Various Artists: Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937

Various Artists

Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937

Old Hat

Everybody loves a jingle. Well, maybe not, but try getting the damn things out of your head. So it's little wonder that the catchiest compilation in recent memory is dedicated to songs intended to sell your great-grandparents things they didn't need. Unless, of course, one of them happened to have suffered from the two-pronged curse best treated by Kapoo Indian Oils and Salves--a "worm killer and cough cure," according to the sign sitting above an archetypal pair of traveling minstrel-salesmen in the jam-packed booklet of this two-disc reissue.

Medicine shows picked up in America during the 1880s, when the patent-medicine industry was in full swing and its hawkers brought entertainment troupes through small towns to entice sales of Kerr's Famous Snake Oil and Hunt's Remedy (whose package showed a man about to hit a skeleton--you know, death--over the head with a bottle). Because the singers had to get and keep a neighborhood's attention, they aimed blessedly low.

All of Good for What Ails You is forthright, and plenty of it is sensational--Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley's "Papa's 'Bout to Get Mad" and Charlie Parker (not that one) & Mack Woolbright's "The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was a Married Man" both make domestic violence sound merry, while Grant Brothers & Their Music's "Tell It to Me" makes a party chant out of "Cocaine's gonna kill my honey dead." And plenty of it is just silly, like Parker & Woolbright's "Ticklish Reuben," whose chorus goes, "Oh, hee hee hee ha-ha-ha/Oh, hee hee hee ha-ha-ha/Oh, hee hee hee ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha hee!"

I probably ought to mention that a lot of these songs were sung by white people wearing burnt cork. As academia continues to pry open American show business's minstrel past, Good for What Ails You is a fascinating illustration of its musical, if not social, appeal. As much as anything, what these singers were selling was an illusion of the easy life--the freedom to ride the rails and "sit in the graveyard eatin' beans" (Beans Hambone & El Morrow's "Beans"). Black, white, and blackfaced alike, they were misfits who'd found a scam that worked--a pretty good definition of American culture then and now.