In the temperance zone: prohibition in hymnals

Last month, a new friend¹ mentioned temperance movement (related to prohibition) songs in hymnals, & I looked at him inquisitively, not ever having seen any songs in that category.  His Methodist experience had exposed him to these historically society-conscious songs, but he later found that he had exaggerated the number somewhat.  Regardless, he did find and mail to me four (from a hymnal titled Eternal Praise for the Church and Sunday School, © 1917, Hope Publishing Co., Chicago) that show up in the “Temperance” category² in the book’s index.

These songs are curiosities in terms of political history, Christianity, and church music!  There was a cause afoot!  Here are some choice lyrics:

God’s on our side.  He will not fail us.
Rise in the strength God gives today;
Strike down the foes that would assail us
Banish the liquor-curse for aye.

I never dreamed that words like “whiskey,” lager,” and “drunkard” would appear in a hymnal.  The chorus (and title) of the above song, “A Thousand Years of Prohibition,” might even have subconsciously suggested even that the millennium is associated with the lack of alcoholic beverages:

A thousand years of prohibition! Lift up your eyes.  Behold the dawn!
The Nation’s hope shall find fruition when from our land the curse has gone.

And then there’s this song called “Down in de Bottom ob de Glass” by J.B. Herbert.  (Git ready.  This is a hoot.)



The above song, written in a sort of Negro dialect, showcases these choice lyrics:

[of the red color of wine]:  It don’t look good on de nose . . . de redder an’ redder it grows.

O de foamy beer, it bring good cheer, an’ it make you glad an’ gladder;
Till it pizen (poison) your hide, an’ your whole inside, an’ bloat you up like a bladder.”

The chorus warns that “dere’s snakes an’ bugs an’ dregs an’ drugs . . . down in de bottom ob de glass,” and that liquor will “git you sure, at las’.”  I have enjoyed giving two living-room performances of this song.  It really is a hoot.

The song bears a 1914 copyright date (before modern U.S. Copyright or Prohibition laws took effect) and is arranged as a solo, musically reminiscent of basso profundo solo songs like “Ol’ Man River,” “When Big Profundo Sang Low C” and “Big Bass Viol” (historic recording here—listen all the way to the end!)

Can you imagine singing songs like these “in church”?  “Hymns” are so frequently looked down on these days (even by those trying to be nice), no matter the definition used.  But some of these anti-alcohol songs are so far from any real definition of hymn or gospel song or spiritual song that it’s difficult even to imagine their having been included in a “hymnal.”  (I had to think twice before categorizing this blog post as “church music.”)  Why would they be considered Christian songs?  Well, I wonder if the temperance and prohibition causes aroused almost the same energy then as abortion does today.  To the degree that any such cause is nationalistic, I think its place in church is tenuous at best, but to the extent that it is genuinely (if over-zealously) concerned with the effects of the over-use of alcohol on people and society, I am sympathetic.

My own views on alcohol (use, ramifications, industry, advertising, etc.) in secular society are more conservative than my views on alcohol among responsible people, most Christians included.  In the former, larger context, one can easily discern the damaging effects on people and the rampant waste of money.  In the other context, based on my up-close experience (which involves not a single sighting of anyone intoxicated and a great many people who drink moderately and stay under certain radar screens), I am decidedly concerned about legalism within conservative institutions—and the resultant hiding and combativeness—and not really concerned at all about actual consumption.  I think prohibition in any manifestation is shallow and short-sighted, but living in a “temperance  zone” is definitely a good idea.

Whatever your views, I hope you find the humor in the temperance/prohibition songs.  In the very imitable (and often-imitated) words of Larry the Cable Guy, “I don’t care who you are.  That’s funny right there.”

B. Casey, 7/29/16

¹ Thanks to Dr. Richard Davies for this interesting material!

² The Temperance category of this hymnal lists 17 songs, including a few I have sung but have never thought of as anti-alcohol in their message:  “The Fight Is On” (which very well could have been conceived in the Temperance or pre-Prohibition movement), and a few others which were decidedly not originally related to alcohol:  “Rescue the Perishing,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “Stand Up for Jesus.”


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