Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson: The Last Medicine Show

Medicine shows served as rural entertainment before the days of radio and television. The traveling shows provided an outlet for unknown independent musicians, comedians and dancers to promote their songs and talent.

Such famous entertainers that worked medicine shows before their stardom were Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers and Sonny Terry. Other great musicians that worked the medicine show circuit were Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Doc Tommy Scott and Curley Sechler.

Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson was the most amazing harmonica virtuoso to ever hit the blues and folk festival music scene. Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson is now known among many blues musicians across the South as that “peg leg harp player that plays two harps at once (one with his nose).”

The feature film “Born for Hard Luck” was produced and released in 1976 by Tom Davenport. The film sets the stage of the last medicine show that took place at the Chatham County Fair in Pittsboro, North Carolina in 1972. This is the only film record of his live medicine show performance.

Arthur Jackson began his journey in life when he ran away from home at the age of 10 and hit the rails.

Born in 1911 near Jonesville, South Carolina, he traveled most of his life as a hobo. He worked odd jobs along the way by shining shoes, working as a houseboy, and cooking on ships. He got his nickname “Peg Leg” when he lost his leg in 1930 trying to hop a train in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite the traumatic injury, he kept roving.

His freight train travels took him all over the South and he knew the easiest lines to catch a ride. He hoboed from the South up to New York, New England and Canada, then westward to California. He even stowed away on steamships from Key West to Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Along the way he picked up more odd jobs digging potatoes in Maine and cutting cane in Florida. He also spent time on a Georgia prison farm. It was on his travels that he met Elmon “Shorty” Bell in Spartanburg who taught him the modern style of harmonica. He learned to play the harmonica with his nose as well as play two harmonicas at the same time.

He began his medicine show career in 1938 when veteran medicine show performer Pink Anderson persuaded him to join up with the Emmitt Smith Show. Pink along with washboard player Charley “Chilly Wind” Williams and Leo “Chief Thundercloud” Kahdot performed together doing comedy, buck dance routines and colorful and skillful storytelling.

Peg Leg was also a regular favorite performing at the Fenner Tobacco Warehouse in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Jackson performed 25 years for the Fenner’s Warehouse radio morning program on WCEC. Peg Leg became a legend and favorite folk performer among the Rocky Mount locals and sometimes appeared on local television spots.

Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson performing at the Fenner Tobacco Warehouse – Photo courtesy of the Rocky Mount Telegram – January 15, 1963

In 1963, Peg Leg Sam was shot in the face with a pistol when he got caught in the middle of a family argument near Whitakers, North Carolina. The shooting occurred when Peg Leg Sam tried to take the pistol away from Lonnie Parker where Peg Leg was shot on the right side of his face. He was taken to Edgecombe County Hospital where he recovered.

Eventually, Pink Anderson and Charley Williams passed away. Peg Leg and Cheif Thundercloud became a two man show. The show-stopping pair took their traveling medicine show to Pittsboro, North Carolina. “Peg Leg Sam” began his show with his performance of “John Henry” followed by Chief Thundercloud and Peg Leg bantering. Soon the conversation leads to Chief Thundercloud’s rattlesnake story and how his famous snake oil cured and saved the life of a little girl bitten by a rattlesnake.

Sadly, that became the final medicine show. Chief Thundercloud died on April 7, 1973, which ended the traveling medicine show for the pair.

The historic footage was recorded by Flyright Records and videotaped by the UNC Folklore Curriculum. Peg Leg retired from the road after the death of Chief Thundercloud in 1973 back home in Jonesville, South Carolina where he passed away on October 27, 1977.

Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival – photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Press, September 1, 1974

By Hope Thompson

You may also like Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs, Folklife: The Faith Healing Tradition of “Talking Out the Fire”, Granny’s Wisdom: The Magic of Wild Medicine

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