Drinking songs must be as old as drinking and song itself. In 23 B.C., when Horace, the great Roman poet, first scratched his famous “nunc est Bibendum”—“now there must be drinking”—in his wax tablets, the drinking song was already thousands of years old.
Indeed, the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the Sumerian goddess of brewing, is at least as many years older than Horace’s ode as Horace’s ode is older than Toby Keith’s 2011 hit, “Red Solo Cup.” (And really, Toby, playing the Trump inaugural? I thought you were better than that. He doesn’t get your jokes, you know.)
Deep down, these songs all generally fall into two categories. There’s the upbeat, hymn-to-Bacchus sort, which celebrates drinking as a communal ritual; as an occasion of wild, frenzied abandon—or at least good, clean tipsy fun. This brings us raucous jams such as Hank Ballard’s titanic 1962 “Broadway” and the majority of traditional Irish drinking songs. (A favorite example is “Finnegan’s Wake” by the Dubliners.)
Then there’s the other kind. The kind of tune inspired by the god of loneliness, failure, and what one worries about at 3 a.m.. I don’t know who precisely that god might be, but I’m pretty sure his friends call him “Hank.” In this tradition, alcohol is, in the famous dictum of Homer Simpson, both the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems. While it’s not exclusive to country music—Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s twisted German music-hall ballad “Alabama Song” certainly belongs here—country is nonetheless its special province and the location of its temple.
As much as I love the music in the Bacchic/Dionysian tradition for its freedom, its rowdiness, and its fun, I have to admit most of my favorite drinking songs fall into this second category. There’s something about a song like Leon Jenkins’s “Drinking My Life Away” (not, alas, on YouTube) or Webb Pierce’s iconic “There Stands the Glass,” (“It’s my first one today,” goes the next line) that gets me right in the innards every time I hear it.
So, given the impossible task of choosing the world’s greatest drinking song, it’s here I’m going to look. And I’m going to start with George Jones, a man who knew what the bottom of a bottle looked like all too well; indeed, he wrote his autobiography as a cautionary tale about the dangers of booze. (He is, after all, the man who responded to his wife hiding all his car keys by taking his riding mower eight miles on the highway to the nearest liquor store.) Now, Jones had plenty of drinking songs up his sleeve. But I challenge you to find a better example of the genre than the one that begins with this verse:
Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter That looks like Elvis. I soaked the label off a Flintstone Jelly Bean jar. I cleared us off a place on that One little table that you left us And pulled me up a big ole piece of floor.
I pulled the head off Elvis, Filled Fred up to his pelvis
Then the chorus:
Yabba Dabba Doo, the king is gone,And so are you.
“The King is Gone (So Are You) is not one of the Possum’s better-known songs. Originally (and better) titled “Ya Ba Da Ba Do (And So Are You),” it was written by journeyman songwriter Roger D. Ferris and first appeared on Jones’ 1989 album, One Woman Man, one of the better efforts he put forth in an otherwise fairly mediocre patch of his long career. There’s nothing mediocre about Ferris’ song, though, or Jones’ rendition of it (it helps that his voice was basically bonded Old Fitzgerald translated into soundwaves). Sure, it’s funny. But few things are bleaker than the last verse (which comes after a verse where Elvis and Fred Flintstone talk to him about women, without telling him anything useful), and few better capture the personal tragedy of the desperate late-night drunk:
Later on, it finally hit me That you wouldn’t be a-comin’ home no more. Cause this time I know you won’t forgive me Like all of them other times before. Then I broke Elvis’s nose Pouring the last drop from his toes.
There are plenty of other, less amusing examples of the country drinking song that get more attention. But I don’t think they capture just what alcohol does as well as this. Yes, it can degrade and destroy and depress. But it also can grant one just enough numbness, remove, distance, whatever you want to call it, to enable us to see the ridiculousness of it all. Yabba dabba do.