Black Entertainers and the Medicine Show

Black Entertainers and the Medicine Show

From Glenn Hinson, Med Minstrels: Black Entertainers and the Medicine Show. The Vi-Ton-Ka Medicine Show, program notes, The American Place Theater (1983), pp. 9-12.

The waiting crowd gasps at the sight of green and rose satin uniforms as the seven-man band finally walks onto the plank stage. Feet start to tap as the band swings into “Muskrat Ramble.” Trumpets blare, cymbals crash. Tent-rending applause. An off-stage voice announces, “Welcome to The Bardex Minstrel Show… Everything moral and refined… Take it away, Professor!”

It is 1948, just outside of Rockingham, North Carolina. The Great Health Evangelist, Doc Milton Bartok, is in town for a one-week stand with his medicine show. Bartok-white, like most med show docs-travels with an all-black troupe he inherited from his predecessor, Doc Ross Byar. Now known as the Bardex Minstrels, the company is famous nationwide.

More performers tumble on stage to join the band, singing and dancing in a extravaganza of sound, motion, and color. “Ladies and gentlemen, be seated,” directs a woman in a floor-length gown, taking the center spot in a semi-circle the performers have formed. The show’s interlocutor, she turns to a man at the end of the line:

INTERLOCUTOR: How do you feel tonight, Bubber?

END MAN: I feel like a dishrag.

INTERLOCUTOR: And how’s that, Bubber?

END MAN: I needs to be squeezed!

This is the first of many rapid-fire gags that- with music, comedy sketches, a med lecture, and an afterpiece-make up The Bardex Show.

This opening pattern dates to the 1840’s and ‘50’s, when white men blacked up, burlesquing African-American performances. Burnt-cork minstrelsy gave whites safe conduct to the black world. Thought “authentic” by most white audiences, the vicarious glimpse of blackness presented by “Ethiopian delineators” was really gross caricature.

Within two decades, blacks themselves had taken up minstrelsy. Initially, these troupers also played mostly to whites. Audiences were drawn by what they supposed a truer portrait of black life, although black performers were actually conforming to the stereotypes of the burnt-cork stage. Putting the horse back before the cart, African-Americans soon took what had been stolen and stereotyped, and reversed it to reflect their own culture. By the turn of the century, minstrelsy had become a black form.

He ran up on the Titanic
And started up the ocean blue,
But when he saw the iceberg,
Right overboard he flew.
The white folks standing on the deck
Said, “Boy, you’re sure ‘nuff fool.”
But ‘bout three minutes after that,
He was shooting craps in Liverpool.
                                      --Verse from “Travelin’ Man”

Presenting fast-paced variety entertainment at working-class prices, minstrel troupes like Silas Green from New Orleans and F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbitfoot Minstrels delighted 20th-century black audiences. Med minstrels branched from the same family tree, though they relied on nostrum sales rather than box office receipts.

As long as medicine shows have toured this country, blacks have played in them. Medical entrepreneurs, quick to exploit the increasing fascination of whites whith African-American culture, employed blacks as novelty entertainers in otherwise white shows. Jug bands, buck and eccentric dancers, harmonica players, even jubilee quartets, became standard features on the med circuit. Writing in 1906, George Walker, the great black vaudeville artist, recalled his days on the physic opera:

My experience with the quack doctors taught me two good lessons: that white people are always interested in what they call “darky” singing and dancing; and the fact that AI could entertain in that way as no white boy could, made me valuable to the quack doctors as an advertising card.

Their success with black specialty acts led canny pitchmen to explore the untapped potential of the black market. Sometime between the Civil War and 1890, these docs hired all-black troupes and took them across the southern and mid-Atlantic states. Their reception was phenomenal, and the tradition of the black medicine show was born.

My old missus promised me,
“Son, when I die, I’m going to set you free.”
She lived so long her head got bald.
She got out of the notion of dying at all.
                                           --Traditional floating verse

Playing to African-American audiences, black med troupers adapted the racial stereotypes of minstrelsy to their own ends and expanded their repertoires. Their medicine shows became an amalgam which included brass bands, tap dancers, ragtime guitarists, comedy teams, and classic blues shouters. Folk and vernacular elements alternated with Tin Pan Alley, burnt-cork minstrelsy with vaudeville. “Foreign” traditions were tempered by the black aesthetic to reflect the African-American experience.

For many, small medicine shows and gilly carnivals were the only available springboard to show business. Black comic Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham likened these venues to a kindergarten in which a player developed the stage presence and versatility that turned mere performers into real pros. You graduated to the grade school of bigger med shows, then the high school of carnivals. Finally, you entered the college of black entertainment: tent minstrelsy and vaudeville.

Former med show dancer, Leroy Watts, tells of competing with a tap dancer whose explosive rhythms were legendary. This master tapper, however, had not apprenticed on the tent/med circuit. “Right after he hit the stage,” says Watts, “I knew I had him beat. I knew I couldn’t out-dance him, but I sure could out-perform him.”

I was born ten thousand years ago,
There ain’t nothing, in this world that I don’t know.
I saw Peter, Paul, and Moses, playing ring around the roses,
And I’ll whup the man who says that it ain’t so.
                                     --Verse from “the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World”

Life on the road could also be dangerous. Black performers playing rural towns often faced racial discrimination. They were denied access to hotels, restaurants, even groceries, and had to step carefully around local whites, who resented independent blacks, like these med troupers, as “uppity.” Insults, threats, and violence were common, the slightest affront often provoking disproportionate retaliation. Entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker were once attacked by a mob of angry Texans who thought the troupers’ suits were too fine for black backs. Stripped of their clothes, Williams and Walker were run out of town wearing gunny sacks.

Such ordeals kept the ranks of black pitchmen small. A troupe which had no white overseer-a man whose presence guaranteed the deferential conduct and subordinate status of company blacks-was in for a rough time. Sales licenses were refused, lot rents boosted, performances raided. Most black pitchmen were therefore forced to work solo or with a white partner.

You look at me, you look at a man that was born for hard luck. I was born on the 13th day (odd day) on Friday (bad luck day) ….I’m in such hard luck, if it’s raining down soup this very minute, everybody’d be standing there with a spoon. I’d have a fork. Yeah, I’m in such hard luck, if my daddy was to die, they’d make a mistake and bury me. Yeah, I’m in such hard luck, if I was to die, I’d have to walk to the cemetery. -Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson

By the opening decades of this century, blacks shared all aspects of the med business with whites. Solo pitchmen crisscrossed the South in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, selling herb balls and rattlesnake oil at black fairs, auctions, and markets. Some black pitchmen, like the suggestively named Hy John, attracted crowds with magic and veiled references to their power as conjure doctors. Others hired local bluesmen or street quartets.

One step up were docs who employed one or more African-American entertainers on a regular basis. These shows traveled not only to towns and cities, but also to rural areas. They played black settlements and, in the South, large plantations. As they added a few more performers, their shows took on the characteristic three-part minstrel structure, complete with end men.

At the pinnacle of the black med show business were full-fledged minstrel troupes mounting elaborate spectacles in vast tents that seated 2000 people. Most of these were headed by white pitchmen like Doc Robinson of the Silver Minstrels, Doc Byar of the World’s Minstrels, and Doc Bartok of Bardex. The closing of The Bardex Minstrel Show in 1960 marked the end of a proud tradition of black artistry in med minstrelsy.

When I die, please bury me deep.
Put a jug of ‘lasses at my feet,
Put two biscuits in each hand,
And I’ll sop my way to the Promised Land.
                                                --Traditional floating verse