The Melodic Protest: America’s Songs of the Prohibition

In the era of Prohibition, artistic expression became a way to communicate dissatisfaction for the ban on alcohol and hatred for the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The ratification was certified on January 16th, 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.” Even before the amendment took effect on January 17th, 1920, the theme of prohibition entered the musical airwaves, turning creative expression into protest on the alcohol ban.

Before the 1920s, artists and composers were focused on the Great War. They created popular hits to contribute to the societal focus, reflecting the feelings of many Americans. For example, “Till We Meet Again” was an emotional farewell ballad that loved ones would sing to their soldiers leaving for Europe. The romantic love songs flourished during the beginning of the war. But as WWI continued, Americans looked to comic relief to mend their broken hearts. Comedy combined with rhythm to create popular songs like, “Don’t Let Us Sing Anymore About War” and “My Barney Lies Over The Ocean (Just The Way He Lied To Me)”. When composers, writers and singers began to steer away from World War I, comedic relief in Jazz music was transferred to the new focus of America: Prohibition. Opinions and comments were immediately voiced through their lyrical works, contributing to the culture of the ever-changing America. The songs quickly contributed to the play lists in speakeasies and nightclubs, where alcohol secretly flowed. Some of the popular tunes of the prohibition era, specifically in the Atlantic City area, included “The Moon Shine on the Moonshine” and “Alcoholic Blues”. Just picture Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein enjoying the sound of prohibition, while slinging back a cold one at the local speakeasy.

Alcoholic BluesOne of the earlier prohibition songs, “Alcoholic Blues” combined the themes of war and prohibition, delivering to the audience a transition piece from war to whiskey. The “Alcoholic Blues” was originally recorded on January 27, 1919, as a comic song with orchestra and topped the music charts at number 52 for its debut year. The great composer, Albert Von Tilzer, through the lyrical tenor voice of Billy Murray, expressed the need for booze after war. In the song, booze is presented as a soothing remedy for war veterans and Tilzer remarks liquors importance by the lyrics, “I wouldn’t mind to live forever in a trench, Just if my daily thirst they only let me quench.” This excerpt shows the worth Tilzer put on intoxicants. He would rather be involved war with the availability of alcohol, than home, safe and sound, without it. Murray adds humor by light-heartedly singing, “I’ve got the alcoholic blues, No more beer, my heart to cheer, Goodbye whiskey, you used to make me frisky.”

Moon Shine on the MoonshineSimilar to the theme of prohibition entangled with war, in “Alcoholic Blues” Bert Williams delivers the effect of prohibition on the economy in “The Moon Shine on the Moonshine”. This song was originally recorded on April 16, 1920, as a male vocal solo accompanied by an orchestra. Egbert Austin “Bert” Williams, one of the preeminent comedians of the 1920s and this song gave him a smash hit, as it was clearly relatable to Americans. The song suggests comedic expression but delivers the imminent societal and economic worries of the upcoming era. The first verse and chorus talks about the shutting down of the liquor industry, factories and local taverns. “All the stuff got bum and bummer, From the middle of the summer, Now the bar is “on the hummer,” and “For Rent” is on the door.” The song continues to talk about the dreary state of bar patrons and the loss of their main vice, liquor. “For to drown away your troubles, Now the tide has gone and went; Days and nights are getting bleaker.” The “Moon Shine on the Moonshine” definitely served as a humming tune for society’s expression of the era, engaging bar flies and tavern owners, alike.

Prohibition songs continued to pour into bar scenes and speakeasies, throughout most of the twenties with popular titles, including “How Are You Goin’ to Wet Your Whistle”, “Prohibition is a Failure”, “Bootlegger’s Blues” and “Prohibition Blues”, to name a few. The popularity of these songs soared as they expressed the pain and injustice felt by Americans against the ban on alcohol. The melodic protest gave strength to protestors, liquid courage to advocates, industry to gangsters and a soothing tune for speakeasy patrons’ pleasure, while they sipped their elixir into inebriation.

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