The American medicine show came into its own shortly after the Civil War with the rise of so-called patent medicines and the almost complete lack of regulations concerning the ingredients that went into them, and any number of noxious tonics, elixirs, and nostrums with trumpeted healing powers were hawked by silver-tongued pitch doctors to the audiences who flocked to see the various acrobats, dancers, fire-eaters, snake handlers, comedians, and musicians who entertained at these free extravaganzas. As a cost efficient way of merging entertainment with merchandising (and where manufacturing meant mixing ingredients in a bathtub), these medicine shows successfully traveled the so-called "kerosene circuit" of rural and small-town America until the dawn of the 20th Century, when the rise of radio and movies and the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act combined to render them obsolete. The medicine show blueprint of offering free entertainment to attract audiences and then using intermissions to push products on them has hardly gone away, however, and is still the driving force behind radio and television in the 21st Century, and it's the basic elixir for commerce all over the internet, too. The musicians working these colorful traveling medicine shows were professionals, at least professional enough to leave their home communities and take to the road, and luckily several of these musicians were still active in the 1920s and early 1930s when the fledgling recording industry was just getting off the ground, and numerous commercial 78s by former medicine show entertainers were issued in the prewar era.
On Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-37, two discs worth of these 78s assembled by Old Hat Records, an independent label out of North Carolina dedicated to the preservation of American vernacular and regional music, it feels a bit like one of these shows has made a ghostly, vibrant visit to the field just outside of town, and listening to these tracks is the next best thing to standing out in that field under those kerosene lights. Among the delightful period gems on Good for What Ails You are a version of "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You" by Daddy Stovepipe (Johnny Watson) and Mississippi Sarah (Sarah Watson) called "The Spasm" that opens the set, the bizarre "Beans" by Beans Hambone (James Albert) and El Morrow, a record so odd it is remarkable that it was ever considered for commercial release (a rambling, half-improvised monologue on beans, it rides over a maddening single string guitar riff that seems always on the edge of breaking down completely), the delightful "Railroadin' Some" by songster Henry Thomas, which recalls a train trip across Texas and north to Chicago in an impressive litany of towns and train stops, and Jim Jackson's 1928 recording of "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop," a surreal parody of the Scottish hymn "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say." Mixed in are an engaging assortment of blues, rags, re-formatted minstrel tunes, jug, and string band pieces that continually surprise and delight. Old Hat is to be commended for the obvious care in which this collection was assembled, and fans of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music may well find that this set is even wilder.