Grammy Awards time is once again upon us, this year in LA after occasional forays by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to NYC and Radio City Music Hall. There are countless categories presented and it appears that each and every year there are more additions, many of which are substantially inconsequential and, in this writer’s estimation, are undeservedly and unaccountably present.
Two of the categories which receive scant attention each year are those devoted to “Best Historical Album” (Category #89) and “Best Album Notes” (Category #88), and this year there is one release which has received nominations in both of the aforementioned categories. Unfortunately, because of present-day prevailing tastes, it will undoubtedly ultimately be forgotten. That being said, it is a release that should be lauded and receive the attention it so very much deserves. It is the two-CD set (Old Hat Records CD-1005), Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937, and features 48 rare recordings of a tradition which for all intents and purposes no longer exists in this country. The presentation is truly an astoundingly successful attempt at documenting this genre and succeeds on a number of levels.
Initially there is the aspect of entertainment, of “Good Time Music” which most likely will be virtually unknown to 99 percent of the populace, old as well as young! Next there is the extreme rarity of the assembled recordings, and one must applaud all involved for their near-miraculous efforts in gathering such a bonanza. Not to be overlooked is the stunning sound, the result of near-magical restoration of these ancient 78 rpm recordings. And then there is the packaging, an award winner if there ever was one, consisting of a colorful fold-out, an absolutely beautiful 72-page color booklet filled with unbelievable memorabilia, ephemera and countless rare images. Last, and proverbially not least, is the overwhelming scholarship presented in the text. It includes not only an overview of the musical form going back to 1608, but additionally a complete informative analysis of each and every performance. Recording dates, discographical data, etc. are fully presented as is a listing of the performers to be found on each disc.
Some of the titles alone should be sufficient to arouse interest: “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,” “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was a Married Man,” “He’s in the Jailhouse Now,” “The Cat’s Got the Measles, the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough,” and so on. Further, the names of some of the artists should also be of interest: “Stovepipe #! & David Crockett,” “Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers,” “Gid Tanner & His Skillett Lickers,” “Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers,” and more.
Admittedly this is not listening fare for one and all. That is undeniable. However, if one has any musical curiosity as to pre-WW II music and how it impacted upon the culture of the country, then listening to this production without preconceived notions may well open up a plethora of musical as well as historical doors.
Congratulations to all concerned and specific mention must be made of the following: Marshall Wyatt, production and essay; Chris King for the remastering; Harris Wray, who apparently has done so much to bring this entire situation to a wider public; Bengt Olsson, longtime vernacular music scholar for his part in the essay portion of the booklet; and David Lynch, who did the cover package and disc design.
Lawrence Cohn is a five-time Grammy Nominee who won in 1991 for Robert Johnson: Complete Recordings. He is also, incidentally, the father of the Managing Editor of this paper!