Posts Tagged ‘William Henry Lane’

Medicine shows were directly related to minstrel shows and vaudeville, and they provided many early Memphis musicians with employment. In the 1800s, minstrel shows were wildly popular with both races, but they fed the white stereotypes of blacks and became even more mean-spirited as the Civil War approached. The racism of the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety acts (called the “olio”), comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure to African-American music and culture.

After the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves performed with minstrel shows, medicine shows, and circuses, with the newly gained freedom to travel and to make a living playing music. William Henry Lane was a dancer and among the earliest black minstrels to gain notoriety. A performance in Memphis by the Georgia Minstrels in 1896, drew the largest indoor paid audience known to the city— 4000 blacks and 1000 whites— according to the African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman. Many of the features of minstrelsy carried over into the medicine shows.

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Quackery and entertainment hit the road as medicine shows peddled patent medicines and elixirs of dubious efficacy. Musical performers drew crowds in small rural settings and larger Southern and Midwestern towns. An old actor who had turned to “doctoring” would hawk syrups that were mostly alcohol— or pass off a nickel box of axle grease as a cure for rheumatism. The performers would soften the crowd up for the “doctor”, whose pitch was expected to be just as entertaining. Audiences were often receptive to the chicanery because it was the only entertainment of that caliber they got to experience.

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The Memphis medicine show performers were in the Mississippi delta every summer and many hokum blues numbers were popularized this way. W. C. Handy was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got their start with minstrel shows. Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas worked for a variety troupe, originally founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, called The Rabbit’s Foot Company. Many old time country acts like Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Fiddling John Carson, and Uncle Dave Macon also entertained blacks and whites alike in traveling medicine shows.

In the early 1900s, medicine shows transitioned into vaudeville and Memphis-oriented performers found work in a more permanent circuit of theaters. An Italian-American businessman on Beale Street, F. A. Barrasso, and his brothers founded the Theatre Owners Booking Association, which specialized in a touring circuit of theaters for black performers throughout the U.S. It began with 31 theaters and had more than 100 at its peak in the 1920s. The reputation that TOBA was a difficult organization to work for caused performers to joke that the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses.” This circuit helped disseminate Memphis blues music to theater audiences throughout the nation.

image credits: buckaroo; Country Music Hall of Fame; misanthropoetry; Library of Congress

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