Tears and Beers: A History of Drinking Songs

For centuries the drinking song has provided a peek into the essence of a culture, a place and even the collective heartbreak of an era. Sarah Baird unravels the history of the boozy anthem—from workingman blues to ballads—and its value as cultural currency.

While driving through the tree-lined streets of a suburban enclave last week, I pulled up next to the quintessential family vehicle of my youth—a 1995 Chevy Aerostar van. We approached a stoplight together, and I peeked in to see if the van-driving families of today were anything like the ones I remember so fondly.

The vehicle was jam-packed with requisite sports equipment (check), a long-suffering family dog whose ears were getting tugged by a toddler (check) and a chorus of elementary school children bellowing loudly, “99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer! Take one down, pass it around…”

Check.

For generations, American children have learned drinking songs from the time they enter first grade, chirruping “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” in a chorus class or chanting along with Disney’s favorite pirate, “Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!”

As we get older, these songs become primarily associated with partying, whether chanting “standing up to get crunk” with the Yin Yang Twins at a football game or dancing along with Pee-Wee Herman to “Tequila” by The Champs. But regardless of whether it’s being sung by a naïve child or a gaggle of celebrating adults, the drinking song is license to be a little naughty.

The importance of the drinking song, though, runs far deeper through the fiber of American culture. The songs that we sing about drinking—boozy anthems that are easy to drink along with—are a record of our collective history, a cultural litmus test and often a form of identification. What a person listens to when they’re drinking—whether jovial or downtrodden—is akin to a tiny peek into their essence, state of mind and the place they come from.

Songs made for and about drinking are, of course, nothing new. The oldest ones were coined by a youthful group of mischievous, wandering clergy called the Goliards in the 12th-century and documented in the Carmina Burana. This collection of 254 poems, texts and songs from across Western Europe are largely irreverent and cheeky take downs of hypocritical leaders, moral double standards and political institutions of the day. The most notable chapters—called the “Drinking Masses”— openly discuss the Goliards’ boozy, blasphemous practices.

“When We Are in The Tavern” (a song from the “Drinking Masses” frequently performed by male choruses) describes how a night on the town can lead to blowing money fast:

Six hundred coins are not enough,
when all these drink too much
and without restraint,
although they drink cheerfully.

Many people censure us,
and we shall always be short of money.
May our critics be confounded,
and never be numbered among the just.

While the Goliards were eventually stripped of their rights as clergymen, it’s safe to say that sipping a bevy of unholy beverages helped to wash away their pain.

From the Middle Ages onward, drinking songs swept across Western Europe and found eager voices in defiant American colonists who departed Europe to stake their claim on new ground. Americans used drinking songs as a rally cry and point of communion—a way to band together in ale and song. In the ultimate homage to a night of drinking, Francis Scott Key borrowed the tune of a bawdy British drinking song (“To Anacreon in Heaven”) about overindulgence and questionable relationship choices when he wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.” And since Key’s elevation of a barroom sing-a-long, drinking tunes have become as American as apple pie, manifesting frequently as blue-collar work songs.

While farmers and railroad workers helped contribute to the songbook of the workingman, it was the seaman who popularized a majority of labor-themed drinking tunes. While performing their own kind of backbreaking work, 19th-century European sailors encountered African and Caribbean deckhands warbling together as they hoisted sails and rowed oars. These hymns—from which many sea shanties derived their melodies—only became widely known to European sailors in the 1840s, when towns like Mobile Bay, Alabama served as “shanty marts” (a phrase coined by sea song historian Stan Hugill) for international mariners to swap tunes and share drinks.

From smuggling songs to the debauchery of pulling into port, the trickle-down influence of sailor-crooned drinking songs still lingers today; it’s not difficult to see the direct connection between, say, the 19th-century Afro-Caribbean rowing song “Grog Time ‘O Day”—which described the hour at which sailors would slurp down a rum-based concoction—and Kenny Chesney’s 2005 Margaritaville smash, “It’s 5 O’ Clock Somewhere.” The centuries-old connection between working and drinking is inescapable: Work is still work, and a drink is (thankfully) still a drink.

But as the Elizabethan era made way to the Victorian age, the role of drinking songs changed; lyrics and melodies turned away from simply rousing, merry tunes and began to meditate on deeper, darker subjects. Most notably, songs began tackling the affairs of the heart.

“The drinking songs of the Elizabethans were jolly, frequently coarse and often vulgar,” writes Fannie Rose Walbridge in her book, The Burden of the Victorian Lyric. “…there was no hint of the darker side of life. It is noticeable that none in the Elizabethan collection have even a touch of sadness, while not one of the Victorian [songs] is free from gloom.”

William Sharp’s 1890s song, “Love’s Demense” foreshadows lovelorn ballads to come:

What if he changeth; oh heart of me! Oh heart of me!
Oh, can the waters be void of the wind?
What if he wendeth apart and afar from me?
What if he leave me to perish behind?

There’s a level of comfort in the Victorian migration towards meditating about heartbreak, sadness and death because these verses are the predecessors to the most potent and familiar of modern-day drinking songs. That is, the the tear-in-my-beer, ugly-crying-on-a-barstool tunes that provide us with misery-loves-company solidarity when our hearts have been cut to ribbons.

Entering into the 20th century, country music and the blues (along with, eventually, rock bands like The Kinks and The Replacements) grabbed hold of the heartbroken, liquor-fueled genre and held on for dear life. There’s a country or blues drinking song for every single variety of sadness, from no-good husbands (Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind”) to heart-stomping breakups (George Jones’ “If the Drinking Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will”) to the loneliness of being on the road (Jason Isbell’s “Streetlights”).

While Beyonce now beckons us all to be “Drunk in Love,” the hard truth is that we’re more likely to be drunk out of love—floundering like the protagonist in the Hem song “When I Was Drinking” (Twelve bars behind us and twelve bars to go/Bottles of beer lined up in a row/One for each hour that you didn’t show) than riding on any Beyonce-approved “surfbort.”

Drinking songs are a kind of cross-generational and cross-cultural currency. With or without a drink in hand, they’re tethered to memory and meaning, providing agency for angry workers to push back against the daily grind and nostalgic, squeal-worthy glee for aging co-eds recalling a night out on the town. Drinking songs are a meeting place and a calling card.

So, if you happen upon me while I’m in the throes of my go-to drinking song—“Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” by Hank Williams, Jr.—feel free to pull up a stool and pour one out for no good rapscallions everywhere.

But get ready to sing, because we’re listening to your song next.

The Essential Drinking Songs playlist, by Sarah Baird.  

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