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Article Songs of the Temperance Movement and Prohibition

Sheet Music: Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle
"The Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine," sheet music by George T. Evans, 1874. Select the link to view the sheet music.

The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a movement to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Started by local groups and individuals, the national movement was led by the American Temperance Society, formed in 1826. One of the major public messages of the society was that drinking threatened stable family life. "Molly and the Baby Don't You Know" is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child. Songs written to inspire guilt about the consequences of alcohol abuse were common, such as "The Drunkard's Child," by Mrs. Parkhurst, 1870, in which a child complains to her mother that she is shunned because she is poor and her father drinks. A field recording of a song with the same title, sung by John McCready, takes the idea a step further, as a song of a dying child of an alcoholic who fears he or she may not be allowed into heaven. The miner's song "Blue Monday," is of a repentant drinker promising to "wear the white ribbon," which was an emblem of the American Temperance Society, and to then give more of his money to his wife to manage.

The effort to encourage sobriety led to various "cures" for addiction to alcohol, long before the medical character of addiction was understood. The song "The Keeley Cure," performed by Sam Bell, is a comical reaction to a protocol developed by Dr. Leslie Keeley, who was among the first to see addiction as more than a psychological weakness. He founded an institute for the rehabilitation of alcoholics in Illinois in 1879 and sold his tonic by mail. Unfortunately his "cure," which famously included gold chloride among its ingredients, had no scientific basis and was not effective. However, some patients did recover through the abstinence that the cure required.

As the movement for a constitutional amendment banning the sale, distribution, and manufacture of alcohol developed, songs were used to promote the causes of both those who favored those who opposed prohibition. Beer companies, hoping to prevent beer from being included in the ban, developed advertizing campaigns claiming that beer was healthful. "The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous (made old New York drunk)" is a comic send-up of one such campaign. An example of a temperance song explicitly opposed to beer manufacturers is "De Brewer's Big Hosses" (this example is a video illustrated with images from the temperance and prohibition era).

After prohibition was enacted in 1919, a culture surrounding the illegal sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol developed, including songs and music. Often these songs were not so much a protest against the law as a celebration of the success of the rum-runners and the speakeasys. The song "Bill Burroughs," performed by Theodore "Tea" Rolle, is about a Bahamian who profited from the ban on alcohol in the United States by smuggling rum to Florida. A song about a rum-running vessel, "Bellamena," was recorded by Stetson Kennedy, performed by an unidentified Bahamian in Florida. Musical forms, such as ragtime, popular blues, and jazz emerged during this period. A former moonshiner, Hattie Ellis, in prison for killing one of her clients during a dispute, sang a song that she composed, "Desert Blues," about a romance gone sour, for folklorist John Lomax in 1939.

Many of the songs related to Prohibition are no longer sung. Some of the popular songs were recorded comercially, and preserved in that way. Others survive because folk song collectors like Stetson Kennedy, Sidney Robertson Cowell, and Alan Lomax were out documenting songs with early disc recording equipment not long after the repeal of Prohibition, when people still remembered and sang them.


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