Convivial Songs

FOR some time past an impression seems to have been gaining ground among hilariously thirsty people who do not recognize the total-abstinence principle, that the liquors used by them are steadily deteriorating in quality. There is a flutter among the drinkers of Bourbon whiskey, who imagine that they can trace to that stimulant all the ailings and failings to which they find themselves gradually becoming subject. But they experience no amelioration of their condition when they forswear Bourbon and take to “ Old Rye.” Indeed, they soon discover that the latter is, to all bad intents and purposes, pretty much the same as the former, if not worse. Then they betake themselves to foreign sources for their inspiration, and go to drinking the stuff that is dispensed over the bars of the publichouses as Scotch whiskey and London gin. By and by an article appears in some newspaper, or in pamphlet form, descriptive of the witching processes by which these liquors are compounded, and branding them as deleterious imitations of spirits, the names of which have been mendaciously bestowed upon them. The tippler of Scotch whiskey is informed that to creosote, and nothing else, is he indebted for the entrancing, smoky flavor of the liquor he loves the more the faster it is killing him. Something is said about strychnine, or oil of vitriol, in connection with gin. Then the whiskey-drinkers consult with the gin-drinkers over mugs of ale, and they arrive at a conviction that malt liquors are the only safe ones, after all. Malt and muscle go together, say they ; and, remembering bow ancient an institution beer is, and how much the AngloSaxon race is indebted to it for pith and pluck, they adopt a resolution to give up spirits altogether, and drink nothing but beer. Presently there comes to them “one who knows,” for he has been in the brewing business once himself. He is no longer interested in beer, however, and so he lets out the dread secrets of the vat, dwelling with malignant detail upon the cocculus indicus and other drugs used in the manufacture of malt liquors. Then a ghastly pallor overspreads the faces of the drinkers, and a foggy idea of the results of cocculus indicus upon the human vitals wraps them in its vapory pall. Ale ceases to have allurements for them; and, as lager-beer is only weak ale with rosin in It, that potation is quite out of the question. Somebody then prompts them with the notion that “generous wine ” is the only proper beverage for gentlemen to drink, and they take at once to sherry. Over this fine tonic they become more garrulous and maudlin than ever. They dilate upon the unique flavor and quality of the wine of Xeres. They retail anecdotes connected with it. They narrate fictions about their own experiences of it when they were younger. And so they wax happy and grow pimply on their sherry, until a new panic dispels their confidence in it. A suit is brought by the government against certain parties for the alleged undervaluation of a quantity of so-called sherry wine. The revelations brought to light during the trial of this case are of a very startling and conclusive character. It is proved by competent testimony that “ the largest Spanish exporters send no real sherry to America, and but little to England"; and that a spurious stuff, made from grapes of the poorest quality, and doctored with various abominable drugs, is manufactured at Cadiz expressly for exportation. It is further stated in evidence, that one house alone, at Cadiz, sends three thousand butts of this stuff, annually, to the United States ; and one witness, an employee of the house in question, testifies in relation to this compound, that “it is never used in Spain ; the bulk of it is shipped to the United States.” This is a terrible shock to our topers, who have run through the gamut of drinks from whiskey to sherry. The discussion as to what is to be done next now arises among them, and every kind of suggestion— except, indeed, that of abstaining from the use of wine and ardent spirits altogether— is brought to bear upon the subject. An effort is then made to settle down upon the native American wines, with some of the cheaper of which they achieve a sort of cheerless inebriety for a while; but a suspicion of quackery soon arises about these, and finally the topers become predestinarians, falling back upon their whiskeys and gins, in the tranquil belief that, as they were born to be poisoned, they have, at least, a right to be their own toxicologists.

One of the results of this loss of confidence in the liquors of the period is the decadence of bacchanalian melodies. Persons who keep pace with, and watch the progress of, social customs and pastimes must have observed that, for some years past, the drinkingsong has been gradually going out of favor. No longer, now, is the vine celebrated vocally. The grape that clusters upon it draws no laudatory verses from the minstrel. “John Barleycorn” finds no bard in these dreary days of equivocal fluids. It must have been something very superior to Bourbon whiskey that inspired Burns to sing: — How could a singer, harassed with a suspicion of the deadly Indian berry in his drink, sing thus so confidently of making himself mellow on it? The malt-drinker of the period in which we live swallows his beer under protest only, and nobody now ever thinks of addressing the soporific fusion in song. Like the gallant, who fondly imagined that he was serenading the fair object of his affections, while, in reality, he was twanging his mandoline to the colored servant-girl who peeped from the dim lattice, so with the singer who would now be absurd enough to lilt a complimentary strain to his tipple. He might troll forth his most dulcet notes in praise of the “regal purple stream,” singing, as did the men of yore,—

“The cock may craw, the day may daw,
Tut aye we ’ll taste tile barley-bree.”

No man would be ridiculous enough, now-a-days, to break out with :

“While Ceres most kindly refills my brown jug,
With good ale I will make myself mellow :
In my old wicker chair I will seat myself snug,
Like a jolly and true happy fellow.”
“When it sparkles, the eyes of my love I behold.
Her smiles in the wine-cup eternally shine ;
The soul that drinks deeply shall never grow cold,
For love ever dwells in a goblet of wine ! ” —

and be wasting his mellow phrases upon logwood or some other pernicious dye-stuff with which the imperial hue of the grape-juice is simulated. Or, should he haply attune his throat to “ Cruiskeen Lawn,” or to some other rollicking Irish song in praise of whiskey, practically he would be eulogizing creosote, or oil of vitriol, or anything else whatever in the combustion way short of nitre-glycerine. That pensive ditty, “ I cannot sing the old song,” might well be parodied, now, with application to the table-songs of the past, hardly an echo of which is ever to be heard in the “free-andeasies ” to which the drinkers resort. I have before me, as I write, a book of the songs that are most popular in the various places of this kind which have grown, of late years, to be “institutions” in New York. In this repertoire there are but four drinking-songs. The staple of it consists in such sentimental ditties as “Mother, I have heard sweet music” ; and, “Her bright smile haunts me still.” But, although Bacchus is no longer musical director of the free-and-easy, it is not therefore to be surmised that the libations poured out by his worshippers are less copious than formerly. Quite the reverse. The gentleman with the fluty voice, who mounts the platform beside the piano, and warbles, “Can I e’er forget the valley?” freshens his memories during the evening with unlimited potations of “Old Tom, hot,” but he has no sentiment of commendation for that insidious beverage. The metal mugs of ale circulate as freely as ever, but there is a melancholy silence with regard to its qualities, and not a voice is there in the whale company to troll forth in manly confession, “I likes a drop of good beer, I does ” ; or, “ Dear Tom, this brown jug that now foams with mild ale.” These manly, if bibulous, effusions are superseded by such drivelling inanities as “ Champagne Charley,” and the morals of the community at large do not appear to be any the better for that.

In the Anacreontic songs of past generations love and liquor generally went merrily together, hand in hand. “ Pretty Belle,” by Tom Dibdin, opens thus:—

“ True to my love and a bottle, this throttle
A pottle will merrily quaff.”

That other Tom, known in epicurean philosophy by the surname of Moore, must have had love and wine on the brain, simultaneously, all the while. He was an arrant little gourmet too, and some of his florid images take a very odd and ludicrous character from this fact. See the opening verse of his “ Bard’s Legacy,” for example : —

“When in death I shall calm recline,
O, bear my heart to my mistress dear;
Tell her it lived upon smiles and wine
Of the brightest hue while it lingered here.
Hid her not shed one tear of sorrow
To sully a heart so brilliant and light;
Tut balmy drops of the red grape borrow,
To bathe the relic from morn till night.”

Here we have a flight of fancy quite culinary enough to carry away on its aspiring pinions to realms of bliss the least enthusiastic of professional gastronomes. And it is matter for wonder, that, in this decline of the bacchanalian song, and in this period of a gastronomy so Apician and artistic, hymns to aliment have not oftener engaged the modern bard. In an old French “ Recue if de Chansons ” I find homage paid to the platter in a queer chanson à manger, which also is set to music for a bass voice, — a voice of which the lower register, being somewhat ventriloquial, is all the fitter for interpreting song inspired by the natural appetite for victuals. Taking the gist of this song, without any regard to the metre or construction of the original, I give here such version or paraphrase of it as may serve to convey its intention : —

“ Away with your songs about wine !
What I want is a strain gastronomic.
Why should bards always rant of the vine
While we’ve pot-herbs to gladden the stomach?
With the greens and the roots I’m at home ;
And I hope that my bluntness you ’ll pardon,
When I say that no vineyard can bloom
Like the beds of a fat kitchen-garden.
“ And then, when the hunger is sharp,
And the mouth longs for something to shut on,
Do you think that I’d cavil or carp,
At a saddle of succulent mutton?
Or if, haply, there come to the pot
A turbot, a trout, or a salmon,
Why should n’t I sing like the sot,
With such dainties to make epigram on?
“ In the wine-cup a demon there lurks
That the bibulous brain disarranges,
Strange freaks with the drinker it works,
Till at last to a wine-butt he changes.
But safe are the joys of the dish,
They ne’er to the wits put a stopper.
Then hurrah for the flesh, fowl, and fish,
And the pot-herbs that to them are proper! ”

Whiskey has been for many generations at once the solace and the bane of the sociable Irishman, and really wonderful for audacity of assertion and incongruity of statement are the drinking-songs that rise to his teeming brain under the inspiration of his favorite stimulant, hot whiskey punch. Few better examples of this are to be found than that really quaint and pleasing old ditty, "The jug o’ Punch,” the authorship of which I have not been able to trace: —

“As I was sitting in my room,
One pleasant evening in the month of June,
I heard a thrush singing in a bush,
And the tune he sang was a jug o’ punch :

The statement in this stanza, regarding the convertibility of a tune and a jug of punch, is of a mystic and bewildering character, and to the practical Saxon mind seems to require explanation. Possibly the bard confounded the thrush with the nightingale, for he informs us that it was evening when the wonderful bird-song fell upon his car, and one of the most touching strains in the lilt of the nightingale is the monosyllable “jug,” reiterated many times in a passionate staccato. Another stanza of the song runs thus : —

“The ’mortal gods drink nectar wine,
And claret, too, is very fine ;
But I’d give them all, just in a bunch,
For one good pull at a jug o’ punch ;

Ever faithful to his national beverage is the bard, as we see; and then the pathos with which he foreshadows in the last verse his final place of rest, and the simplicity of the arrangements he contemplates for marking appropriately the hallowed spot, have rarely been surpassed in song : —

“When I am dead, and in my grave,
No costly tombstone I will have,
I ’ll have a grave both wide and deep,
With a jug o’ punch at my head and feet:

This famous old ditty has been sung to many different tunes, most of them of a gay or jingling character ; but the air to which the words properly belong is a sweet and pathetic one, and the word “tooraloo,” in the chorus, is repeated solemnly in four cadent bars, with a rest after each. Humor and pathos are extremes that ever meet; and the image of the singer’s grave, with a steaming jug of punch at either end of it, is as likely to bring a tear as a smile from mellowed listeners, when the lines are sung by one who can enter into the feeling of his theme.

There is another song yet more incongruous than that just quoted, but inferior to it in pathos. I here give the opening stanza, which — happily or unhappily, just as the reader may think — is the only one of some forty or fifty belonging to it that I can at present recall to mind. The abandon with which it rushes in medias res is remarkable.

“ There were three Irish fair maids, lived in the Isle of Wight, They drank from Monday morning till late on Saturday night, They drank from Monday morning till their money was run out, For they were three Irish fair maids, and they sent the punch about.”

There may have been some subtle meaning intended by the poet in thus localizing these fair, though somewhat dissipated, exiles of Erin upon the Isle of Wight. Considering the habits of excessive conviviality attributed to them in the song, one might guess that their native isle had been scandalized by their orgies, and that they had been compelled to fly for refuge to the smaller one. Even there it seems that their credit was not good, because they were obliged to desist from drinking when “ their money was run out,”and were probably unable even to procure “ a flask for Sunday,” as is the usage of those irrepressible topers for whom the excise law has terrors. It is probable, however, that the Isle of Wight was selected by the poet in accordance with that recklessness of assertion so often to be observed in Irish songs of this class. In Richard Milliken’s “Groves of Blarney,” for instance, we have a wizard glimpse of “ the trout and salmon playing at backgammon ”; and it would sadly puzzle one not acquainted with Irish character and modes of thinking, to conceive how an image so much at variance with the teachings of ichthyology could have been generated in the mind.

In their bacchanalian songs the Germans are as heavy and dense as in their drinking and metaphysics. There is a strong flavor of beer and tobacco about the staves chanted by the students in their great universities, though a certain scholarly character is imparted to many of them by couching the choruses or refrains in Latin. Some English songs of the jovial kind are also lightly touched by the macaronic muse; and I have old memories of a capital college song, the refrain of which ran thus : —

“ Plena pocula cernite, nonne aspernite,
Sprinkle the wings of old Time as he flies, —
Fill, fill, jolly fraternity,
Here’s to the holly whose leaf never dies ! ”

For neatness of turn, though, and a certain refined feeling far thirst, the old French carousal songs are, perhaps, unrivalled. These it would be impossible to translate literally, without loss of epigram, — a quality in which they are often wonderfully subtle and artistic. Taking the idea of one of those contained in the repertory already mentioned, however, it maybe thus rendered in English without altogether losing its bouquet:

“ Says Maturin the miller
Unto his friend Gregoire,
‘The brook my soul disquiets,
Its freaks afflict me sore.
“ 'To-day so low its ripple
That sleeping lies iny mill;
Mo money, lad, no tipple, ,
So of the brook I swill.
“ ‘ To-night the rain may gather,
To-morrow the brook may glow ;
And then my wheel shall turn,
And wine to my throats shall flow.’ ”

More plaintive than this is the following, the French original of which is set to an air of inexpressible despondency and gloom. It is a plaint that will go directly home to the heart of many a bar-room lounger, whose purse and credit have both deserted him in the hour of his need, — by which may be understood any hour whatever of the twenty-four.

“ Prythee, vintner, hear my prayer ;
No cash my lonely pockets bear,
But haply I of thee might borrow
One cup of sack to ease my sorrow.
“ Ruthless vintner, you decline
Me to trust for cup of wine ?
Ah, the woes of empty purse !
Ah, of quenchless thirst the curse !
“ Yet, O vintner, one small boon
Grant: since death must have me soon, —
At thy counter let me die,
Drinking all the heel-taps dry ! ”

These are some of the snatches of song that were inspired by the wines and liquors of other lands. Here, as I have already remarked, confidence in strong drink has long since departed, and hence we hear no more ol songs in praise of it.