Saturday, October 24, 2015

Singing Along with Prohibition: Part Two


In the previous post, Singing Along with Prohibition:  Part One, the emphasis was on songs and sheet music that pre-dated National Prohibition, with the song writers asking or predicting what life would be like in a completely “dry” America.  This post examines the music and lyrics generated by the actual imposition of what came to be known as “The Great Experiment.”

The topic is ushered in by a 1919 song by Andrew Sterling and Harry Von Tilzer that dwells on the July passage of the Volstead Act that implemented the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that had many Americans thinking that alcohol sales had been immediately banned.  The legislation, however, simply set the date for the following January first, 1920.  In this song the gent is moaning “Whoa January, oh January, I hate to see you come around, July was mighty tough but we could get enough…” Von Tilzer was a prolific songwriter who wrote "Shine on Silvery Moon" and "Wait Til the Sun Shines, Nellie."

When January and National Prohibition did occur, the liquor firms going out of business did brisk sales of their barrels, jugs and bottles of liquor.  Long lines of people stood outside the stores to buy as much as their budgets would let them.  The wealthy established liquor cellars in their homes in which they stock wines and whiskeys.  Author H. L. Mencken created his behind a locked medal door with dire imprecations against anyone trying to enter.  When he died in 1956, long after Repeal, he still had a liquor stash.  
American songwriters were not long in noting these events. Grant Clarke and Milton Ager in 1920 teamed up to give America “Its a Smart Little Feller Who Stocked up his Cellar That’s Getting the Beautiful Girls.”  The lyrics suggested a new era in wooing and winning a “girlie full of charm:”

Oh, they won't call you honey, because you've got money,
It isn't for money they sigh,
You could once grab a queen with your big limousine
But now times are changing, you know what I mean,
Oh, they won't know you're livin' if all you can give'em
Is just pretty diamonds and pearls;
It's the smart little feller who stocked up his cellar,
That's getting the beautiful girls.
Clark and Ager were not the only songwriters to see possibilities in the burgeoning liquor caches of America.  A trio of writers gave the country the song, “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar,”  with the sheet music featuring six hands grabbing toward the key.  In the opening verse the owner confesses to having changed things around in his cellar, stockpiled liquor, tried to keep it a secret but told his wife.  She blabbed:
Now ev'rbody wants a key to my cellar, my cellar, my cellar,
People who before wouldn't give me a tumble,
Even perfect strangers beginning to grumble,
'Cause I won't let them have a key to my cellar,
They'll never get in just let them try.
They can have my money,
They can have my car,
They can have my wife
If they want to go that far,
But they can't have the key that opens my cellar,
If the whole darn world goes dry.
The “I write the songs,” crew also picked up on another phenomenon of the Dry Era — the sudden popularity of doctors.   During America’s dry age, the federal alcohol ban carved out an exemption for medicinal use, and doctors nationwide suddenly discovered they could bolster their incomes by writing liquor prescriptions. They typically charged $3.00 for such and prescribed it for a wide range of supposed ills.  Pharmacies filled those prescriptions and were one of the few places whiskey could be bought legally.  They raked in the dollars. Through the 1920s, fueled by whiskey prescriptions, the number of Walgreens stores soared from 20 to nearly 400.
On this sheet music, entitled “Oh Doctor,” a gent is whispering his needs to a doctor who is in the process of writing a prescription for whiskey.  Meanwhile behind him a line of well dressed men are calling for similar assistance.  According to the song, the petitioner is pleading, “Write the prescription and please make it say, ‘Take with your meals,’ I eat ten times a day.”  The authors,Billy Joyce and Rubey Cowan were New York songwriters who also worked as publishers.
Even the famed American songwriter, Irvin Berlin, took a turn at writing a Prohibition ditty, both music and lyrics.  Remembered far and wide for “White Christmas,” his song, “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,” falls far short of that classic.  Written in 1920, Irvng B. is going to Cuba “where wine is flowing,” and “dark eyed Stellas light their fellers pan-a-gel-as.”  That apparently is Stella on the cover of the sheet music, looking saucy and sexy.  Berlin ends the verse by asking everyone to join him in C-U-B-A.  In that island country, as might be fathomed from the song, alcoholic beverages flowed freely.  
The cover of the sheet music for “I’m the Ghost of that Good Man John Barleycorn” may be be the most interesting part of that song.  It depicts a ghost-like figure in a mist looking over a broken whiskey barrel and some broken and intact bottles.  The words were by George A. Little and the music by Earl K. Smith.  Another Geo. Little song, “When a Black Man is Blue” was recorded by Duke Ellington’s band and is still available on disc.
Some new words and phrases were coming into the vocabulary of the average American, words like bootlegger, rum-runner, speakeasy, home brew, and moonshine.  Actually moonshine had been around for a while.  Bert Williams, a black man who performed in black face, had a hit song in the Ziegfeld Follies called “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine.”  Williams was by far the best selling recording artist before 1920 and is said to have done much during his career to push back racial barriers.
The cover of the 1923 song, “The Moonshine Shudder,” is austere enough to induce at least a slight chill.  It shows five empty bottles on a window sill silhouetted in the light of a smiling moon.  The cover design is by Jan Farrell, about whom I was able to learn nothing, nor anything about the songwriter, Wade Hamilton. Given the lyrics, perhaps their obscurity is deserved:
Oh, could you ever keep from doing it,
I mean the moonshine shudder,
After gurgling, guzzling, lapping up home brew
First you shiver at your throat,
Then you shimmy at your chest;
You wiggle out of your coat,
And you nearly shed your vest.
But you cannot keep from doing it,
I mean the moonshine shudder,
After gurgling, guzzling, lapping up home brew.
As Prohibition wound on through the 1920s and into the 1930s, the songs continue to come.  Some representatives titles were “Kentucky Bootlegger,” “Bootlegger’s Story,”  “Moonshiner,” “Prohibition is a Failure,”  “The Old Home Brew,” “Whiskey Seller,” “Down to the Stillhouse to Get a Li’l Cider,” and “Drunkard’s Hiccups.”  The last-mentioned song is also known as “Jack of Diamonds,” a euphemism for hard drink.   An excerpt from it seems a suitable way to end this post:
Wherever I go
Jack of diamonds, jack of diamonds
I've known you from old
You've robbed my poor pockets
Of silver and gold.

Note:  This and the prior post largely were made possible by the website,, that provided images and lyrics to many of the Prohibition era songs.  It is a very interesting site and worth a look.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Singing Along with Prohibition, Part One

Goodbye, Hunter; So long, Scotch; Farewell Haig and Haig;
Oh my darling old frappe, they will soon take you away,
At the table with Lola they will serve us Coca-Cola;
No more saying: "Let me buy,"
No more coming thru the Rye;
Old Manhattan and Martini have received the big subpoena,
Ev'ry day'll be Sunday when the town goes dry.
From “Yankee Doodle,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to “Blowin’ in the Wind,”  many American songs have had a strong political content.  National Prohibition spawned many such a lyric,  both in anticipation of the Nation going “Dry” in 1920 and the actual 14 year experience of “The Great (Failed) Experiment.”  This post and the one to follow will explore some of those songs and their messages.  This post deals with the anticipation of Prohibition, the next will discuss the songs spawned by the actual National experience.  

The lyrics above are from an 1918 ditty by writers William Jerome and Jack Mahoney, two of the best known songwriters of the early 20th Century.  Jerome created many popular songs of the era as well as musical comedies.  Mahoney, a lyricist, is best known for his co-authorship of the American favorite “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose.”  Their anti-Prohibition song was entitled “Every Day Will be Sunday When the Town Goes Dry,” alluding to the general Lord’s Day ban on alcohol sales.   The cover of the sheet music shows a well-dressed gent in a top hat contemplating the doom destined to fall with National Prohibition. 

In something of the same vein is “How Are You Going to Wet Your Whistle When the Whole Darn World Dry?”  It shows a similarly tuxedoed man about town asking the crucial question outside a cafe that once sold whiskey and draft beer that tried to get by on candy and soda.  Apparently the attempt failed since the sign on the door says “for rent.”  One of the authors, Percy Wenrich, began his career as a music demonstrator in a Milwaukee store and staff writer for music publishing companies.  Moving to New York he became one of the Nation’s most successful song writers, remembered even today for “Moonlight Bay,” “Sail Along, Silv’ry Moon,” and “Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet.”

Like the foregoing, several pre-Prohibition songs speculated on the kinds of effects the alcohol ban would have on daily life.  Among them was “What’ll we do on a Saturday Night (When the Town Goes Dry).”  It shows a young swain talking his lady friend to the movies but worried about what to do afterward:

What'll we do on a Saturday night,
When the town goes dry?
Where will we go after seeing a show
to make the weary hours fly?
Imagine a fellow with a cute little queen,
Trying to win her on a plate of ice cream;
                           What'll we do on a Saturday night,
                             When the town goes dry?
The songwriter was Harry Ruby, who with his longtime partner Bert Kalmar were a successful songwriting team for nearly three decades.  In 1950 MGM made a musical of their lives called “Three Little Words,” starring Fred Astaire as Kalmar and Red Skelton as Ruby.
Another anti-Prohibition song of 1919 contemplated massive unemployment as a result of shutting down saloons and cafes.  Call “No Beer — No Work,” the cover of the sheet music shows four men, all apparently unemployed, standing outside a closed drinking establishment with a “for rent sign.”  It is padlocked and someone has thrown a rock at the front window.  The lyrics told a different story about a miner named Johnny Hymer who being told impending about National Prohibition, threw his tools on the ground and intoned:  “No beer, no work will be my battle cry;  No beer, no work when I am feeling dry.”  Hymer’s unemployment seemingly would be self imposed:  “I’ll hide myself away, until some brighter day.”
Naturally the thought of National Prohibition would bring on “The Blues” for many and songwriters were there to express it.   Al Sweet, a rather obscure composer who died in 1945 at the age of 59, wrote both the music and words to a 1917 “Prohibition Blues,” that included this lyric:
Oh! my Brothers and Sisters, listen to what I say
By nineteen twenty dere'll be no boose sold in the U.S.A.
De whole country am goin' bone dry,
Prohibition am de battle cry,
'Scuse me while I shed a tear,
For good old whiskey,gin and beer.
Goodbye forever, Goodbye forever
Ah got de Prohibition, Prohibition, Prohibition blues.
The cover for the sheet music is particularly interesting for the image of the distraught diner over not having any wine, the weeping waiter, and the bottles of wine, whiskey and beer flying away.  The man in the top hat peering around the corner was known as “Mr. Dry,” the creation of a New York Cartoonist. [See my post on Mr. Dry, August 2014.]
Since it is not possible to copyright a title, a second “Prohibition Blues” followed in 1918.  This one was produced by two celebrities.  Ring Lardner, noted as one of America’s prime short story writers and novelists, also was a composer and lyricist.  His co-author, Nora Bayes, was a well known American singer, comedienne and actress of the period.  In 1918 she was at the height of her fame, having been heavily involved in morale boosting activities during the First World War.  Her photo and credits on the front of the sheet music would have boosted sales.  A year later Bayes recorded “How Ya Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree),” a huge hit for Columbia Records.
As the months rolled on toward total abstinence, the song “I’ve Got the Prohibition Blues (for My Booze)” was rolled out in 1919 by the Elite Music Company of St. Louis.  The sheet music featured a waitress and two customers faced with a choice of tea, coffee, milk or soda, and clearly unhappy with any of them.  The lyrics to many anti-Prohibition songs are far from distinguished, but this one is among the worst.  By an obscure songwriter named Carl Zerse, part of it goes like this: “I’m so thirsty that I’m blue, Old friend Booze I long for you.  I never knew that I’d miss you, the way I do, Boo-hoo, Boo-hoo.”  Think of that put to music.
Joseph McCarthy was an American lyricist whose most famous songs include “You Made Me Love You,” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”  For this 1919 song — “I’m Going to Settle Down Outside of London Town (When I’m Dry, Dry, Dry)” — he teamed with four time Academy Award nominee, James Monaco.  The words tell the story of a man who loves America but will settle in an English village by the sea come June.  He hates to say “goodbye,” but he is man “who must have a little liquor when I’m dry, dry, dry.”  He then pledges to come back when America has changed its mind.  That, unfortunately would be more than 14 years away.
Others apparently saw no reason for such drastic action.  Another 1919 song seemed to take the alcohol ban with some aplomb.  Written by a trio of New York “Tin Pan Alley” songwriters, it was entitled:  “(For If Kisses Are Are Intoxicating As They Say) Prohibition, You Have Lost Your Sting.”  The cover of the sheet music indicated that it had been successfully introduced by Sophie Tucker, backed by her band, the 5 Kings of Syncopation.  Known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,”  Ms. Tucker was one of the most popular entertainers in America during the early to mid-20th Century.  With the advent of television in the 1950s she had a rebirth of popularity and I remember her well.  Over the years she spawned almost as many imitators as Elvis.
As the January 1920 hove into sight, one song caught the dread.  As the cover of the sheet music made clear, the hour is about to chime midnight on January 1, 1920, even as the couples waltz the floor.  The Grim Reaper — perhaps Mr. Dry in disguise — is there to point out the lateness of the hour.  The song is entitled “At the Prohibition Ball.” Written by Alex Gerber and Abner Silver, the lyrics provide a fitting conclusion to the songs antecedent to “The Great Experiment.”
We'll be at the Prohibition Ball,
There we'll mix with Mister Alcohol;
Folks will pay their last respects
to Highballs and to Horse's Necks