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Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937
Old Hat CD-1005

Reviewed by Will Bedard / Ugly Things #24 / Summer 2006

“As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place...”
—John Bunyon, Pilgrim’s Progress

In this instance, a certain place is the American South, circa ’29. Never have the roots of modern music been more amply defined they are on these two CDs. Strangely though, the fact that this pair sees the light of day in 2006 obscures their true importance. Why? We’re too jaded, sophisticated and educated to truly feel the impact of this breathtaking set. If these tracks had been released on the heels of the monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in the late ’50s, it would be another matter. Countless musicians who were to shape the coming decade pored over Harry Smith’s pirated set like it was a treasure map, plundering obscure covers, pillaging progressions and raping riffs. Sadly, this won’t be the case for Good For What Ails You, although it too presents early 20th Century American music in all its splendor and glory.

But why is this being reviewed in Ugly Things you ask, you lovers of primeval rock’n’roll, you. Well, if you wanna gorge on primitive, Good For What Ails You dishes up primordial soup. Even if you’re a card-carrying fuzz fascist member of the garage mafia, you must hear this set. Even Keith Relf, Phil May et al never sounded so twisted, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Defecting Grey” be damned. Case in point: Jim Jackson hijacks an old Scottish hymn, “I Heard The Voice of Jesus,” refits it with talking foodstuff- beating the nascent psychedelia of Looney Tunes by a decade and more- and dubs it “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop.” One can almost hear Brian Wilson, circa the rustic Americana of Smile, tackling this in lieu of “Vegetables,” collaborating with Vivian Stanshell. Surrealism, as it was being practiced on the Continent in the ’20s, comes up short, an effete intellectualism that pales in comparison to the Outsider Art on this release.

Even the politically inept pieces transcend generations. Witness “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was A Married Man.” Ah, sweet misogyny gonna carry me home...

“Tell It To Me” was cut in 1928 in Johnson City, Tennessee (the first place I ever saw AC/DDC; and you ain’t seen AC/DC until you’ve seen them in front of a redneck crowd in Johnson City.) Nancy Reagan preaching against drugs never sounded as absurdly shrill and bizarre as this Cocaine-Is-The-Devil propaganda, penned by the Grant Brothers. Love it, love it, love it- cut me out a line, Vern!

The Memphis Sheiks take on the timeless voting fraud/political tomfoolery ditty “He’s In The Jailhouse Now.” Led by harmonica player Will Shade (yes, our own Ugly Things’ writer nicked said moniker from this fellow), the jug band ruled for years under their more usual Memphis Jug Band epithet.

“I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” appears as the oddly titled “The Spasm.” Performed by Johnny and Sarah Watson, the couple reinvented themselves as Daddy Stovepipe and Mississippi Sarah. Assuming new personae was a form of empowerment for black entertainers, a tradition that survives to this day within the hip-hop world. They weren’t necessarily casting off their slave names like, say, Malcolm X. Rather, adopting a gaudy moniker was an act of reinvention and self-mythologizing, if not a form of escapism, yearning for a fate more in keeping with the grandeur of their chosen monikers as opposed to the mundane reality of their given names. Obviously, this practice wasn’t confined to black performers, as many white musicians took on new identities.

The talking blues bit of “Born In Hard Luck” would be handed down over the succeeding decades to a generation of musicians who shaped that decade called the Sixties. Everybody from the famous (Bob Dylan on too many examples to list) to the obscure (Mike Brassard; witness his magnificent “Ballad of A Square,” where Woody Guthrie and Eddie Cochran name-check capitalists while drooling over their Cadillacs) mined this vein, exhuming multifaceted gems, which were both dramatic and comedic.

The mix of black and white musicians does cement the fact that the cross pollination of British murder ballads, African rhythms, etc, was Ground Zero for everything that followed. All modern pop music comes from the American South. From blues to ragtime to jazz to Country & Western to bluegrass to rock’n’roll, it all comes from the South. Let’s repeat that for the benefit of all of you north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi River- all modern pop music comes from the South! Hellfire, even rap can trace its origins back to the toasting tradition of the Delta. Despite the elitist condescension of metropolitan dwellers, the rural roots of all modern music are found in one form or another on these 48 tracks. While New Yorkers were listening to the twaddle of a European twit like Caruso, folks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina were lining up to hear Blind Boy fuller, who doesn’t appear here (despite the hip cachet of Robert Johnson, Fuller was the greatest blues player of all time, and his form of Piedmont blues is a neglected body of work that you are implored to explore.) The Union won the war, but Southern culture- warts and all- prevailed in the end. NASCAR anyone?

Anyway, no toasting shows up on Good For What Ails You. The closest example is Emmett Miller and Gene Cobb, whose comic dialog on “The Gypsy” almost anticipates the cadence of hip-hop by four decades. This type of repartee endured throughout the years (think Otis Redding’s “Tramp”). Miller cast a long shadow far out of proportion to his recorded legacy. Everybody from Bob Wills to Merle Haggard has tipped a proverbial hat to Miller, citing his influence.

Thank goodness the compilers don’t segregate the performers into different racial categories a la separate discs. The music is presented in the same manner as a medicine show. A black bluesman is followed by a white mountaineer, and so on. Besides drawing from the same traditions , these black and white performers used whatever instrument was at hand, whether something of European origin, be it a violin and guitar, or on the other hand a banjo, which despite being identified as a white trash hillbilly novelty came from Africa. DIY (as necessitated by economic circumstance as opposed to Fashion Statement) was integral to this musical philosophy, as illustrated by the use of an ordinary stovepipe as a rudimentary bass instrument.

In contention for Stupidest Statement Ever, musical miscegenation was a good thing. It let the genie out of the bottle, erupting in social upheaval and cultural clashes that would eventually culminate in Civil Rights. The role Southern music played in the 20th Century can’t be overestimated. Friction and freedom don’t come without a price- but in comparison to New England’s contributions to American music, it’s a bargain.

The packaging is beyond lavish. Outside of a shelf-sized box set, this is the most luxuriant release I’ve ever caressed and drooled over. A dual CD digipak with a 72-page (count ’em!) booklet makes one question Old Hat’s sanity- can they really make any money off something this freaking exorbitant? An incredible job of mastering the old 78s- hats off to Christopher King and Robert Vosgien- and exhaustive song annotation and liner notes (that phrase doesn’t do justice) by Marshall Wyatt and Bengt Olsson make for a most stunning collection. Monumental. The best reissue of the year- shit, of a decade half spun out. Never has our motto “Wild Sounds from Past Dimensions” been more appropriate.