From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Similar to the fabled gypsy bands of old Europe, medicine shows were traveling horse and buggy teams which peddled miracle medications and other products between various entertainment acts. Their precise origins unknown, medicine shows were most common in the United States in the 19th century (though they continued up to World War II). The product most commonly associated with medicine shows is an elixir (also known as snake oil) which was touted to cure diseases, smooth facial wrinkles, remove stains in clothing, prolong life, or cure any number of common ailments. Entertainment often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, and storytelling. The flea tricks were preformed on miniature circus equipment.
The last (and arguably the largest and greatest) of these traveling shows was the Hadacol Caravan, sponsored by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc and his LeBlanc Corporation, makers of the dubious patent medicine/vitamin tonic "Hadacol", known for both its alleged curative powers and its high alcohol content. The stage show, which barnstormed throughout the Deep South in the 1940s, featured a number of notable music acts and Hollywood celebrities, and was used to promote Hadacol (which was sold heavily during intermission and after the show). Admission to the show was paid in boxtops of the vitamin tonic, sold in stores throughout the southern United States. The Caravan came to a sudden halt in 1951, when the Hadacol enterprise fell apart in a scandal.
Several modern musical acts have named themselves after this old time phenomenon, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Norman Greenbaum's Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show and the London based indie rock and roll band Medicine Show. It also lent its name to Big Audio Dynamite's song "Medicine Show", and The Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show".