Henrietta Lacks

from by Mal Webb

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In 1993, my Dad told me about HeLa cells, but at that point it was thought that the woman's name was Helen Lane, so I wrote my song with that name. I wrote it for the Oxo Cubans as a disco groove and we performed it quite a few times, but never recorded it. Then when I found out that her real name was Henrietta Lacks, I started to rewite the lyrics, but people liked the name Helen Lane so much that I just changed a line in the last verse to explain the confusion. That's the version that's on my Trainer Wheels album, with a sweet guitar accompaniment. But I decided the song needed a proper rewrite (losing the name Helen Lane altogether) and a return to its disco origin. I hope you like it!

For more about the story of this song and HeLa cells, go to:


Well, I propose a toast to the mitosist with the mostest
She’s a ghost who can boast from coast to coast in every HeLa cell
She’s more cultured than Chanel, Cartier or YSL
But she’s tired of being quite so huge and dizzy from the centrifuge
She’s quick frozen, colour-fast
Her prison cell is built to last
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know your coffin’s final nail
Is bigger than a blue whale?
A zillion artefacts
Grown as long as cell biologists keep peering at your private bits
’Cos it’s a grand humiliation
Showing now across the nation
Mutation on a huge scale
Bigger than a blue whale ...
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know that bit you left behind may help to cure its own kind?
So many saintly acts
May claim a little perch in every church for contributions to research
Well, back in 1953 m’lady had a malady
A cervix abnormality that led to her fatality
Her cells went for a biopsy that showed up the malignancy
But also a propensity to multiply so rapidly
The scientists went on to see what other uses there could be for her expansive quality
They shared her ’round extensively to every good laboratory
Her fame was spreading globally
’Til nowadays she’s said to be the biggest lonely clone there’ll ever be
Arabidopsis and Drosophila may have advice to offer her
On how it’s best to keep your cool when you’ve become a research tool
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know your flock of little vultures divide and conquer lesser cultures?
Not much one to relax
It parties even left out on the shelf
Immortally beside itself
Dear Henrietta Lacks
Did you know that part you left to science is now a giant among giants?
And for a grand climax
Your omnipresent question bids the answer
God’s a black woman’s cancer …


from Not Nor Mal, released September 2, 2016




Mal Webb Melbourne, Australia

Vocal adventurer, multi-instrumentist, looping beatboxing songwriter Mal Webb sings his songs about all manner of stuff, using all sorts of vocal techniques (like sideways yodeling) and plays guitar, bass, mbira, slide trumpet, trombone, chromatic harmonica, bass and piano. He's like Bobby McFerrin, Aphex Twin and Cole Porter playing scrabble. Ani DiFranco said to Mal: "You're a freak!"
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