- Good Medicine and Good Music: A Biography of Mrs. Joe Person, Patent Remedy Entrepreneur and Musician
The life of Mrs. Joe (Alice) Person is a fascinating tale of a woman in the post-Civil War South who was faced with the necessity of providing for her large family after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke and died. Her strength as a mother, wife, business entrepreneur, and musician are detailed in this book, which reads like a novel. Her life stands as a testament to the empowerment of women in a male-dominated social setting and how she used her talents to successfully market herself and her products (her remedy and her musicianship) to become a local celebrity in her native central North Carolina, parts of Virginia, and elsewhere.
The book opens with the complete text of her 1903 autobiography, which details her struggle and her strategy to get the sale of her remedy—a mixture of herbs in a whiskey-based solution—off the ground. The ingredients used had been given to her by a neighbor who claimed she had gotten the recipe from a Native American. The neighbor approached Alice with the concoction when one of Alice's daughters lay dying from scrofula, a tuberculosis-related disease, having been pronounced hopeless by attending physicians and left to die. Alice administered the medicine and in a few days her daughter was up and around and pronounced cured. From this incident, Alice built her life around marketing her remedy and became highly successful. Eventually, she decided to use her talent for playing the piano to take her to county fairs all over the South where crowds gathered to hear her play, in turn providing opportunities to market her remedy. Her playing was revered enough that she was able to have her music transcribed and published.
Hursh and Goertzen have rescued the life of this remarkable woman from the ravages of time and produced a thorough composite using primary source material. Luckily, Alice saved correspondence with family, friends, and business colleagues. The three main parts of the book are Alice Person in her own words (the text of her autobiography), Alice through the eyes of others (letters, notes, and correspondence), and a detailed look at her life by the authors. There are numerous photographs: of Alice, of the bottles used for her remedy, of covers of her published music, and of some of the houses where she lived and centered her operations for bottling and marketing her remedy. The book also includes a complete bibliography, chapter notes, a timeline of Alice's life, and [End Page 311] a detailed index. The research done by the authors does not merely consist of poring over dusty tomes housed in libraries and archives, but rather includes actively visiting the sites where Alice lived, interviewing living relatives, and discovering some of the letters and correspondence kept by these relatives. Ultimately, this research resulted in the Alice Morgan Person Collection housed at East Carolina University where Hursh is head music librarian. (Research was supported in part by the Music Library's Dena Epstein Award, which Hursh received in 2006.)
This book holds interest for a number of disciplines besides music: women's studies, historical medicine, North Carolina history, North Carolina social life and customs, diseases and treatments, and American history in general. Alice Person's life touched on all these disciplines and more; no small accomplishment for someone who wanted only to put food on her family's table. It is difficult for me to pinpoint the specific audience for whom this book is intended. One thing is for sure: her music and musicianship, consisting of piano arrangements of spirituals and popular "Old South" melodies, was almost an afterthought to Alice, a means to an end which was to connect with people in order to make sales of her remedy. Perhaps the intended audience is the general public at large, but also audiences as specific as ethnomusicologists...