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Before “Sweet Caroline,” “The Power of Wine”

When’s the last time you belted out “Sweet Caroline” with your new best friends at the bar? Neil Diamond’s soft-rock classic has become a barroom staple in taverns, pubs, and karaoke joints across the country. But the drinking song certainly isn’t a modern phenomenon; these ditties have been around since before Medieval times.

A Brief History of Drinking Songs

The first recorded drinking song originates in the eleventh century, but it wasn’t written down almost a century later as part of the Carmino Burana, a historical collection of poems, educational songs, love poetry and “entertainment songs” as drinking songs were often called. The genre flourished, and by the nineteenth century even European classical composers had embraced drinking songs; Guiseppe Verdi, for example, included drinking songs in both La Traviata and Otello.

Power-of-Wine-1790-sheet-music

“The Power of Wine” sheet music (1790)

Drinking songs were an integral and accepted part of culture, and they often had their own sheet music. One such example is “The Power of Wine” (1790), a five-verse song that extols both the virtues and pitfalls of the beloved drink of the gods. The Starr Sheet Music Collection at Indiana University’s Lilly Library contains many other examples of sheet music for drinking songs.

A Star-Spangled Drinking Song

Even without sheet music, most people were familiar with the tunes of popular drinking songs–and they reused these melodies for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the most famous tune that originated as a drinking song is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by Frances Scott Key. The melody to America’s national anthem was originally written for a London gentlemen’s club in the mid-1770’s.

Anacreonitic-Song-1779

“The Anacreontic Song” sheet music (c 1779)

One of the club’s founders, Ralph Tomlinson (1744-1778) wrote the lyrics to “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1776 and commissioned well-known Chapel Royal organist John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) to write the music. Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived around 572 BCE and often wrote about wine. The gentlemen’s club eventually became known as the Anacreontic Society. As far as drinking songs go, it’s actually quite high brow!

The song was often imitated and parodied in broadsides and pamphlets in both Britain and the the US. By 1798, its melody had been used for “Adams and Liberty-The Boston Patriotic Song,” and after Thomas Jefferson was elected, the same tune was used for “Jefferson and Liberty.” And Keys actually reused the same melody again: for “When the Warrior Returns,” which praises Stephen Decatur and the other heroes of the Tripolitan Wars.

American Drinking Songs in the Last Century

Pabst-Malt-Extract-1899

Pabst Malt Extract advertisement (1899)

By the turn of the century, American breweries were advertising their products however they could. In 1899, Pabst even went so far as to proclaim that its malt extract was “prescribed by the best physicians to build up convalescents; conquer dyspepsia; [and] to help women.” But the drinking song seemed a much more natural and timely promotion. Popular songs like “Budweiser’s a Friend of Mine” (1907) and “Schlitz” (1910) capitalized on the trend, incorporating a beer brand name into the lyrics.

Drinking songs had clearly become a vital part of culture in the United States. Indeed, John Phillip Sousa even testified in front of the US Congress against Prohibition, saying that it adversely impacted the American musical theater because it “deprived the drinking song of its traditional social motivation.” His unusual objection fell on deaf ears.

Home-Bartenders-Guide-Song-Book-1930

‘The Home Bartender’s Guide and Song Book’ (1930)

Yet Prohibition (1920-1933) did little to quell either drinking or America’s love of drinking songs. As early as 1925, political commentators like HL Mencken already believed that Prohibition was failing. And the drinking culture was still alive and well. In fact, in 1930 bootlegger George Cassiday came forward to admit that he’d bootlegged for Congress for a decade. That same year, The Home Bartender’s Guide and Song Book was published in New York. The book includes over 90 cocktail recipes and 30 songs, along with comical illustrations throughout.

Now in the United States drinking songs aren’t written expressly for the purpose, but are adopted anthems from popular music. Undoubtedly the form will continue to evolve both in America and abroad, but it’s unlikely that the genre will ever fade away.

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