep the gig if the band is only playing 3-chord songs in D, or two-chord songs in G).

There you have it. If you only have a broken leg, on stage you go. I believe The Infamous Stringdusters adhered to this standard on their recent “ski tour.”

I wondered about cold, flu, and other internal symptoms, and that was covered thoroughly on page 34: 

“A vocalist with moderate cold, influenza, or other upper respiratory symptoms should always perform, even with restricted vocal range and/or unpleasant tone (again with the and/or, and I guess one person’s ‘unpleasant tone’ is another person’s ‘gritty soul’). Laryngitis that prevents a singer from producing any tone at all is generally grounds for cancellation.”

The author goes on to say: “With regard to fever, a good rule of thumb is that anyone with a body temperature of up to 103 degrees should be able to perform. Aspirin, taken 20-30 minutes prior to the show is recommended. 104 degrees or higher represents a risk of convulsions and possible brain damage in an adult. Performing in this case should be up to the individual musician’s discretion.”

What I hear Krankenbett saying here is that if you’re okay with some convulsions or brain damage, go for it. Depending on what kind of show you put on, the audience may not notice any difference.

He goes on to cover nausea and vomiting on page 50:

“Nausea, in and of itself, should never be given as a reason for cancelling a performance. Actual vomiting, if occurring at greater intervals than the length of the show, should still be manageable. More frequent bouts of vomiting may make performance impractical. Stomach sickness brought on by excessive imbibing of alcoholic beverages on the previous evening (not that this has ever happened in show business) should absolutely never be used as an excuse not to perform.”

Keep the bucket handy and do the show, is the message in a nutshell.

Mr. Krankenbett has shown us, I think, that musicians are, or should be, a hearty lot. This little set of standards may give you pause before you reject the oregano bracelet or the turmeric and goldenseal smoothie your friends are urging you to try, even if its effectiveness may only be due to a placebo effect. If it has a chance of working at all, you should give it a shot. You’re on tonight at 8:30!

Note: the views and recommendations of Mr. Krankenbett are not necessarily those of Chris Jones or anyone at Bluegrass Today. In cases of any serious illness, consult a physician or some weird YouTube video recorded from someone’s car. Void where prohibited. Must take delivery from dealer stock.