99 Bottles of Beer
The Roots of Punk Drinking Songs
The history of drinking songs include a range of ballads, like this proto punk one.
The last time we looked at drinking songs we divided them into two kinds, the upbeat, celebratory hymn to Bacchus and the introspective, dirge-like ode to alcohol as (to quote Homer—the Springfield one, not the ancient Ionian) “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
Our choice for the greatest drinking song of them all, Roger Ferris’s “The King is Gone (So Are You)” as cut by the mighty George Jones, fell firmly in the latter category, as do many of the greatest drinking songs. But the Bacchic hymns, packed as they are with exhilaration, disorder and anarchic freedom, have their moments, too.
Many of those moments are found in a subdivision of the category, the one devoted not to praising alcoholic beverages collectively or individually or to extolling drunkenness in general, but rather to celebrating and chronicling one particular drinking session. Call it—to use German, the language of genre theory and excessive drinking—the Sauforgienepos; the “swill-session epic.”
There are countless fine examples of the genre, from the Hibernian hilarity of the Dubliners’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (as cited in our previous article) to Virginia O’Brien’s jaunty toe-tapper, “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club Savoy,” from the 1942 film Panama Hattie, to “Drunk,” Jimmy Liggins’s monumental military-spec floor-pounder from 1953.
My favorite example, however, is “Peter and Paul,” a 1931 rarity by the Gene Kardos Orchestra that is both hotter than a shot of upcountry corn shine and also one of the weirdest songs ever recorded. The weirdness lies not in the music itself, the instrumentation or even the performance, but rather in the fact that it was recorded at all. Read the lyrics, given here in full, and you’ll see what I mean.
One summer day it came to pass
That Peter and Paul upon an ass
Went up to town to take a glass
And bum around Jerusalem
Jerusalem the golden!
Then Peter started falling in:
“Come on, let’s have a hooker of gin.”
“Brother,” says Paul, “it would be a sin
To liquor in Jerusalem.”
O Jerusalem, etc.
But when they got into the bar,
Says Paul, “O look, Pete, here we are—
We must have followed the Hennessy star*
Instead of that of Bethlehem.”
[*Until the 1960s, a Cognac’s age was generally indicated by the number of stars on the label—ed.]
O-o Bethlehem, etc.
The barmaid had an ankle neat;
It soon began to get to Pete,
He grabbed her right behind the seat—
The seat of old Jerusalem.
O Jerusalem, etc.
Says Peter, “Paul, I have a notion:
Time to tend to my devotion.”
Says Paul, “you’re rolling like an ocean—
You’re all wet in Jerusalem.”
O Jerusalem, etc.”
Indeed. It’s not often you encounter scurrilous fanfic about the Apostles. What gives?
About the song itself, little is known. It was copyrighted—or at least the melody was—in November, 1931, by one “F. Arnold.” The label of Kardos’s recording—the only one the song has ever received—expands that “F” to “Florence.” After extensive searching, I believe that this is also the only song Florence Arnold ever copyrighted or published.
As to who she was, besides an impressive wiseass, I cannot say. There was a Florence Arnold, alias “the Irish nightingale” and “the blonde pony,” who sang and danced in vaudeville in the 1900s and 1910s and then married Charles Koster, the king of American circus publicists. Koster was a famous wiseass himself, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he married another one, but beyond that there’s no proof we’re talking about the same Florence Arnold or even if that was the composer of the song’s real name.
We know a little more about the song’s performers. Yugin “Gene” Kardos (1899-1980) is not one of the great names in jazz. He was neither a paradigm-shifting soloist nor a brilliant composer nor a flamboyant, larger-than-life personality. He was a Hungarian Jewish kid born and raised on the then-tough Upper East Side of Manhattan who lived with his parents. He talked with a thick, dese-dem-and-dose New York accent and had worked as a bookkeeper. But he could play the violin and the saxophone and he knew how to lead a band; how to keep it together; how to focus its energies; how to make sure everyone zigged when they were supposed to zig, zagged when they were supposed to zag, and went BRAP! BRAP! BRAP! with their horns precisely when they were supposed to go BRAP! BRAP! BRAP!
On the strength of that, Kardos got his Orchestra—any band too big to fit in the back of a taxi was an “orchestra” back then—a long-running gig at the Gloria Palast, a German dance hall on East 86th St., a contract with Victor records and a weekly half hour on national radio. In the depths of the Depression, that wasn’t nothing—indeed, those were the kinds of things that made most normal bands who had them famous.
That didn’t happen with these guys, although at first glance, Kardos’s band seemed perfectly normal. In its instrumentation, it was the standard eleven-piece dance band of its day. Two trumpets, a couple of guys who doubled on alto sax and clarinet, a tenor sax, a trombone, a rhythm section—banjo, tuba, piano and drums—and, of course, Kardos, who mostly waved a baton.
Most of the band’s material was pretty standard, too, at least on record: the way things worked, the A&R guy gave you the song and you played it, and most of those songs were corny, “synco-pep” (as it was sometimes called) dance numbers with novelty “vocal refrain.” For records, Victor even teamed the band up with Dick Robertson, their A-list vocal refrain-suppliers and a star in his own right.
It should have worked. I can’t say why it didn’t, but I think the recording session Gene and the boys held on October 23, 1931; the one where they cut “Peter and Paul,” gives us a pretty good clue, as does a band photo taken eight days later. The photo, which can be seen here, was admittedly taken on Halloween. But the band, although dressed in suits like everyone back then, come off as a bunch of stone punks.
One guy’s drinking a beer, a couple appear to be munching on sandwiches, all are disheveled and there is a disconcerting number of flat, “yeah, so?” stares into the camera, including from Kardos. The guy next to him, trumpeter Sid Peltyn, who appears drunk (and he’s not the only one) is pointing a toy gun at his head and leaning on a cane. He had the cane because he got shot in the leg during an affray at the Gloria Palast a few weeks before. Yeah.
During the session, they cut five songs, four of which were released. The one that wasn’t was a ditty called “Sweet Violets,” a novelty number where the verses set the listener up to expect the word “shit” only to have it replaced with “sweet violets.” Not funny, but indicative of the way things would go that day. I suspect the regular A&R guy, who was supposed to keep a tight leash on the proceedings, was hungover or out with the flu that day. In any case, the band did at least plod its way through an utterly forgettable ballad of the most commercial sort. But that left three songs: a college number, a thing called “You’ve Got to Sell It,” and our biblical Sauforgienepos.
They play “a Hot Dog, a Blanket, and You,” the college number, for laughs, throwing in a couple of made-up college cheers, one in a ridiculous falsetto (“Riddledy tiddledy tootsy toot / We are the boys of the institute / We are not rough, we are not tough, / But we are detoimined”). The other cheer, however, gives a clue to the amount of fuck you that the band, made up of nine Jews and two Italians, had in reserve:
Ikey, Moses, Jake and Sam
We are the boys that don’t eat ham
Baseball, football, swimming in a tank
We’ve got the money but we keep it in the bank!
At this point, Kardos closes things off by adding, in his East Side honk, “The only way to make us cheer / Is to give us back our prewar beer.”
“You’ve Got to Sell It” is a fast-tempo flag waver, as they used to be called, with the band riffing while Kardos explains the realities of the band business (“Now most people don’t know a good band when they hear it, good or bad / They most always say it’s the last woid when it’s really very sad … I’ve hoid some coahny bands who knock ‘em off theah seats / And I’ve seen Paderewskis kicked out in the streets”).
And finally, “Peter and Paul.” You don’t need electric guitars, leather jackets and bangs to play punk rock. With the right attitude, a mess of brass and reeds, a piano, a banjo and a drum kit will make plenty of noise. The blisteringly fast double time here, the chords punched out at maximum volume, the blaring trumpet solo, the shouted choruses, the scurrilous, even blasphemous subject matter, the drinking and the sex—pure punk. The Ramones didn’t come from nowhere.