“Hash House” Harvey Ellington
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was published in the Greensboro Daily News last November. The subject of the article by David Newton is Harvey L. Ellington, 70, of Rt. 1, Oxford, the Berea community. A native of Warren County, Ellington has been a resident of the Brea community most of the time since his marriage to the former Edna Briggs in 1937. He retired from being a traveling musician, the work with which this article deals, in 1949 and from 22 years as a baker at John Umstead Hospital in 1975. He and his wife have two sons, Harvey Jr., who lives adjacent to his parents, and Robert Michael, who lives at home.)
Show biz hinges on exits and entrances.
“Hash House” Harvey Ellington has taken a few in his 70 years. All of them didn’t draw applause. That has happened to more than one trouper. And so has this:
“The landlord was pushing us for rent, so we had to come down the drainpipe with our socks and shirts and things,” says Harvey, sitting in his home in a rural community near Oxford.
That was the spring of 1932. The Depression gripped eastern North Carolina. No money. No job. Just a smile, a tune in his head, a fiddler under his chin.
But Doc Haithcock had flown the coop, leaving Harvey, a fiddler, and guitarist “Starving” Sam Pridgen—two members of Haithcock’s medicine show—penniless in Wallace at the nation’s largest strawberry market.
That spring was Harvey’s first of four years on the medicine show circuit. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, he would be heard on radio stations across the nation as a member of the Swingbillies and later the Tobacco Tags.
Radio was a live, studio affair as the nation huddled around its wireless for news and entertainment. In the rural South, that invariably meant the Swingbillies and Tobacco Tags as farmers hustled in from the fields for noon “dinner” to listen to 15 minutes of country swing or prop up bunioned feet in the evening for a few minutes of the magic of the Motorola.
In the spring of 1932, however, the radio shows, the school auditoriums jammed with fans and the $40-a-week paychecks were a world away for the 23-year-old Vaughan native.
When he could get the work, his world was snake oil and a tune.
Medicine shows were big business. Armed with a magic formula, the “Doc” marketed his potion with musicians, acrobats, contortionists and blackface comedians. Anywhere crowds gathered, the “Doc” touted his bottles of linament and guarantees to “cure what ails you.”
The base was a gallon of cascara, which came from the bark of a tree, at $6 per gallon. Harvey bottled the mixture backstage while others warmed up the crowd. At $1 for two bottles, Doc Haithcock turned an 85 per cent profit.
The linament was a different matter. Gasoline, turpentine and kerosene were among the ingredients. Its task was just as harsh: relief of aching feet plagued by bunions and corns.
“You just pour it in your shoe and it would stop hurting,” says Harvey.
Despite his disappearing acts when profits soured, Haithcock was a good medicine show man, Harvey says.
In 1933, Harvey hooked up with Doc Lee. “He was a crooked doctor,” says Harvey, but flamboyant.
“Doc would pull out his megaphone and we’d begin dragging the street…me fiddling, Sam on the guitar and Doc talking,” says Harvey.
While farmers lolled in front of warehouses checking their mules and tobacco crop, Doc Lee began his spiel:
“Come on up here. We’re going to bury a man alive. We got a man up here with no head on. We got a man with no arms and legs that can crank a car.”
The lure of music and such tall tales was irresistible. By the time Doc Lee had circled back around to his flatbed truck that served as a stage, 100 farmers might be standing in the sun snapping their galluses and wondering what would come next.
And Doc Lee, legs suddenly rubbery and shaking, would be holding up a Gila monster by the tail urging the farmers to come a little closer for a good look at this poisonous reptile’s teeth. When the listeners bunched in, the Doc reached for his snake oil and the real show began.
Doc advertised other products during the show, Kreuger’s Cream Ale and Beer specifically. Doc and his musicians received a case of beer each.
Never one to squander his resources, Doc kept his throat wet with the product—so wet, in fact, that one afternoon he keeled over while on stage.
“Get that damn stuff away from me. What are you trying to do, kill me?” growled Doc as he struggled up.
Sometimes other musicians joined in with Harvey and Sam while they played their comedy routines and music. Harvey played the straight man to Sam’s comic. Sam could also get the crowd laughing.
Between the laughs, they mixed old faithfuls like “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat This Morning?,” “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Flop-Eared Mule.”
By 1937, Havey, Sam, guitarist Ray Williams, vocalist Charlie “Dunk” Poole Jr. and banjo player Garfield Hammonds were on Raleigh’s WPTF radio as the Swingbillies.
The group had a new sound which combined the driving hoedown string music with Charlie Poole’s hillbilly background. The concoction was spiced by the swing and jazz then current.
Suddenly old favorites like “St. Louis Blues” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” had a new sound.
New-found fame and regular money brought problems.
“The boys got the big head,” says Harvey. By the spring of 1938, the Swingbillies broke up. That fall, Sam and Harvey joined the Tobacco Tags, a popular group which had broadcast from WPTF, but was now with WRVA in Richmond, Virginia.
The Tobacco Tags, along with Sunshine Sue and the Georgia Wildcats, were syndicated nationally on the Old Dominion Barn Dance every Saturday night, the doors of the 9,000-seat Mosque Theater opened, the Mutual Network plugged in its 200 affiliates across the country and the cigarette girls strolled the aisles selling refreshments while the crowd enjoyed guests ranging from the Three Musketeers of Hollywood fame to Minivish and the Harmonica Rascals.
World War II broke up the group, and Harvey headed to the Air Force, where he learned to bake. After the war, he worked several years for Homer Briarhopper. In the early 1950, he began a 22-year career as a baker at John Umstead Hospital in Butner. He retired in 1975.
His past and music won’t go away. In recent years, young musicians have hustled Harvey onstage before a new generation of music listeners. And the growing cultural bureaucracy has seen fit to recognize the contributions of him and his colleagues. In October, he appeared in Washington, D.C., with other veterans of the medicine show circuit.
Today, there are no exits down drainpipes. He and his wife of 42 years, Edna, can look out the backdoor and keep an eye on their son, who lives across the way. And there’s no snake oil in Harvey’s life. He bought his first medical prescription just his year.
Newton, David. "Medicine Show Veteran Subject of Feature Article,” Oxford Public Ledger (originally pub. In Greensboro Daily News, Nov.), Monday, March 10, 1980.
Full Name: Harvey "Hash House" Ellington
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