The show's format was simple: A short comedy sketch or raucous set of songs, followed by a "commercial break" where the good "Doctor" would address the crowd and prognosticate about the virtue of some tincture or liniment, a guaranteed a cure for whatever ailed you. Decades later, the same format was adopted by radio and television. Only recently in the digital age has this approach to "pitching products" started to wane.
At that time, entertainers in Medicine Shows were not considered as professional or polished as Vaudeville performers. Thankfully, those opinions don't hold true today. Many of the Medicine Show musicians like Gus Cannon were of the highest caliber and are probably better known today (by those who care to know) than most vaudeville stars. Which brings us to one Pink Anderson, a veteran of the Medicine Shows that we are fortunate to have modern-era recordings of.
Pink Anderson (Yes, the "Pink" in Pink Floyd) was a South Carolina Songster who played the Medicine Show circuit for 42 years. In 1961, decades after the demise of the Medicine Show, he recreated that long-gone "music for the common man" on Pink Anderson Vol. 2: Medicine Show Man for Bluesville records.
I just gotta say, having the opportunity to hear, in pristine reel tape quality (as opposed to scratchy, acetates from the 1920s), that this wonderful music– performed by one of the guys that actually sang and played this stuff back in the day. This is a rare and beautiful thing! And Pink is killer on these tracks. His singing and guitar playing had diminished little with age (he was in his sixties).
The first album he did for Bluesville, Carolina Bluesman, is also top-notch but it's basically a Blues record. As good as Anderson was at the Blues, it's as a storyteller and songster that he truly shined. Throughout the hokum-laden songs dealing with sly characters and outlandish situations, you can tell Anderson was having a good time. His guitar arrangements mimic a small orchestra, playing off of and complimenting the vocal melodies. Although considered a Piedmont guy, his playing is not really in the strict alternating bass and syncopation style of the Piedmont School. But no matter, there's still plenty of Ragtime vibe and sophistication to what he's laying down for guitarists and non-players to get into.
I can easily imagine Pink performing I Got Mine or Greasy Greens in front of an eager crowd of townies on a hot summer day. Providing great entertainment while the doc butters em' up for the next sales pitch (FYI the bottled crap they were selling was not usually effective and the ingredients were often toxic, which eventually lead to the government stepping in and regulating products marketed as "medicine").
The only two songs on this album I suspect are not a tunes one would hear at a Medicine Show is I Got a Woman 'Way Cross Town and I'm Going to Walk through the Streets of the City. One is basically a Blues while the other is a straight ahead Gospel tune. Anderson started performing with Dr. William R. Kerr of the Indian Remedy Company in 1914, so by the mmid-20s when Blues music started becoming popular (because of Ma Rainey and others) it's possible he could have included Blues numbers in his act. But I would think Anderson was playing largely to white audiences that may have not been familiar with that sound. Gospel music on the other hand, is more of a church or streetcorner preacher thing, so I doubt he was singing that one at a Medicine Show either.
A lot of the music on this album has been recorded by modern musicians over the years, In the Jailhouse Now from the movie Brother Where Art Thou for example. And many of these artists do a great job with this material. But any modern interpretation of this music invariably will have modern influences. Not a bad thing of course, just different. Having an opportunity to hear early 20th-century American music performed by a contemporary of the era, with this kind of quality, is truly a special thing. Which makes these recordings not only a lot of fun to listen to but historically important as well.
Also, I have to mention that Anderson cut four sides in 1928 for Columbia records with guitarist Blind Simmie Dooley that really need to be heard by those who appreciate this stuff. Two of the tracks can be found on Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937 (Old Hat Records). Not to digress, but in their song Every Day in the Week Blues (Columbia 14400-D) they use the lyric:
Well I took this brown skin woman from my best friend,
And that rascal got lucky and stole her back again
Ten years later, Robert Johnson used a variation for Come On In My Kitchen:
A woman I love, took from my best friend,
Some joker got lucky, stole her back again
The evolution of Blues lyrics from one generation to the next would be an article (or really a book) unto itself, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention here.
Charley Patton and Robert Johnson). But Pink Anderson was different. Yes, he was a Bluesman, but he was also very much a link to the music that came before the Blues. He sang a popular music that came out of the Ragtime era (some would argue it was vocal Ragtime music, which was actually more popular at the time than the Ragtime piano music we associate with the genre today). There are other guys to be sure. Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell for instance, but they were primarily local street performers; they weren't touring. Pink Anderson's music represents the kind of sound, songs and performance style that had to appeal to the widest range of Americans. So captures a certain American zeitgeist that's closer to the victorian era than modern times.
To have the opportunity to hear his music in quality recordings makes Medicine Show Man a national treasure.
If anyone has more information on Pink Anderson, please share it in the comments section. Thanks!