Medicine Shows: From roughly the end of the Civil War through the 1930s medicine shows provided a frequent and vital form of rural entertainment throughout North Carolina and the South. The medicine shows also served as the training ground for hundreds of blues and hillbilly musicians and comedians, who lacked few alternate venues until the development of radio after World War I.
During the times before mass entertainment, medicine shows encountered little competition from other forms. Small town residents flocked to see the free, touring show with little regard to its quality. Something proved much better than no entertainment at all. The announcement of a free show usually preceded the beginning of the musical presentation. The show’s “doctor” generally served as master of ceremonies. Once the musicians had drawn a sufficient crowd, the “doctor” began pitching a cure-all product that rarely consisted of much more than a healthy dose of grain alcohol. The entertainers usually worked the crowd, actually handling the sales while the “doctor” told of the nostrum’s wondrous powers. Sometimes the medicine show leader represented himself as a First Nations person, like Leo “Chief Thundercloud” Kahdot, rather than a physician.
The concept of professional rural entertainers, whether white or black, only developed to any significant extent in the twentieth century. Touring medicine shows provided their first outlet besides local dances. Nationally, Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, and Sonny Terry remain the best known names to have worked the medicine shows. Besides Terry and Rodgers, artists with North Carolina connections who worked the medicine shows included Homer “Pappy” Sherrill, Dewitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, “Greasy” Medlin, Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Pink Anderson, Curley Sechler, Doc Tommy Scott, and hundreds of others.
Besides developing several generations of entertainers and spreading songs throughout the rural South before radio and phonograph recordings, the medicine show even shaped the early days of radio. Large scale patent medicine companies, such as Crazy Water Crystals, transferred the medicine show concept to the broadcast medium by sponsoring live radio shows by hillbilly performers. In North Carolina the Monroe Brothers, on WBT in Charlotte and WPTF in Raleigh, proved the most popular Crazy Water Crystals act.
A few medicine shows continued to tour increasingly smaller towns until about 1970. Pete Lowry recorded Peg Leg Sam and Chief Thundercloud in Pittsboro, NC in 1972! Doc Tommy Scott still operates a medicine show, but as a self-consciously atavistic entertainment. Paul Wagner and Steven J. Zeitlin documented a number of medicine show veterans in a 1983 performance for the film Free Show Tonight.” http://www.folkstreams.net/film,68
For more information: Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (1985)
Charles Reagan Wilson, “Traveling Shows” in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (1989)
By Art Menius