Road Scholars

Eating fire, swallowing swords, playing old-timey tunes -- the Yard Dogs offer medicine for the soul. And they'll even work for booze.

Step right up -- here you are! You may not have cinderella but if you haven't it's a cinch you've got something else and no matter what it is this little box will save your life one dose alone irrevocably guaranteed to instantaneously eliminate permanently prevent and otherwise completely cure toothache sleeplessness clubfeet mumps stuttering varicose veins youthful errors tonsillitis rheumatism lockjaw pyorrhea stomachache hernia tuberculosis nervous debility impotence halitosis and falling down stairs or your money back.

-- from Him by e.e. cummings

During the late 1800s, small towns like Brimfield, Ill.; Bisbee, Ariz.; and Ketcham, Idaho, depended on traveling medicine shows for "sophisticated" entertainment and spectacle. The event might be as modest as one pitchman operating out of a "tripes and keister" (a suitcase mounted on a tripod) alongside a tap-dancing harmonica player, or as extravagant as a 12-wagon caravan, complete with dancing girls, fire-breathers, and elephants. Promising miracle cures in the form of Kickapoo Indian Sagwa or Hamlin's Wizard's Oil, the wagons would sometimes take months, even years, to roll back through a town, but toward the turn of the century the wait was worth it.

Out With the Old, In With the Older: The Yard Dogs' 
brand of retro-retro chic.
Out With the Old, In With the Older: The Yard Dogs' brand of retro-retro chic.

By the early 1900s, the smooth-talking mountebank peddling a secret elixir from his homeland had given way to the first 10-in-one -- 10 acts under one tent -- which paved the road for the traveling carnivals, circuses, and vaudeville acts that would soon follow. The principal difference between the medicine show and all of its fancier-footed cousins was that the former provided all entertainment free of charge, a flashy hook for the real business at hand, which was selling dreams and assuaging terrors by way of a whole new life corked up in a dark little bottle. The principal similarity between the medicine show and those that followed was the bally.

The bally-act or ballyhoo was the attraction that drew the initial crowd, and it was only as good as its pitchman. The pitchman had to do in a few minutes what a good PR firm now does in a few years: pique interest, evoke mystery, induce excitement, instill confidence, suggest authenticity, and insinuate results beyond the customer's wildest expectation. Eddy Joe Cotton is the pitchman for the Yard Dogs Road Show, a highly colored confederacy of free spirits and artful vagrants that started in the Bay Area as a traveling jug band and has morphed over the years into a full-blown vaudeville troupe, complete with burlesque dancers, a fire-eater, a sword-swallower, and a baby.

When he's not onstage or yelling through a megaphone from the top of a fruit crate, Cotton has a quiet, serious comportment. He is a slight man with a strong jaw, a delicate mouth, dark eyebrows, and a long, narrow nose, which he accents with a soft-brimmed fedora or high top hat, all of which colludes to make him appear as if he has just stepped out of a grainy photograph taken during the building of the Hoover Dam. Heightening this impression are Cotton's clothes -- jacket, slacks, and shirt-sleeves -- usually baggy, always impeccable, even if they are sometimes a bit threadbare and decidedly out of time.

Despite his manner and mien, though, Cotton is most definitely the product of his parents' generation. Born Zebu Recchia some 30-odd years ago to a cowboy biker and a "wild woman" who had once been engaged to a founding member of San Francisco's legendary hippie-and-drag theatrical group the Cockettes, Cotton was traipsed across the country, exposed to communes, hippies, merchant marines, hitchhikers, gypsies, and magic mushrooms, before he and his dad ended up alone, laying brick in Denver.

One day in 1991, after one of many fights with his father, Cotton walked out and hopped a freight train. He rode the rails for the next 10 years, the early, most poignant memories of which are captured in his absorbing, highly sympathetic memoir, Hobo. It was while wandering that Cotton came across the two kindred souls who would help him birth the Yard Dogs Road Show: Flecher Fleudujon, a gaunt, handsome, wildly energetic filmmaker with a fast laugh and a good eye, and Miguel Strong, a rambling playboy poet with blond hair, broad shoulders, and a knack for knowing which way the wind blows. As Yard Dogs, these two would become Five Livrd Larry and Voodoo Freddy, respectively.

The idea for a jug band came while the three young men were traveling through Northern California, en route to perform at a Ken Kesey party as part of the Zoopy Funk Puppet Theatre.

"We had pulled over on Dog Creek Road," recalls Cotton, "and we were passing a bottle around the campfire. That's where the idea was born."

That night, in the grand tradition of hobo artistes, the boys slept in the dirt under the stars. They had their first rehearsal on the porch of an abandoned house. Fleudujon played trumpet and jaw harp, Cotton played a washtub bass, Strong played the washboard, and they all whooped.

"Our first gig was at the Klondike Bar and Casino [outside Shasta]," says Cotton, chuckling to himself. "They had this tiny little stage, and I convinced the bartender to let us play. That sort of solidified me as the band's manager. There were just four guys drinking in there at the time. They never even looked at us.

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