3302 – Peg Leg Sam: “Medicine Show Man”
Original LP and CD re-release
Back in the old days before television came along, one created entertainment or went to an occasional traveling show that might stop for a while – especially in the south; especially if you were black. There were, of course, travelling rep companies, as well as high-class vaudeville shows of all sorts, but these were not so much patronized by blacks. There was, instead, the circus, carnivals, tent shows (like the old “ten-in-one”. . . ten acts under one canvas), minstrel shows, and medicine shows. These last were often looked at as the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder (for Blacks), used by some to climb to higher reaches – for others, it was their whole life . . . often by choice. Among the shows about, and the last extant in the U.S., was one run by “Chief Thundercloud” – a full-blood Oklahoma Potawotomi indian – who ran the gamut of the entertainment business before getting into medicine shows (he headed his own show rather late in their history). By the early fifties it was of some size, with a tent purchased from another show that had folded, but by the sixties it consisted of only a couple of people. The one with him today, and has been on and off since the fifties, is one “Peg Leg Sam” . . . an amazing story-teller, toast-giver, reciter of poetry, dancer, singer, and master of the French harp (as the harmonica is often referred to in the south).
Born Arthur Jackson on December 18, 1911 into a family near Jonesville, S.C. with some music in it . . . his mother played church songs on the organ and accordion . . . from which he ran away with amazing frequency starting at the age twelve. Before rambling, though, he learned to play harp a bit, listening to locals like Butler Jennings, Bigger Mapps and Sun Jennings. The first piece he learned was “Lost John”, which he practiced a lot while standing in the corner . . . might as well do something while being punished! He became fairly good at this song and a few others, so he took off for the far reaches of Columbia, S.C. The travel bug had him then, and while he returned to Jonesville occasionally, he always went off again . . . farther with each succeeding jaunt.
These travels took “Peg” all over the south, either on foot, hitching, or riding freight trains (he can tell you the easiest lines to catch a ride on today!) – this last was to cause the loss of his right leg below the knee during 1930 in North Carolina. This didn’t seem to slow him down at all; later he got to New York City, and even shipped out on steamers from Key West (after being caught stowaway) to Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Bahamas! Sometime in the twenties he met Elmon “Keg Shorty” Bell, the son of an Atlanta preacher, while in Spartanburg . . . this is the one that taught him the “modern” style of harp that he now employs (as opposed to the older accordion style). His trick of playing two harps at once was “stolen” from an unknown practitioner in the city of Durham, N.C. during the thirties.
On one return trip home, he met veteran medicine show performer Pink Anderson, who persuaded him to join up with the Emmitt Smith show . . . this being 1938. This has been a major source of revenue for him ever since that first show in Chesnee, S.C. – he met his present boss/partner “Chief Thundercloud” (Leo Kahdot) some seasons later when the Indian joined Smith’s show. They, together with Pink and a washboard player named “Chilly Wind” (Charlie Williams) were the core of the shows “Chief” took out until Pink retired and Charley died. In 1972 the two-man show was just “Chief” as pitchman and “Peg” as draw – they were recorded by yours truly in Pittsboro, N.C., and recordings will be released by the English label, Flyright – playing whatever fairs and exhibitions they could still get into . . . always the smaller ones now (Pittsboro was a predominately black- audience fair).
Of course, this was not the only thing “Peg” would do – in 1936 he was heard playing around the Fenner Tobacco Warehouse in Rocky Mount, N.C. by the owner . . . he put “Peg” on the radio, sponsoring him for fifteen minutes each morning the tobacco market was in session! This was obviously successful, since the association lasted for some 25 years, and it later included some TV spots when that came along at the local level!!! There were also stints with the Doc Thompson Carnival, as well as copping the prize money at local talent shows. Of course, all this was secondary to his first and continued love – busking . . . that is to say, playing in the streets and passing around the hat. This he has been doing for some fifty years, and he will say “I’d rather do that than anything l know . . .”
Generally he has traveled alone in the latter instance of gaining lucre, but he has played with some fine guitarists in his day . . . he won’t let just anyone play along. Among them are the late Charles Henry “Baby” Tate, and Henry “Rufe” Johnson – it was the former that introduced me to “Peg” in 1970, and “Peg” in turn got me together with Johnson in 1972. Both of them play on several tracks here . . . Johnson already has an album available (TRIX 3304 – “The Union County Flash!”), while Tate will have one put together in the forseeable future (it will be TRIX 3313) . . . contributing some lovely guitar when they do assist, each having a different way of backing the harp.
“Peg Leg Sam” is sort of an anachronism today in the eyes of some (“You mean that sort of thing still exists!?”), but he is completely at peace with things and reasonably content. Shown on this album are his harmonica talents, which are second to none in this style, as well as two of his spoken pieces to give you a taste of that sort of thing (there’s more on the set of LPs from the medicine show). Remembered by many of the blues men throughout the South (and some points north), he has been something of a legend . . . that peg leg harp player that plays two harps at once (one with his nose) . . . it’s nice that a legend is still around, and living up to advance notices!
WHO’S THAT LEFT HERE ‘WHILE AGO – Little Walter did a similar song, but “Peg” puts it into nearly unrecognizable form in comparison to those lyrics. A good question, really, is where did the song originally come from? (I haven’t asked “Peg” where he got it from, but I will) . . . notice Tate’s fine, snapping guitar. (1)
GREASY GREENS – While “Sam” claims authorship of this song, it has been heard from others . . . no matter, this is sort of his signature tune (requested with equal frequency to “John Henry”). It is a lovely double entendre and his harp compliments and steps in for the vocal. (3)
REUBEN – Here is one incredibly old piece, and it inspired such songs as “500 Miles” and that ilk. “Peg’s” version is a lovely, subtly stated one, showing that old stuff can live if the right person breathes on it. (3)
IRENE, TELL ME, WHO DO YOU LOVE – I guess this may owe something to Bo Diddley (again a question of source) on first appearance, but “Peg” has completely revamped this into his own number. Henry Johnson gives solid support here, and even chimes in on the chorus! (2)
SKINNY WOMAN BLUES What appears to have been one of Blind Boy Fuller’s pieces, it was taken up by many . . . Tate would do it on harp (alone only). Here Tate gives “Peg” some masterful support, underscoring again how damn good he was. (1)
LOST JOHN – The first song “Peg” learned, it couldn’t be more traditional . . . often it is referred to as “The Talking Harmonica”. This is a superb version, with the “verses” dealing with The Lord’s Prayer being new to me ($10 to the first to figure out why he wants his mama the last time!). He also does the two-harp bit. (3)
ODE TO BAD BILL – This is one of the many bits he does in the medicine show, and is one with a rhyming scheme. . . some serve as toasts, but this is more a narrative (I’ll get some toasts later. . . both expurgated and un-!) (3)
AIN’T BUT ONE THING GIVE A MAN THE BLUES – I asked “Peg” to do something in the accordian-style . . . it’s not completely in that mode, but there is a lot of it shown. Lyrically, it is rather a random collection of verses, some quite traditional. (4)
EASY RIDIN‘ BUGGY – I guess this is another Piedmont classic, but “Sam” adds his own lyrics to this Fuller-ish number. I think “Peg” is fine here, but I think notice should be made of Tate’s guitar. His “snappy” backing is very reminiscent of devices often used by Scrapper Blackwell (with Leroy Carr) . . . nice. (1)
PEG’S FOX CHASE – Just about every harp-man worth his Hohner can do this, often in boring fashion . . . but this is a stupendous version of the traditional piece (sometimes known as “Fox Trot”). Remember that it is one man, with no over-dubbing doing all the roles. . . never heard someone play and do effects simultaneously! (3)
BEFORE YOU GIVE IT ALL AWAY – Here is an example of a song from “Peg” – a mix of new verses and old faithfuls! It is a variation on the old “Custard Pie” type of song – “Rufe” gives rock-solid backing here for “Peg’s” slightly hoarse singing. (5)
FAST FREIGHT TRAIN – This is an instrumental number, with Tate on the Gibson . . . a fast one that never gets into the cliché train imitations often heard. It swings right along, and may be more of a collective musical portrait of all the freights he’s been on in fifty years. (1)
NASTY OLD TRAIL – When asked about this song, he said “it’s an old hillbilly song“. I have no idea of its source, whether traditional or recent/commercial, but is an interesting, Ionesome sounding number. The usual fine harp, of course. (4)
BORN IN HARD LUCK – This is an old monologue, first recorded by white performer Chris Bouchillon. One of the standard bits done in the medicine show context, God only knows where it originated . . . it has a predictable form from “Peg”, though there are slight variations and embellishments every time. (3)
“Peg Leg Sam” is quite the performer, and this record gives one a sample of some aspects of his talent . . . focusing mainly on the instrumental side of things. It’s nice to be associated with such talented and nice people as this . . . give it a listen.
- (1) Spartanburg, SC – Aug 7/8, 1970 (2) Jonesville, SC – Oct 15, 1972 (3) Jonesville, SC – Oct 16, 1972 (4) Jonesville, SC – Nov 11, 1972 (5) Jonesville, SC – Dec 11, 1972
Pete Lowry (1973) contributor JAZZ DIGEST
n.b. – Recent concert/medicine show recordings by “Peg Leg Sam” are on:
Carolina Country Blues- Flyright 505 The Last Medicine Show – Flyright 507/8
AFTER THIS ALBUM WAS RELEASED (AND CHIEF THUNDERCLOUD HAD DIED), PEG LEG SAM EMBARKED ON ANOTHER CAREER ON THE FOLK CIRCUIT. WHILE HE NEVER DID GET OVERSEAS IN THAT CAPACITY, HE DID MANAGE TO GO TO CANADA FOR THE MARIPOSA FESTIVAL. I WAS WITNESS TO HIS MAJOR SUCCESS ON THE MAIN STAGE OF THE PHILADELPHIA FOLK FESTIVAL IN 1974 (I DROVE HIM UP FROM JONESVILLE . . . HE FOUND THE TURNPIKE AN AMUSING MYSTERY!). HE WAS ONE OF SIX PERFORMERS TO HAVE DAVID GAHR PHOTOS PRINTED IN A N. Y. TIMES ARTICLE BY ROBERT PALMER. HE ALSO TOOK PART IN A BLUES WORKSHOP WITH LEON REDBONE, TARHEEL SLIM (TRIX 3310 – “NO TIME AT ALL”), EDITH WILSON, AND BIG CHIEF ELLIS (TRIX 3316). AFTER THE SHOWS WERE OVER, PEG RODE TO D.C. WITH ELLIS, WHO DROPPED HIM OFF AT THE FREIGHT YARDS. SAM GRABBED A RIDE FROM OUR NATION’S CAPITOL TO SPARTANBURG, KEEPING HIS TRAVEL MONEY IN HIS SHOE! OLD HABITS HABlTS CONTINUED!!
SAM’S MELD OF JOKES AND SONGS, PLAYING AND DANCING WERE A GUARANTEED SHOW-STOPPER. TO ACTUALLY SEE THIS MAN IN ACTION WAS A JOY. THE CLOSEST ONE CAN GET TO THAT NOW IS A FILM/VIDEO ENTITLED “BORN IN HARD LUCK” BY MOVIE-MAKER TOM DAVENPORT – lF YOU LIKE THIS ALBUM, THEN YOU SHOULD TRY AND GET THE VIDEO CASSETTE. I DID A FEW SESSIONS AFTER THESE, BUT WAS UNFORTUNATELY PREVENTED FROM DOING ALL THAT I/WE HAD PLANNED (NEVER GOT ANY DUETS WITH PROTÈGÉ ROOSEVELT MAY, OR ANY BAND SESSIONS). ANOTHER ALBUM WAS RELEASED ON BLUE LABOR IN THE LATE 70’s WHERE SAM WAS BACKED BY LOUISIANA RED.
PEG LEG SAM WAS A GENIUS ON HIS CHOSEN INSTRUMENT – HE WAS ONE THE ARTISTS I RECORDED THAT I PLAYED FOR FOLKLORIST ALAN LOMAX (TWO OTHERS WERE HENRY JOHNSON [TRIX 3304] AND “WILLIAM ROBERTSON” [TRIX UNISSUED] IN 1979. “PEG’S FOX CHASE” BLEW HIM OFF OF HIS STOOL . . . IT’LL DO THAT TO YOU, TOO! ARTHUR JACKSON DIED 27 OCTOBER, 1977 IN SOUTH CAROLINA AND I CAN GUARANTEE THAT WE WILL NEVER SEE OR HEAR HIS LIKE AGAIN. THIS COLLECTION, PLUS A POSSIBLE LATER ONE, WILL HAVE TO SUFFICE FOR THE WORLD AT LARGE. IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH PEG LEG SAM, HOLD ON TO YOUR PROVERBIAL HAT!
Peter B. Lowry CD release – 1993 (Cottekill, NY)
My mother was an avid READER’S DIGEST consumer and one of her favorite sections was “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met”, a (usually) monthly piece on any variety of folks, oddball or not. For myself, I’d have to place Peg Leg Sam in that category of “unforgettable” for a variety of reasons. Mr. Arthur Jackson was known as “Peg Pete” in and around the Jonesville/Union/Spartanburg, SC region and was basically the (rare) wandering minstrel of blues-stereotype fame.
While he spent much of his time in travel, Sam always “came home” to his family spread in Jonesville. When I met him, he had his own cabin on the property, plus a cooking shack, a wash-house, and an outhouse. Heated by a woodstove, at the time I first went to his place, he was re-building his cabin after his brother, Bill, had accidentally burned its predecessor down! Kip Lornell was with me for part of that time and his greater height was very helpful in getting the ceiling sheets of plywood in place!!
I would park my van on a dirt road behind his outbuildings that headed to the local cemetery, and sleep on the matress that I had in the back (on top of a “box” for my equipment) with my dog, Ruby Chewsday. Mornings I would let her out to do whatever dogs do in the a.m. before breakfast and I’d perform my ablutions and brush my teeth in anticipation of breakfast. One time after getting there while en route to Macon and an appointment with Eddie Kirkland, Ruby took off and didn’t come back. I waited as long as I could, then left asking Sam to hold on to the little beast.
On my return from GA a weekor so later, I found out that she had come back a day later looking for me, but Sam and Bill were unable/unwilling to hang on to her and off she headed into the woods once again. My lost dog tale was spread and at a card gave in Sam’s cabin I met once again Mr. Tom Black, the postal worker friend who had pointed me to Sam’s place originally in ’72. He said that he thought that he’d seen my dog while delivering the mail, and gave me directions. The next day I went to the house that he mentioned, pulled into their driveway, and was greeted by a wiggling and whining Ruby C.! An emotional reunion for us both.
The old folks who lived there said that she would go to the roadside any time a car went by to see if it was me. I would probably have gotten her back in all likelihood as they wrote to me c/o the address om her tag, but this was a simpler and less expensive solution! They were really nice people and they were really nice to Rube – silly beast. She must have flushed up some sort of game and run after it, getting lost in the process. She was a great road companion, though, and provided a certain degree of “protection” by just existing in my truck. It was also a simpler time back then.
Anyhow, Sam always wanted to cook possum for me, but I was never able to give him sufficient notice (possum apparently is cooked a long time) for that repast; I did share some local fish that he and his brother had caught, though! Peg Leg Sam was an unforgettable person, indeed – worldly-wise, yet not negative; very outgoing (often loudly so), yet sensitive to others; a friend to those he knew [Baby Tate, Henry Johnson, myself, Bastin]; one who took what came at him in life and dealt with it, constantly looking forward to the next bend in the road. A one-off, for sure.
The fourteen pieces on this album were taken from six recording sessions done at Sam’s home in Jonesville, SC or at Baby Tate’s home in Spartanburg, SC over a three year span (1970-1972).
For more on Peg Leg Sam, see “Oddenda & Such” #16 and #17.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney