November 16-22, 2005

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Medicine Man

Sideshow soundtrack harks back to the early days of the carny

By Gabe Meline

I had aspirations toward magic when I was a child. All I wanted to do with my life was to put a woman in a box, saw her in half and bask in the surprise and adoration of a crowd. I filmed videos of myself with Chinese linking rings, demonstrating my prestidigitation to a patient little sister who assured me that my act was amazing. It wasn't, of course; my act was ridiculously terrible, but I was undeterred.

That all changed one year when my folks took me to a distant corner of the county fair where a wooden wagon with a tailgate stage housed the medicine show revue. Maybe you'd like it, they said, there might even be some magic tricks. And while they went off to watch either Michael McDonald or the Commodores, I can't remember which, I sat dumbstruck listening to the music at the medicine show, which was the most rapturously entertaining I had ever heard.

The big-eyed delivery of the medicine man with his long moustache and rumpled overalls was so mesmerizing that I forgot all about the Chinese linking rings. I hurriedly found my parents (probably in the middle of "Takin' It to the Streets") and told them that I wanted to be a medicine man when I grew up. They, of course, found this very amusing, said that it sounded like a great idea, and never informed me that medicine shows actually only exist once a year, in a corner of the fair next to the pony rides.

So it is with great excitement that now, years later and with no further career designs on either magic or snake oil, I have stumbled across an incredible, brand-new two-CD anthology called Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937 (Old Hat).

It's all here, in the great recorded performances and the heavily annotated booklet, everything appealing and fascinating about the traveling medicine shows: the energetic vocalists, obviously stage-honed, with their animated, forceful articulation and inventive patter; the improvised tools of music making, hewn from gas cans and handsaws; and above all, the eagerness to please and the simplicity with which it was done, often with a short song, a good harmony and a bottlenecked guitar.

Well-known old-time performers with anthologies of their own, such as Emmett Miller, the Memphis Sheiks and Uncle Dave Macon, are represented here alongside well-named nobodies, whose exotic noms de cantu alone can thrill: Beans Hambone! Peg Leg Sam! And, of course, Stovepipe #1, named after his homemade kitchen instrument and presumably numbered to distinguish himself from Daddy Stovepipe, also featured here.

Not only is this music no longer popularly performed, but much of it showcases arcane humor that has little if any bearing on modern society, and for that reason alone, it's intriguing to listen to. What kind of world was it that grooved to a weird song like "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop"? And how was it that black performer Bob Cole decided to reverse the minstrel tradition and don whiteface for his song "Mysterious Coon"?

Even casual listeners will recognize some of these songs. It's a testament to the power of the salesmanship that created this music that it is still good enough to be performed today. "He's in the Jailhouse Now" was one of the more memorable numbers from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, while "Tell It to Me" is a raucous stage favorite of Nashville's Old Crow Medicine Show. Even Bob Dylan recorded a couple of Good for What Ails You songs during his revivalist phase in the early 1990s.

It's uncertain, however, if anyone will ever get around to a modern reworking of "The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man." Why? Because it's hard to come by such pared-down showmanship these days, when to be taken seriously as an entertainer one must apparently have his or her own clothing brand or line of perfume. True, the medicine show performers were also selling crap that no one really needed, but at least the key to their sales lay in first providing customers with what's widely known as the best medicine: laughter.

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