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A brief history of drinking songs

Andrea Warner

The drinking song is, arguably, the most humble category of folk music. Communal, multi-generational, and evocative — tearful, joyful, and occasionally both — the drinking song doesn’t seek glory so much as default to ubiquity. Simple melodies, repetitive lyrics, catchy hooks, universal sentiments and colonialism have all contributed to the lasting power of the drinking song.

Among the most popular drinking songs, particularly around Saint Patrick’s Day, are “The Wild Rover” and “Beer, Beer, Beer.”

Both abide by the repetitive + simple + catchy equation, and there’s also a genuine element of fun to the tunes. Canada has contributed its own gems to the drinking song canon, including Spirit of the West’s rousing and robust “Home for a Rest.”

The late, great Canadian folk artist Stan Rogers’ sea shanty-inspired “Barrett’s Privateers” wasn’t released until 1976, but it was almost instantly celebrated as a drinking song, and is considered the unofficial anthem of Atlantic Canada.  

There’s perhaps no more ubiquitous drinking song than the much maligned “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” a tune whose sole saving grace is doubling as a sobriety test based on how well you can count backwards.

It’s hard to imagine a more unusual through-line from “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” than the origin of the drinking song.

The very first recorded instance of a drinking song is believed to come from the Carmina Burana in the 13th century.

Among Franz Schubert's 600-odd Lieder (art songs), you'll find several drinking songs, including a series of “Trinklied” pieces.  

There are also a number of songs that have their own identities and significance now, but whose origins are as drinking songs, including “Jingle Bells,” which was allegedly written by a “jerk," and the American national anthem, the music for which was originally a French drinking song called "Anacreon."

But at their heart, drinking songs have mostly belonged to the people. Poor and working-class folks who used music not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of communication and spreading the news. Literally. They were written out and sold for a penny, and millions of sheets were in circulation, covering everything from murder and marriage to acts of chivalry and moral guidance.

The 17th century was a particularly significant time for drinking songs, as cataloged and analyzed by historian Mark Hailwood, who identifies three different categories, including the “broadside ballads,” which were “manifestations of ‘low’ culture.” According to Hailwood, the drinking songs “often contained warnings about the types of companion to avoid, or extrapolated the qualities of the ideal drinking companion.”

The more typical folk tradition of drinking songs live on, of course, often at pub sessions in Irish and English bars, but the modern day drinking crowd has largely left those tunes in the past and adopted a contemporary approach to the sloshed singalong. Pop classics, chart-toppers, and karaoke staples are the cultural touchstones now. We’re much more likely to hear Snoop Dogg’s sublime “Gin and Juice” than we are to hear “the Barley Mow.”

Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” and Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink to That)” are also fodder for a drunk singalong, not to mention George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” These songs may or may not have the staying power of a “Beer, Beer, Beer,” but they continue a long tradition of finding community, however fleeting, among those with whom we raise a glass. Beer goes down, song comes up, and the revelers ride their intoxicated joy right through to last call.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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