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The Medicine Show

Working the medicine shows with Chief Thundercloud.

When Jackson first began to work in medicine shows, they were a popular form of entertainment in the small-town South. A "doctor" with a supply of wonder soap, snake-oil liniment, and tonics would hire musicians and comics (generally 5 to 10 of them) to drum up crowds at tobacco auctions and county fairs. Sometimes they even "dragged the streets"--collected a crowd with their playing-- and led the people to the show, where music, comic routines, and dancing alternated with the sales pitch.

By the late 1950s, when Peg and Chief Thundercloud began to travel regularly together, medicine shows were fast disappearing from the scene, and theirs was much shrunk from those of earlier days. The Chief himself had once run a troup composed of 3 or 4 head comedians, 2 straight men, 2 dancers, 2 blues singers, and a band with 6 or 7 musicians. But the chief and Peg now traveled with at the most only one other man, a guitarist like Pink Anderson. Only the two of them were performing when a sound recording and a videotape were made of their show in Pittsboro, N.C., in 1972.

Knowing the schedule of the fairs, Peg and the Chief traveled from one to the next in a station wagon loaded with products for sale. At each new town they routinely got the permission of the police chief and fair superintendent and set up at a strategic location within the fairgrounds, keeping a discreet distance from the midway, but close to the path leading to it from the entrance. Their stage--a wooden platform little larger than a card table--was attached to the rear of the station wagon. A large tilted beach umbrella surmounted it. Lighting came from a string of bulbs overhead. In performing, they used a neck microphone and a rather uncooperative amplification system. Peg's preparations included wetting his harmonica in a glass of water and his throat with mint gin. After dark, as the people began drifting by, he mounted the stage and began his act with a long and brilliant performance of "John Henry" guaranteed to draw a crowd. This led into a comic routine with the Chief.

Eventually Chief Thundercloud hauled out a tattered but ferocious-looking stuffed rattlesnake and began his sales pitch for bottles of "Prairie King Liniment, " a rosy fluid concocted of turpentine, the oils of mustard, cloves and eucalyptus, pine oil, methyl salicylate, and kerosene. During the sales, the Chief handed bottles one at a time to Peg, who carried them into the crowd, swapping them for the dollar bills of the customers, singing out "So-o-o-ld, CHIEF!" at each sale. When the crowd would buy no more, Thundercloud packed away the remaining bottles, and Peg would go off behind some of the tents to be treated to drinks by his admirers.

The entire evening's performance--which lasted about 2 hours-- had a set structure. The men gave 2 shows, each with a different pack of songs and jokes and each stint followed by the sale of new products, such as "corn medicine" or "that famous, old-fashioned Indian vegetable compound" guaranteed to "loosen all the dirt, the grease, the grime, the filth and the corruption." Peg seemed to unify each of his routines by punctuating it with a different refrain: "Funny things happen in this world!" or "Made me so mad I could eat fried chicken!" or "Yes, I was BORN for hard luck!" Each act featured Peg in some bravura performance, such as his "John Henry" or "Fox Chase" or -- the climax of the evening--his dance imitating the convulsive flapping of an old "Dominicker" hen just killed for frying. This dance had several times been promised during the evening, and repeatedly called for by the audiences.

Medicine show photos are by Ben Shahn from a 1935 medicine show in Huntingdon, Tennessee.

ibiblio Virtual Medicine Show

Search the Library of Congress Archives for medicine show photos and information.

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Medicine Show Particpants
Photo by Ben Shahn, 1935. Library of Congress
Gather Around the Medicine Show
Photo by Ben Shahn, 1935 Library of Congress
 

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