GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YOU
Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937
Old Hat CD-1005
Reviewed by Lawrence Kay / Slipcue / October 2005
This one's a real doozy- in fact, it’s probably the single most impressive, historically important Americana/old-timey albums to come out in the last few years. This 2-CD set, complete with lavish, cogent liner notes and a handsomely booklet packed with archival images, features some truly amazing material, the novelty songs, oddball ramblings and outright show-stoppers that made up the repertoire of the traveling patent medicine shows of the late 1800s and early 20th century. The medicine shows served as major entertainment venues in the rural South and Midwest, with countless artists doing everything they could to hold audiences in their thrall just long enough to get the rubes to buy some of the dubious elixirs presented for sale. Thus, the songs that they played were endlessly entertaining and diverting, and the instrumental approaches they used were as unorthodox as they were delightful.
This collection features dozens of rare vintage recordings made in the 1920s and ’30s, when the medicine shows were in their last gasps. The material is way off the beaten track- even diehard fans of the “old-time” music scene or old-fashioned acoustic blues will be delighted to find so many songs they’d never heard before, like Walter Smith's “Bald Headed End Of The Broom,” Chris Bouchillon's “Born In Hard Luck,” “Beans,” by Beans Hambone and El Morrow, “The Cat's Got The Measles, The Dog's Got The Whooping Cough” (also by Walter Smith), or “Shout You Cats,” by Hezekiah Jenkins. To be sure, there are numerous tracks by relatively well-known artists- Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner, Pink Anderson, et al., but this set places these odd old songs in their proper context, as vibrant remnants of the old traveling “med shows” and the minstrel shows that preceded them.
The material is often ribald and politically incorrect, as well as musically and thematically riveting, and endlessly surprising. The pacing of each disc is flawless, the sound quality’s great, the liner notes are cogent and very informative. So what are you waiting for? This is one of the best records of the year, by far.