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.  


  1. Hi Jack! Great Blog, I emailed you a while ago about Levaggi Company and I can't find your email anymore or a way to contact you, can you please send me an email to in regards to some history questions and I have some exciting news about my wife and I starting the business back up. Thanks, Nash

  2. Dear Nash: Somehow I missed this comment in October and just found it now. Will check also at Levaggi. Will send you an email since you may not see this right away.