December 13, 2005

Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows

Medicine_Show.jpgIn the days before broadcast mass media, one of the few venues that gave ordinary working folk of rural America a chance to hear professional non-local musicians was the travelling medicine show. Although they only served as the entrée to the serious business of hawking dubious cure-alls, the musicians in these shows were often highly accomplished performers who worked in such diverse genres as folk, country, blues or minstrelry. (On the country side, for instance, such icons as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams all cut their teeth performing on the medicine show circuit.)

And now, the work of these musicians has been compiled on Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937. As you might expect, the songs they performed were largely rollicking, good-time ditties designed to soften up the rubes for the arrival of the good Doctor and his miracle remedy. Here’s just a small sample of them:

The Gypsy by Emmett Miller & His Georgia Crackers
Miller was a blackface minstrel who worked during the final years of this offensive musical tradition. He has acquired a lasting fame, though, for his ability to fuse hillbilly music with jazz, and his recordings went on to influence artists like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. This track is one of his more whimsical outings, which basically consists of a comedy routine about a scamming spiritualist set to music.

Beans by Beans Hambone and El Morrow
This is a garbled reworking of a vaudeville standard in which the lyrics are forgotten and Hambone wanders off on a ramble about the omnipresence of beans, while some form of homemade guitar is plucked in the background.

Nobody’s Business If I Do by Tommie Bradley
Finally, here’s a 1932 version of the song that launched Bessie Smith’s career, which we played on the show on Friday. (Historical trivia: the song was written in 1922 by Porter Grainger, who was an open homosexual. Kind of gives a new resonance to lyrics like “If I dislike my lover / And leave her for another”.)

And there are another 45 tracks on this jam-packed compilation which comes complete with a highly informative 70 page booklet and can be purchased through Amazon or Forced Exposure.

Posted by Warren at December 13, 2005 09:18 PM | Early Recordings