Snake Oil: A Short History

If there’s one thing audiophiles agree on, it’s that snake oil is bad—even if they can’t agree about what snake oil actually is.

In audio, snake oil means fake science or fake technology—anything that’s claimed to improve the sound of a system but that looks like an obvious rip-off. For some people, expensive speaker cables and interconnects are snake oil. A few objectivists consider AC power treatments snake oil: most modern audio components, after all, can correct for AC line-voltage flaws and reject “ripple” in a power supply’s output. A handful of hard-core objectivists maintain that every new digital technology since the advent of the Compact Disc is snake oil.

Other audiophiles are willing to give a listen to anything that seems remotely plausible: cables, vibration isolation devices, whatever. A handful are happy to suspend disbelief entirely and give a serious listen to colorful foils posted on walls, special clocks, and photos in freezers. More deceptive are more recent devices that are claimed to interact with audio signals on a quantum level, aligning protons and whatnot—pure, obvious snake oil.

Unless you’re a trained listener making an effort to maintain a consistent state of mind, any tweak, new component, or new accessory is virtually guaranteed to focus your attention more closely on the music, or some aspect of the music. Alter your focus—your attention—even a little, and what you hear will change, even if nothing has changed in what you’re listening to. Using brain imaging, scientists have determined that such changes in perception are real, in the sense that they alter signals in the brain’s hearing centers—primitive, pre-cognitive parts. You don’t just think you hear it, you do hear it—even if it does nothing to the electrons in your wires or the pressure waves in your listening room.

1218awsi.2.jpgThe history of snake oil—the term and the alleged medicine—goes back, in the United States, at least to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad line, in the 1860s. Much of the labor was provided by workers from China. The hard work caused many aches and pains, and the Chinese workers relied on traditional remedies from home, including fatty extracts from Enhydris chinensis, the Chinese water snake.

Here’s the most surprising thing about snake oil: fats extracted from Enhydris chinensis contain 20% eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the Omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish. According to Western medical science, EPA has strong analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, and can lower triglycerides. Some studies have found it useful against depression, even autism (though claims of the latter appear to lack solid support). Many other uses have been proposed (footnote 1).

Snake oil, then, is real medicine. Think about that the next time you encounter a preposterous tweak—maybe you should think twice before calling it snake oil, because snake oil actually works.

The problem was that extracts from the Chinese water snake had to be imported from China, which made them expensive. Snake oil was also relatively rare, and as word of its effectiveness spread, new sources were needed. Local substitutes were sought, not so much by Chinese workers themselves as by hucksters seeking to take their hard-earned money.

There probably was a time when real extracts from American snakes were substituted; certainly, such claims were made. According to a 1903 ad I stumbled on in my research, a special formulation of a liniment prepared from “pure rattlesnake oil” by the Yaquis Medicine Company, of San Francisco and Portland, could cure deafness—just imagine what it could do for your ability to hear small differences among audio components.

Clark Stanley—not to be confused with Stanley Clarke, the slap-happy bass guitarist—claimed to have studied with a Hopi medicine man who taught him the secrets of rattlesnake oil. Stanley, who called himself The Rattlesnake King, performed with the snakes at medicine shows, and sold so much oil that it required two Northeastern factories to produce it.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 made fake drugs—patent medicines—illegal. Stanley’s oil was tested and found to contain no snake. Stanley was fined $20—about $440 in today’s money—shut down, and sent on his way. The action against Stanley was among the first acts in a campaign by the government to gain control over the distribution of drugs in the US, including alcohol and opium; the abuse of both had reached epidemic proportions.

Patent medicines—proprietary nonprescription fake drugs like Stanley’s snake oil—intersect America’s musical history in interesting ways. The first radio show featuring blues music—King Biscuit Time, on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas—was sponsored by a biscuit flour. The show was hosted by blues harp player Rice Miller, who broadcast as Sonny Boy Williamson (though he was not John Lee Curtis Williamson, another blues harp player who was better known at the time, footnote 2). After several years, Miller left King Biscuit Time and started another program, The Talaho Syrup Show, broadcast on WAZF from a pharmacy, on which he promoted his sponsor’s dubious product. He later moved to KWEM, in West Memphis, Arkansas, for a show sponsored by Hadacol, a high-alcohol patent medicine. Marketed as a vitamin supplement and containing 12% alcohol, Hadacol was a big seller, especially in “dry” counties where alcoholic beverages were illegal. The recommended dosage was just a teaspoon, but some pharmacies sold it by the shot glass.

Hadacol’s inventor, Dudley LeBlanc, a Democratic state senator and perennial gubernatorial candidate from southwestern Louisiana, didn’t know much about medicine, but he’s a legend in marketing circles. LeBlanc engaged the media in unprecedented ways. He paid customers for testimonials—one user, perhaps under Hadacol’s influence, wrote, “Two months ago I couldn’t read nor write. I took four bottles of Hadacol, and now I’m teaching school.”

In addition to education, Hadacol promoted the careers of musicians, and not just those of Rice Miller, cohost Robert Lockwood Jr., and the Hadacol show’s many guests. Among prominent musicians with links to Hadacol was Hank Williams. Hadacol sponsored the radio show Louisiana Hayride, where Williams got his start, as well as Williams’s Health & Happiness shows on WSM in Nashville in 1949. Williams performed in the 1951 Hadacol Goodwill Caravan, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to some 20 shows in US cities and towns and, according to witnesses, bringing them all to their feet (footnote 3). According to one legend, his song “Jambalaya” was inspired by a performance during the Caravan by a long-forgotten Cajun act. A version of the Hadacol Caravan aimed at black customers featured many blues and jazz musicians.

Hadacol was a pop phenomenon, and its influence on music was substantial. The drink’s theme song, “The Hadacol Boogie,” has been recorded many times, including in a duet by Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Guy. Professor Longhair, among several others (including himself as alter egos Roy Byrd, Henry Byrd, and Robert Boyd), recorded the “Hadacol Bounce.” A Tidal search for “Hadacol” yields seven tracks, including “Hadacol Corners,” by Slim Willet; not on Tidal is “Valse de Hadacol,” by Harry Choates. A roots-rock band called Hadacol, known for its ferocious live performances, released two albums, in 1999 and 2001.

It wasn’t Hadacol itself but Dudley LeBlanc’s claims for it that attracted critical attention and eventually did in the enterprise. At various times, LeBlanc claimed that Hadacol could cure cancer, epilepsy, and asthma. (Who knows? Maybe he also claimed that it tightened bass and improved stereo imaging.) LeBlanc’s biggest problem, though, was that despite Hadacol’s apparent success, he lost a lot of money. He sold a lot of Hadacol, but paid out much more for marketing. When, in 1951, he managed to sell the company for $8.2 million, its buyers quickly realized they’d been had. Among those filing civil suits to collect on debts were Hank Williams and Carmen Miranda.

Moral: The audiophile community may wish to reconsider its use of the term snake oil. Snake oil works. The problem is that most snake oil is fake.

When it was tested, Clark Stanley’s snake-oil patent medicine was found to contain no actual snake extract—but in addition to mineral oil, turpentine, and beef tallow, it was found to contain capsaicin, the active ingredient of chili peppers and an approved topical analgesic that’s available over the counter for the treatment of shingles, and by prescription to treat neuropathic pain associated with post-herpetic neuralgia. Stanley’s “snake oil” also contained camphor, an FDA-approved treatment for itching and infection. Apparently, even fake snake oil can be real medicine. Food for thought.

Footnote 1: See, for example:

Footnote 2: In time, Miller would become known as Sonny Boy Williamson II; it’s a complicated story. To my ear, SBW II is easily the better harp player. He would later record with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, as well as Bob Dylan and the pre-Band Hawks.

Footnote 3: When Bob Hope joined the Hadacol Caravan in Kentucky, he insisted on closing the show. Williams played a blistering set that left the audience screaming for more—and jeering Hope.

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