What a joy it is to discover the existence of characters like Ramblin’ Tommy Scott (1913-2017) and what a boon, for he appears to have been one of the last purveyors of the old time medicine shows, and a real link with the ones who went before. Scott was there every step of the way in transferring the medicine show structure and format from live performance into early radio and television. He is the only person (or at least the most recent) I have ever come across to use the phrase “snake oil” without meaning anything pejorative and not as a synonym for “phony”. He meant it like it was a real thing.
A guitar picker since the age of ten, the Toccoa Georgia native started out playing country barn dances with his sister Cleo. In 1931, he formed The Georgia Peanut Band and did blackface** comedy as a character named “Peanut”. He was already cutting records and appearing on local radio by the early ’30s. Vim Herb was one of the first products he hawked over the airwaves.
Scott wrote hundreds of his own songs. In 1935 he and his band The Hollywood Hillbillies were featured in Edward Dmytryk’s first film Trail of the Hawk, a.k.a. The Hawk.
In the mid ’30s he joined M.F. “Doc” Chamberlain’s Medicine Show (est. 1890), one of the last still in operation. Scott sang and played guitar, performed minstrel bits in the medicine show tradition, did ventriloquism, and made his bones as a pitchman, hawking Chamberlain’s Herb-O-Lac laxative. When Chamberlain retired a few years later he gave Scott his stock of patent medicines and the show itself, which became known as “Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s Hollywood Hillbilly Jamboree” for a time, and later “ ‘Doc’ Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show.” In later years he ditched the Herb-O-Lac and sold a mentholated liniment he simply called “Snake Oil”.
In the late ’30s, he also began a musical partnership at radio station WWVA (Wheeling, West Virginia) with Charlie Monroe, brother of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, becoming one the first of the “Original Kentucky Pardners” (Monroe’s band). There, he performed with the group, sang solo, did ventriloquism (common on the radio at the time), performed blackface sketches with Fiddlin’ Dale Cole (as Midnight and Peanut), and first worked with Curly Seckler, with whom he would soon collaborate again. His ventriloquism dummy, named “Luke McLuke” was made out of an old tin can. He also pitched a medicine called Man-O-Ree, selling as many as 10,000 bottles a week.
In 1940, Scott moved over to WHAS in Louisville, ending the Man-O-Ree partnership with Monroe, but continuing to sell his Herb-O-Lac. There, he first worked with David “Stringbean” Akeman, in an act called Stringbean and Peanut. That same year, he married his wife Frankie. She and their daughter Sandra became part and parcel of the show, both live and on broadcast. Frankie did comedy; “Baby Sandra”, sang, played bass, and performed acrobatics.
In 1941, Scott started performing on the Grand Ole Opry, appearing on bills with the likes of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, and Ernest Tubb. By this point, for whatever reason his minstrel character was now known as “Lightnin'”. In the early 40s he toured for a couple of years in a tent show with Curly Seckler, then traveled with his own stage show coast to coast, Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s Hollywood Hillbilly Jamboree, selling his medicines along the way. At the same time he was playing powerful Mexican border radio stations like XER out of Del Rio, Texas, run by the notorious Dr. J.R. Brinkley, which put out signals which could be heard all over the country. He also appeared in Soundies with titles like “Southern Hayride,” “Hillbilly Jamboree,” and “Hobos and Indians.”
His local TV variety program The Ramblin’ Tommy Scott Show, which began airing in 1948, has been called the first country music show on television. This, and some minor hit records circa 1949, elevated his profile still further, and his live show began to feature well known western screen stars like Al “Fuzzy” St. John, Col. Tim McCoy, and Johnny Mack Brown.
Scott recorded over 500 songs during his career, and pioneered a sound remarkably like rockabilly starting the late ’40s. During the 1950s, Scott had another show on television called Tommy Scott’s Smokey Mountain Jamboree.
In the ’70s, his records, like Slim Whitman’s and Boxcar Willie’s were sold via mail with a series of television commercials, a sales mechanism not unlike that used to sell…patent medicine. In 1984, Smithsonian Folkways released an album by him, in his role as Doc Scott, called World’s Most Unusual Songs.
By this time he was working the medicine show nostalgia angle pretty hard, still selling his Snake Oil liniment, and playing over 300 shows a year, taking a break only around the Christmas season. He did not stop that pace until the 1990s. In 2001, a documentary Still Ramblin’ was made about his life and career. His autobiography, Snake Oil, Superstars and Me, published in 2007.
Tommy Scott was 96 years old when he died in 2017 — not of natural causes, but of injuries sustained in a car accident. I guess that Snake Oil really works!
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To learn more about variety entertainment (like medicine shows and radio and tv variety), please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous