Sunday, February 12, 2006

From Primitivism to Medicine Shows

Two of my favourite CDs over the past few months have been Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937 on Old Hat, and American Primitive Vol.II: Pre-war Revenants 1897-1939 on Revenant. Both of these double CDs indicate that there is still a wealth of material from the pre-war era that has yet to be reissued, and that so much of it is excellent. Though some of the material here has been presented before, these two collections place it in a new context. While listening to them I kept wondering about the original audience for this music. Because some of the music, particularly on American Primitive Vol II is so eccentric that it makes you think about just how many records were pressed and sold. Was it a question of Say’s Law or could it really have been supply and demand? Who knows? And what exactly was the criteria for recording music at the time. I'm going to have to delve back into a book like Paul Oliver’s Songsters and Saints to see if I can find the answer to that one.

As for the CDs themselves. Some of the material on American Primitive might have appeared on Good For What Ails You and vice versa. APII, the follow up to API, which I never got around to hearing, was the last compilation put together by John Fahey, and it’s, as to be expected, the more eccentric of the two (Homer Quincy Smith sounds like Paul Robeson stuck in a turn of the century recording booth, Tommy Settler's nose trumpet is nasally evocative, Cousin and DeMoss sound like the John Jacob Niles's grandparents, and the Bubbling Over Five combine soprano sax, harmonica and piano to a haunting degree). With the exception of Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, most listeners will not have heard of many of these artists. Yet there are some real gems, such as John Hammond (yet another JH) whose banjo style and singing fits somewhere in between that of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward, and Bayliss Rose's Black Dog Blues (revived back in the 1960s by Koerner, Ray and Glover). The problem with the Fahey collection is that there isn’t any real centre to it, other than the musical tastes of Fahey himself, which are always going to be interesting. The liner notes, which veer between the Faheyistic to pithy Harry Smithisms, don’t shed all that much light on the subject. Maybe there isn't all that much light there in the first place. Nevertheless, this is a collection that won’t disappoint any lover of old time music.

Of the two collections, Old Hat’s Good For What Ails You may be less surprising, but there is probably more substance and context here. At the same time, producer and the main writer of some excellent liner notes, Marshall Wyatt, has included some stunning music from the likes of Gid Tanner, the Dallas String Band, the Mississippi Sheiks, Gus Cannon, Daddy Stovepipe, Papa Charlie Jackson, Chris Bouchillon, Pink Anderson, Kirk McGee, Walter Smith, the Carolina Tar Heels and Frank Stokes. For me, the most remarkable track has to be Emmitt Miller’s The Gypsy, a hilarious and surreal critique of medicine shows themselves. Miller of course would become a big influence on Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. What becomes clear from Wyatt’s collection is that medicine shows were a fertile breeding ground for an unparalleled cross-cultural musical exchange. Trading off styles, it was, as Eric Lott and Bob Dylan have said, a case of love and theft. Unfortunately, all that we have left are the racist overtones, and not its substance and content. Because this was where blues, country music, ragtime and string band music all came together. Without medicine shows rock and roll would not exist, and ragtime and country music would be something entirely different. But it wasn’t only musicians who played played the medicine show circuits, but Houdini, Buster Keaton and Pigmeat Markham. It was, one imagines, the beginning of mass entertainment. Though released in 2005, as was APII, Good For What Ails You is already my record of the year and it’s only February.

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