Scientific gospel music probes a new realm
By George Varga
POP MUSIC CRITIC
Songs about sex, disease and death have fueled albums by countless heavy-metal and gansta-rap acts, but you wouldn't
expect to hear them used as part of the curriculum in a medical school.
Think again, says neophyte recording artist Dr. Stephen Baird, a professor of clinical pathology at UCSD and the
chief of pathology and laboratory medicine a the VA Medical Center in La Jolla.
For the past decade, the Boston-born, California-raised doctor has written dozens of songs to use as educational
tools in the classes he teaches at UCSD, and to help patients in smoking-cessation programs.
Performing a cappella or with an acoustic guitar, he has sung self-composed ditties about such unlikely topics
as inflammatory mediators, black holes, cellular immunology and interleukins (as the hormones secreted by white
blood cells to counter inflammations are called).
One of his pieces, "If I Start Rejecting You," is about graft rejection. Another, "T-Cell Re-Circulation,"
is sung to the tune of the religious hymn "Softly and Tenderly." It features such memorable lines as:
Silently, randomly, T-Cells are roaming, roaming through you and through me/Spleen, gut and lymph nodes are
where they are homing, mostly drawn through HEV….(HEV, in case you didn't know, are very small blood cells known
as high endothelial venules.)
"My students respond fairly well to the songs, and my course syllabus on
immunopathology has a whole section of songs for them to read that supplements the lectures," said Baird,
who teaches classes in immunology, histology and other subjects.
"My songs cover material my students should know, and I've had student tell me they've gotten certain questions
right because they've remembered a certain song. Often, at the end of a lecture, I'll put lyrics on the overhead
projector, and we'll all sing it together."
His heartfelt musical odes to life, death and marvels of medicine and science have proved so successful that Baird
has completed his first album. It boasts a title sure to please secular humanists everywhere: "Hallelujah!
To promote its release, Baird, 54, will perform a free, all-ages, album-release concert tonight at the UCSD Pub.
He will be accompanied by his guitar-playing son, Daniel, 26.
Flavored with folk and country rock, "Hallelujah! Evolution!" is unlikely to gain much commercial radio
airplay. But such songs as "Safe Sex Waltz," the cheerily fatalistic "Die Anyway" and the Jimmy
Swaggart-inspired "They Caught Jimmy with Another Whore" could become cult favorites.
Ditto such evolution championing tunes as "Bang! There Was Light" (sung to the tune of Hank Williams'
"I Saw The Light"), and a safe-sex-fueled remake of "That's Amore." The latter song includes
the tongue-twisting verse: Cancerous, papillomatous, condylomatous, penile lesions/Make it clear…you had better
fear their secretions……
Asked who his album's target audience is, Baird replied: "The intended audience is really people with a good
"I wrote a lot of this with university audiences in mind. I've performed these songs at scientific conventions,
and for medical students and faculty, and gotten good responses."
Baird's 15-song album traces its origin to a dinner party held two years ago at the San Diego home of Dr. Francis
Crick, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for co-discovering DNA.
While at the party, Baird, who started playing music as a child, began chatting with Nick Binkley. A North County-based
investment banker, Binkley had recently released his own debut album on his own label, Pin Stripe Brain Records.
"Nick asked me what kind of music I did," Baird recalled. "And I said: 'I guess you'd call it scientific
gospel.' And he said: "What the hell is that?"
Baird sang Binkley an example on the spot. The two signed an album deal not long thereafter, and Binkely hired
noted producer Denny Bruce (John Hiatt, Leo Kottke, the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and a band whose previous credits
range from Marshall Crenshaw and Dick Dale to Leonard Cohen and pioneering 60's bouzouki-rock band Kaleidoscope.
Baird, who lives in Solana Beach with his wife, Carol, has no intention of quitting his two day jobs for music.
But he hopes his album will prove enlightening to those who hear it.
"I've been pretty disappointed with how poorly most people understand science," he said. "If these
songs can make people think and help inform the debate as they entertain, I think that would be absolutely wonderful.
Dr. Stephen Baird's album-release concert:
7 tonight: The Stage at the Pub,
UCSD Student Center,
Eucalyptus Grove Lane, La Jolla. Free.