Drinking songs have been around for as long as recorded history, and probably a good deal longer. If you’d wanted to wet your whistle in a bar in Uruk at the dawn of civilisation, after a few beers (which you drank with a straw to avoid the surface sediment) you might have ended up singing:
‘The saggub jar is filled with beer
And the amam jar brings it over here.
The troughs and the pails and pots and the pans
Are all laid out on their neat pot-stands.’
Archaeologists still puzzle over what exactly all the containers were, but it’s a constant of drinking songs that they are in love with the containers in which the precious alcohol is presented. From the British ‘Roll out the Barrel’ to the Dusun of Borneo who sing ‘Fire are we with singing/Thus empty quickly the bamboo cup’.
Pretty much everywhere there have been humans, there’s been drinking (most of the higher apes like a tipple when they can get one), and wherever there’s been drinking there’s been song. Even in places where alcohol isn’t exactly approved of, it pops up and brings music along. Abu Nuwas is widely considered to be the greatest Arabic poet, and his speciality were the khamriyyat or wine songs. He wrote more than 100 of them and was jailed only very briefly.
In Italy the drinking song became an art form, back in the days when the Italians made everything into an art form. La Traviata opens with ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici’, which translates roughly as ‘Let’s drink, let’s drink from the joyous cups’ because the Italians, too, loved to sing about their drinking vessels.
Donizetti chimed in with ‘Il segreto per esser felici’ (‘The Secret of Happiness’) and Mascagni’s rustic cavalier has ‘Viva, il vino spumeggiante’ (‘Long Live the Bubbly). This sort of Italian drinking song was called a brindisi, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the city of that name, but instead comes from the German bring dir’s, meaning ‘I offer it to you’.
The brindisi became such a standard part of the Italian opera, finding its way into stories where it hardly belongs like Otello, that it was ripe for parody and Gilbert and Sullivan did just that with the ‘Tea-Cup Brindisi’ with the immortal lines:
‘Come, pass the cup around —
I will go bail for the liquor;
It’s strong, I’ll be bound,
For it was brewed by the vicar!’
This of course raises the question of exactly what a drinking song is: is it a song about drinking or a song sung while you are drinking? Are Verdi’s brindisi true brindisi if the singer is sober?
Some songs migrate, leave the bar room, sober up and live respectably ever after. There was once a drinking society in London called the Anacreontic Society. It met in various pubs to dine and drink and sing the club song in praise of the bibulous Greek poet Anacreon. It began:
‘To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition.’
But the tune became so popular that an American fellow wrote some new lyrics about being able to see his flag by the dawn’s early light, and the result was that a jolly Londoner’s drinking song became the national anthem of the United States of America and the whole non-alcoholic farrago was sung at the inauguration of Mr Trump who, among his other failings, is a teetotaller.
The same is true of many Christmas carols. Originally, carols were sung by wassailers who were drinking deep of the Christmas wassail bowl. When the Bishop of Truro invented the Ceremony of Nine Carols one of the effects was to get carol singing out of the pubs and into the church. This is also the reason that so many carols have so little to do with Christmas — a festival that never involved three ships.
The drinking song has left our pubs. Whether to start new careers as hymns or national anthems, forced out by the licensing laws or drowned by Muzak, they are gone. I can’t remember the last time I heard spontaneous singing in an English pub. But I shan’t give up. I shall wait, drinking and humming quietly to myself.
Mark Forsyth is the author of A Short History of Drunkenness.