Singing the Temperance Blues

with Scott Schwartz, director and archivist

America’s 18th Amendment, more commonly known as Prohibition, took effect in 1920, and quickly influenced all aspects of society, including music composition.  However, songs and morality plays about the benefits of banning alcohol had existed in America long before the amendment’s ratification. The first temperance songbooks appeared before the Civil War as public interest in the prohibition and temperance movements gained momentum. During the mid-1860s urban neighborhoods blossomed with new arrivals from Europe, and new moral reform groups saw prohibition as their only remedy for controlling the country’s increased use of alcohol.  

These moral societies frequently composed their anti-drinking hymns for use in people’s homes and churches.  Their temperance songs often featured sentimental, spiritual, and patriotic lyrics set to well-known folk melodies.  Mrs. E.A. Parkhurst’s Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead and Frank Allen’s Father Don’t Drink Any Now are two early examples of these songs. 

“Father’s A Drunkard, And Mother Is Dead” from The Hand That Holds The Bread: Progress and Protest in the Gilded Age Songs from the Civil War to the Columbian Exposition by Faith Prince. Released: 1997.

By 1900, women played a dominant role in such temperance societies as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and they composed most of their organizations’ songs. Their lyrics also frequently promoted the women’s suffrage movement.  Between 1900 and 1920, most of their songbooks and social game manuals included spiritual hymns and patriotic songs.  The most popular of these were Anna Gordon’s The Temperance Songster (1904), The Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s W.C.T.U. Songs (ca. 1900), Reverend Elisha A. Hoffman’s 1909 Anti-Saloon Campaign Songs, and Eveline Spooner Schultz’s Twentieth Century Temperance Socials (1902). 

Musicians working in New York’s Tin Pan Alley and clearly on the other side of the Prohibition debate, frequently composed comical retorts to Prohibition that skewered America’s “wet” and “dry” movements.  Tin Pan Alley was the epicenter of America’s popular music scene between the late-1880s and 1920s, and its most recognized composers – Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter – served as musical foils to Prohibition. 

Unlike the Prohibition songsters that helped empower the suffrage and temperance movements, Tin Pan Alley songs swooned to the joy of alcohol. Songs like Jean Schwartz’s Sahara (We’ll Soon Be Dry like You), Albert von Tilzer’s I’ve got the Alcoholic Blues, and Irving Berlin’s I’ll See You in C-U-B-A expressed comical distain for prohibition’s benefits to society.  Other songs, like Goodbye, Wild Women, Goodbye, lamented America’s expulsion from the garden of free-flowing alcohol.

“(I’ll See You in) C-U-B-A (Broadcast Recording)” from The Wonderful Music of Nat King Cole by Nat King Cole. Released: 1995. Originally recorded November 5, 1956.

After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, temperance societies mourned the country’s lost morality while Tin Pan Alley joyfully welcomed the return of alcohol with such songs as Beer Barrel Polka, which it was also known by the titles Barrel Polka an Roll Out the Barrel.   This exhibit of popular sheet music cover art, melodies and lyrics from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates the complex social paradox of America’s Prohibition movement during the country’s roaring 1920s.