Peg Leg Sam Jackson's repertory and his artistry.
Jackson's travels and acquaintance with medicine-show groups put him much in contact with other black secular musicians, especially in the Southeast. His two closest friends among them were "Pink" Anderson and his boyhood chum Henry "Rufe" Johnson (see Flyright LP-505 and Trix 3304). Peg also knew Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Walker, Brownie McGhee, and De Ford Bailey, and he played with Jesse Lawson, Jack Hemphill, Arthur "Slim" Thomas, McKinley Ellis, "Peg" Bates, and others.
Many of these are best known as bluesmen, but Peg Leg Sam scarcely ever plays blues. The rarity of blues in his performances may represent his own musical preferences, but several other hypotheses seem equally plausible. He was accustomed to playing lighter and more diverse pieces for the medicine-show crowds. A harmonica player, moreover, as he alternates between vocal and instrumental phrases, falls more naturally into binary forms than into the 3-phrase tune structures encouraged by the chordal sequence in the blues guitar.
In any case, Peg has a wide repertory. Some of his songs are black or white ballads ("John Henry" and "Froggie Went A-Courting"). Others are double-entendre pieces like "Greasy Greens." His "Back Door" he apparently picked up from recordings of the 1930s. "Hand Me Down" contains stanzas that must derive from Antebellum minstrel shows: "My old missus promised me,/ 'Son, when I die, I'm going to set you free.'/ Lived so long her head got bald./ God, and she got out of the notion of dying at all." (cf., BROWN COLLECTION, III, 502).
His spoken routines and jokes were doubtless common stock in trade for medicine-show performers, an omnium gatherum of one-liners, crossfire repartee, slapstick routines, and recitations and toasts already of proven success in the minstrel show and vaudeville.
Sam's medicine-show material, however, is only a fraction of his repertory of folk songs and tales. In the film he sings a snatch of a spiritual and parodies the chanted sermon--other such parodies and spirituals were woven into both his show routines and his other yarns. Off stage, he also on occasion recites toasts he would censor from his public performances, or breaks into animal tales like "Fox and Rabbit in the Well" (Aarne-Thompson Type K651).
Jackson himself seems most proud of his skill on the harmonica: "I've met a heap of good harp players, but they were scared of me when I came into town. I was a young fellow and could suck on a harp! I was playing two harps--one in my mouth and one in my nose." Other harp players could justifiably be scared of his tour-de-force "Fox Chase" (on both Flyright LP-505 and Trix 3302), performances probably unmatched on records.
But Peg's incidental criticism of other musicians during a jam session at Chapel Hill in 1973 showed that he is also aware of his own superior sense of pitch and rhythm. And he is a master of vocal and instrumental tone color and phrasing.
Jackson also shows great individuality and freedom in reworking older pieces. His "John Henry" (Flyright LP-507A) opens like a fairly stock version of the ballad, but the death of the hero gets lost amid intricate train imitations and demonstrations of Peg's ability to play the harmonica through his nose and without hands and to drop the instrument and catch it without losing a beat of the song. His two recordings of "Back Door" (Flyright 508B and Trix 3302) share few beyond their opening stanzas. Peg even stamps "Froggie Went A-Courting" with his signature in its final verses.
Conversely, in his spoken narrative he makes an artistic performance of even accounts of his own experiences--establishing setting, mimicking voices, punctuating the accounts with his medicine-show refrains ("Funny things happen in this world!") and doubtless freely inventing grotesque episodes, as when he tells of scratching the old lady's nose with his claws when he left Buffalo.