Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The drunk history of American drinking songs

Illustration for article titled The drunk history of American drinking songs

For years, The A.V. Club has delved into cinematic history’s dustbin with Films That Time Forgot, but far more records are released every year than films. If cinema has a dustbin of forgotten films, music has a giant Dumpster. In Albums That Time Forgot, we examine records few people would remember.


Artist: Oscar Brand with Erik Darling

Album: American Drinking Songs, 1956

Label: Riverside Records

Wait, who? Fans of American folk music and regular listeners to WNYC will recognize Oscar Brand’s name; the musician, singer, and musical historian has been at it for more than seven decades. His Saturday-night radio show, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival, ran weekly for more than 60 years on WNYC— the House Un-American Activities Committee once described it as a “pipeline of communism”—and he has an extensive discography that’s more than 50 albums deep. But even a man as established as Brand can have an album that time forgot: His own website lists “196?” as the release date for American Drinking Songs, a 17-track compilation of “campus collections, moonshine melodies, beer-bottle ballads, sailing songs, and army anthems.” The novelty label Offbeat Records originally released the album, but was later absorbed by Riverside Records, a legitimate jazz label that released albums by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, and many, many more. Riverside reissued American Drinking Songs in 1961 to a four-star Billboard review (meaning “STRONG SALES POTENTIAL,” according to a key).

“OSCAR BRAND is one of America’s foremost authorities on drinking songs. He attributes his remarkable collection to the fact that he is a tee-totaller,” says the back cover ironically, as Brand’s introduction and detailed notes for every song indicate the guy knows how to throw down. (Or he knew how—he’s 93 years old now.) The album includes some familiar songs (“Little Brown Jug” and “Old King Cole”), but the rest are lesser-known regional songs Brand picked up on his apparently extensive travels. In many cases, they originated in one place and spread elsewhere in different forms, and Brand delightfully traces their anecdotal lineage in his copious liner notes. “There are some songs which are no longer popular,” he writes in the introduction, “but reveal some almost forgotten aspect of American ribaldry: Our duty to education requires their inclusion.”

From the liner notes: Brand comments on every song, explaining its origins and his history with it like a charming great-uncle, noting, for instance, that his knowledge of “Red Light Saloon” is limited: “I would have gotten the real verses, but we ran out of Guinness and the party broke up early.” He notes the joys of drinking from a jug (vis à vis “Little Brown Jug”): “The liquor falls with delightful gravity directly into the stomach, thus providing an immediate effect.” The history of the English drinking song “Three Jolly Coachmen” explains the earliest incarnation of the pub crawl: “The coachmen would stop at each wayside tavern for a little something to steady their nerves. On long journeys, they tended to get so steady they couldn’t move.”

Brand’s winking enthusiasm is contagious, which makes the album even more enjoyable, reinforced by the serious musical chops of his accompanist, Erik Darling. As silly and lighthearted as American Drinking Songs is, Brand and Darling treat the songs with reverence. Well, relative reverence. “My favorite version [of “Rye Whiskey”] is one I adapted from the singing of Tony Kraber,” Brand writes, “although I had to forego his deep-throated shouts in courteous consideration of the recording engineer’s hangover.”

Key songs: The speedy picking on “Bootleggers Song” recalls Flatt & Scruggs, and it’s a nice slice of Americana. An ode to a brothel, “Red Light Saloon,” is the bawdiest track on American Drinking Songs: “My head it was rising like it was a balloon / from the treatment I got in the red-light saloon”; “I did not discover until it was June / that I was carrying a keepsake of the Red Light Saloon.” A few just have fun names, like “No More Booze,” “Drunk Last Night,” and “The E-RI-E Was Rising” (the last of which features Brand doing his most stereotypical “drunk voice”). For a cheap laugh at how word meanings have changed, check out the military chant “Quartermaster Corps”: “It is beer, beer, beer that makes us feel so queer / in the Corps.”


Can easily be distinguished by: The saloon on the cover with a copper still, sawdust on the floor, and salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing ’mericans kicking back with some cold ones.


Sign it was made in 1956: The way the men are dressed on the cover—also that there isn’t a minority or a woman in sight.