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The Medicine Show: An Entertainment Option of Yesteryear

Folks like to be entertained. Playing games for entertainment probably began when ancient man began to find time for things other than survival. Personally, some of my fondest memories are playing checkers or Rook while visiting with neighbors in my youth. While there were several ways to be entertained then, there are greater opportunities for entertainment today. The entertainment industry has exploded in the last few years. In my own 73 years, I have seen the advent of Radio, Television (even 3DTV), the Internet, electronic games, digital cameras, movies in color and many other advances in entertainment. Recorded music went from the old highly breakable 78 rpm records, to 45 rpm vinyl records, to 33 1/3 rpm Long-Play records, to 8-Track tapes, to cassettes tapes, to Compact Discs.
In the early days of the 1900s there were none of those things. There were, of course, entertainment opportunities such as plays, operas and classical concerts in larger cities, but rural and small town folks rarely traveled long distances because of the rigors of travel in that day.
The county fair rated high in the entertainment experiences of local folks. Fiddlers Conventions and political gatherings were also forms of entertainment enjoyed by folks of bygone times.
One popular means of entertainment that was quite popular in the early 1900s was the Medicine Show. According to Webster, Medicine Shows were “traveling shows using entertainment to attract a crowd among which remedies or nostrums are sold.” When the Medicine Show came to town, folks came out in goodly numbers to see the show. Amid the musical entertainment the pitchman would expound on the curative powers of the medicine he was selling. In that day there were no regulations concerning claims for medicine. The Medicine Show’s offerings were often touted as being a cure for cancer and other serious diseases. The musicians and actors for the show were employed to draw a crowd thereby enabling the owner of the show to sell the various concoctions.
The late country music icon Roy Acuff was a part of the Dr. Hauer’s medicine show from 1932 to 1934. He left the show to begin playing music with various musicians in the Knoxville area. Johnson County’s own Clarence (Tom) Ashley met Acuff during his stint on the medicine show circuit. Both became famous in the music business. Acuff went on to become a WSM Grand Ole Opry star for many years. Ashley recorded many songs and appeared in many venues during his career. He, along with his friends Doc Watson, the late Clint Howard and the late Fred Price were quite busy during the folk music revival in the 1960s. Notable, Ashley and his group appeared at Carnegie Hall on December 21, 1962 and at the Anniversary of Chicago Folk Festival in 1962 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 as well as colleges and universities around the country. He even played concerts in England late in his career. Tom also learned to play the guitar but most of his performances were with the banjo. He played the banjo claw hammer style. I understand that type of banjo playing was in danger of dying out, but there seems to be resurgence in that style of playing.
Anyway, the Medicine Show was an important means of entertainment for the folks of an earlier era and it also played a role in the lives and careers of both Acuff and Ashley. Both went on to illustrious careers in music.