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Despite pronouncements of an end to The Age of Irony by a number of public intellectuals, essayists and even Time Magazine columnists, it seems that irony will be around long enough to enjoy the last days of the Mayan calendar with the cockroaches and Collected Longer Poems of W.H. Auden.

We’re reminded of this while pondering American cultural patterns in the Ipod Age. The culture, for lack of a better term, is at a state of hyperatomization. There’s an old anecdote about a certain way to offend a Spaniard: tell him Spain has 600 political parties. The inevitable rejoinder being, “You fool, Spain has 6 million parties and I am one of them!” Finally America can identify, replete with scores of youtube posters who are indeed their own biggest fans. In a vacuum, this isn’t ironic, even for the millions misusing the word on a daily basis. 

What has happened in popular music seems to be steering towards irony.     

Let’s say you consider yourself the uber-music fan. You go into your local record shop to pick up a few choice vinyls from the Riverside catalogue and… “What’s this?”

“Why,” the clerk tells you in-between sharp breaths to properly polish his new belt buckle, “it’s ‘Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937.’  It happens to be Jack White’s favorite album this week.”

There are two options for the music consumer. Either you politely nod and sit the disc back down and look around for a Gid Tanner album or you buy it and put out of your mind that some hipster somewhere has beaten you to everything.

The further one wades into the waters of rare and obscure musical forms, though, the more he is made aware that with each passing year backwards he is witnessing via his headphones a music based communally, one without international or even national stars. At the end of his quest for American music’s holy grail he is humbled by the realization that everyone in Buncombe County, North Carolina beat him to it. What’s more, it was at the same time and there were no locked doors to be found, metaphorical or otherwise.

Perhaps our postmodern personality crises aren’t so far removed from the days of the medicine show. As Free Show Tonite points out in the beginning, the entertainment at these extravaganzas was a ruse to coax the more slow witted of rural Americans to buy snake oil. (Think Cialis. Or, for the forty-plus million uninsured Americans out there, think Snake Oil.) Continuing the crawl, the viewer enjoys her first caveat. Some of the scenes illustrate “…folk culture of the period (that) played upon deep-seated racial fears and stereotypes.” We’ve come so far.

Free Show Tonite documents the last old time medicine show. Surviving performers from the medicine and minstrelsy heyday were reunited for a two day event in North Carolina, circa 1982. Many devotees of old time music will notice some things they’ve only read about. For example, there’s a great scene featuring the lost art of “beating straws” on a fiddle. They’ll also be treated to OTM luminaries. There’s
Hammie Nixon, whose jug mastery extends even to what appears to be a Sundrop soda can. Guitar Slim and Walking Mary McClain offer some rousing numbers which belie their advanced years at the time of filming. And there’s that Roy Acuff fellow, who also narrates the film.

The most poignant moment comes from a virtual unknown. Bob Noell is sitting with his wife, quietly applying his cork makeup, while she recounts the good old days of the medicine show. A quick tutorial is provided on the cork, a necessity for any blackface comic. (In the more remote areas no commercial makeup was to be found. Ever resourceful, showfolk would gather soda bottle caps from local merchants. At the time, these caps had cork rather than plastic, which the performers would burn themselves, to make the now infamous face paint.) While Mr. Noell goes about his business she tells of the last show he ever did.

It was in North Carolina at the height of segregation. It is important to reflect upon the comparative lack of segregation in the nineteenth century. Throughout North Carolina and Virginia, African and Anglo-Americans were in constant contact. Minstrelsy was a result, as were the authentic shared folkways evident even today. Were the nineteenth century more like the twentieth, white banjo players would be scarce indeed. “John Henry” would not hold a place in the American folksong canon. The list goes on and on. While Bob Noell was making audiences laugh through his character “Jake” Jim Crow was alive and well. The outdoor audience was divided with a chain (irony being already denounced in the South) with the blacks to one side and the whites to another. Bob had misgivings. Not long after his routine commenced, the African-American contingent exited in protest. Staggered that his comedy would “hurt anyone’s feelings” he quit the medicine show business on the spot. This documentary would be the one exception. His wife entreats the film crew to provide still photographs, as it would be the last time he’d put on the makeup.

Free Show Tonite loses nothing because of its age. In fact, the film seems to fit today’s media atmosphere better than that of 1983. The revival participants are well aware of the role of radio and television in the withering of this entertainment. One is made to feel as though Disney, Viacom, et al. should be made to pay royalties to any surviving medicine show performer. The film points out that the idea of free entertainment as a bait to sell consumers on any number of products is the exact framework for television networks. That the preponderance of products advertised on the tube are those of pharmaceutical companies closes the irony circle altogether.

Primarily, Free Show remains relevant by virtue of the fact that today’s American is woefully lacking in what Albert Borgmann refers to as “focal practice.”  Yes, the medicine show is an awful lot like “Hee-Haw,” with its cornpone humor, fiddling and buck dancing. Yes, the primary objective of these pageants was to separate folks from their money in the guise of a mobile vaudeville. A segment in the film reveals that later incarnations of the shows were even sponsored by large drug concerns.

The difference is human contact. Greasy Medlin recounts how the locals didn’t “trust show folk” in the sleepy Southern towns of his youth. Eventually he’d win them over, and there wasn’t a bloke in town who wouldn’t tip his hat as he passed by. Imagine a modern minstrel like K-Fed enjoying a pint with the locals after a show. One could easily make a case for those good old days. We’d probably come to discover that a return to that hands-on approach to entertainment would make the jokes funnier, the music sweeter, and the prescriptions a hell of a lot cheaper.

If only we could avoid Time Magazine…

Bryan Newbury


Free Show Tonight (aka Free Show Tonite)
by Paul Wagner & Steven Zeitlin
1983, 58 minutes, Color, 16mm

Film can be viewed online at:,68

devendra khandelwal on October 13th, 2006 at 9:13 am 

Dear friend,

We are organizing an International Film Festival of Short Films on Culture and we wish you to include this information on you site or spread the message to participate, among your film maker colleagues since ENTRY IS FREE.

Festival dates are Feb.11 to 13, 2007. It is an International event to showcase and recognize authentic, artistic, effective and informative short films on culture.

The festival is organized by iiMC (the biggest producers of short films in India as per LIMCA book of records 2006), with the help of Government of Rajasthan. The last date for submission is Dec.31, 2006. Participant may write for economical/subsidized stay and free food-passes.

Please visit to get the full detail and if you still have some question then feel free to write at or

Thanking you,
For International Festival of Short Films on Culture
Devendra Khandelwal /Ketki kapadia
Festival Organising Committee

aj on September 6th, 2009 at 10:20 pm 

A slight correction. Bob Noell didn’t quit the medicine show business right then and there. He just stopped using the black-face character.

This was an excellent documentary though.

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