The Bacchae of Euripides closes with a mother mourning over the corpse of her mangled son, whom she helped to tear apart while in an intoxicated frenzy. Her filicidal rage is a punishment for failing to acknowledge that Dionysus is a god. The gods, it seems, interest themselves in drink and its apparatus.

In the Bacchae, the undifferentiated chorus plays the virtuous drinker—that is, the god-affirming, god-thanking drinker. Named, self-determining, god-denying individuals (Pentheus, Agave) play villainous drinkers, crazed, mangled, disinherited, isolated, and shamed by the wrath of the divinity they have insulted. There is a kind of moral here: one’s orientation toward Dionysus determines one’s experience of the Dionysian. But there is also a complementary formal suggestion: singing in groups has something to do with good drinking or drinking to the good. Those moral and formal suggestions linger wherever the drinking song appears: in religious rites and festivals from Passover to Christmas, on ships, in military regiments, in sporting clubs—all gravitational centers for the first person plural, all highly ceremonial.

The long tradition of sacred or vertical drinking songs confirms the gods’ beneficent jealousy in regulating the human–drink relationship. One of Sappho’s lyrics calls in the voice of a community of drinkers to Aphrodite (Kupris):

                                        Kupris, hither

Come, and pour from goblets of gold the nectar

Mixed for love’s and pleasure’s delight with dainty

                  Joys of the banquet.

Here “joys” are the exclusive gift of a god to a banqueting community in celebration. They should be sought from the gods, not just from the wine itself. Persons transcend things in the Sapphic gift economy, and true—or safe—celebration begins with right orientation to persons. The drinking songs of the Jewish Passover Haggadah and Christian worship make the point more directly: wine is a divine gift that, drunk with the correct ceremonies, rids a community of its guilt and resentments. The eucharistic hymns in Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal—sung in chorus—celebrate this idea as well as any work of art. The vertical drinking song’s message is clear: Dionysus is a god, and wine is a divine gift to be accepted in company and in a posture of worship.

This divine imperative is less obvious in horizontal drinking songs—that is, drinking songs that have no thematic interest in worship of a god: Schubert’s “Trinklied” lieder, Mozart’s so-called Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni, Richard Hovey’s tankard-swinging barroom choruses, sea shanties, and sporting anthems. The medieval drinking songs collected in the Carmina Burana maintain a connection to the divine, but usually by way of blaspheming it—parodying, among other sacred texts, St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn on the Eucharist and a hymn to the Blessed Virgin. In general, however, those drinking songs detached from religious ritual replace a divine imperative with a corporate one, as in the late-seventeenth-century ballad “The Merry Fellows”:

Now, since we’re met, let’s merry, merry be,

In spite of all our foes;

And he that will not merry be,

We’ll pull him by the nose.

[Chorus] Let him be merry, merry there,

While we’re all merry, merry here,

For who can know where he shall go,

To be merry another year.

He that will not merry, merry be,

With a generous bowl and a toast,

May he in Bridewell be shut up,

And fast bound to a post.

The first line establishes a simple but central correlation at the heart of the horizontal drinking song. Meeting precedes merriment: “since we’re met,” then “let’s merry, merry be.” Lines two through four establish a second key principle of the horizontal drinking song, proceeding naturally from the first: non-participation in the tribal rituals surrounding drink constitutes a danger to the tribe and must be quashed. Again and again, drinking songs excommunicate and even call down curses on nonparticipants in the membership rituals of the drinking session: “May he in Bridewell [a prison and poor house] be shut up.” Here is further evidence that the sacred character of early drinking song survives in what might, at first glance, appear to be a simple celebration of animal pleasure. Far from this, the pleasure in “The Merry Fellows” and in other drinking songs is highly ritualized and focused less on the animal pleasure of drunkenness and more on the complex linguistic and gestural pleasure of a sacred cult.

The notion of drink as the gift of a higher power to a group remains in “The Merry Fellows,” except that here the group itself is that higher power. The corporate person, the we, is the real presence of the horizontal drinking song—the tertium quid, the “third that walks beside you,” blessing and sacralizing its consumption and its rituals. True pleasure and consolation in drink is not the gift of the gods in these songs but of the tribe, and to lose the tribe is to lose the benefits of the gift and face grave consequences, not only from the drink but from the tribe itself. This appeal to the corporate person as guardian of the drinking ritual affirms the commonplace that it is dangerous to drink alone and secularizes the Christian idea that the very act of meeting summons the divine and consecrates the act.

The sea shanty, a common source of drinking songs, forms its corporate person through manual labor rather than leisure. It developed on sailing vessels to accompany and ease various group pullings and hoistings, and this direct tie to simple, physical movement gives it a pleasing formal compactness and distills key elements of the drinking song. In the shanty “Bully in the Alley,” a drunken (“bully”) sailor records two social ruptures that have spurred him to song, one between the singer and his friends and another between the sailor and a woman called Sally (a stock character in such songs). The song aims to repair both rifts:

[Chorus] Help me, Bob, I’m bully in the alley,

Way, hey, bully in the alley!

Help me, Bob, I’m bully in the alley,

Bully down in Shinbone al!

Well, Sally is the girl down that I love dearly,

Way, hey, bully in the alley!

Sally is the girl that I spliced nearly.

Bully down in Shinbone al!

I’ll come back and I’ll marry Sally,

Way, hey, bully in the alley!

We’ll have kids and count them by the tally.

Bully down in Shinbone al!

Drinking songs often take the form of a command to drink or to bring drink (“Come, landlord, fill a flowing bowl, until it does run over;/ To-night we all will merry be, To-morrow we’ll get sober”), or an invitation to join a drinking bout (“Then come my boon fellows,/ Let’s drink it around;/ It keeps us from grave,/ Though it lays us on ground”). The speaker in “Bully in the Alley” neither commands nor invites but calls for help, a subtle variation on both. He acknowledges a need for company as a means of stability in his drunken state and a need for the institution of marriage as a means of wider social stability. And, of course, marriage as envisioned by the singer also ends in a kind of “we,” that of the large family (“We’ll have kids and count them by the tally”). The very form of the sea shanty affirms this move toward repair and group membership. The shanty is antiphonal—a call and response between an individual singer carrying the verses and a group taking up the chorus. As “Bully in the Alley” is actually sung, the entire company joins in unison on alternating lines (“Way, hey, bully in the alley” and “Bully down in Shinbone al”), blurring the line between the first and third person. The song becomes a kind of collective prayer of each to all, echoing Sappho’s prayer to Aphrodite above to come and bless her feast. The performance is, by its very form, a repair of the rupture the song describes.

The group-sung drinking song has faded as a cultural force in the twenty-first century, largely because popular music has shifted away from songs suited to group singing. Recorded music, personal music-players, and headphones favor music one listens to rather than music one joins with. But the twentieth century did witness a return of the beat-driven, Dionysian drinking song, which invites group movement rather than group singing. Suffice it to say that none would imagine singing these songs while gathered around a piano or table. They more often praise the pharmaceutical qualities of alcoholic drinks, as distinguished from their taste, history, and cultural associations, all of which are part of the wider meaning of the word “intoxication.” It is not surprising, then, that the new Dionysian song praises other, harder drugs with delivery systems that bypass the palate. Both tune- and beat-driven drinking songs attach themselves to particular beverages and brands—beer, wine, whiskey, piña coladas, margaritas, Newcastle Ale, Jameson—but the new Dionysian song overwhelmingly prefers hard liquor to beer and wine, liquor being uniquely vulnerable to pharmaceutical abuse. And in this druggist’s vision of alcohol, common to the new Dionysian song, all drinks become radically exchangeable, hard liquor only preferable because of its efficiency in raising blood-alcohol levels and in preparing the body for the kind of bacchic group dance activated by the pulsing beat.

The traditional, melody-centric drinking song, while not above this pharmaceutical vision of alcohol (“No remedy quicker, but take up your liquor,/ And wash away care with a pot of good ale”), usually attaches itself to particular drinks for different reasons: for loyalty to a certain inn, town, tribe, or nation; for hate of a different inn, town, tribe, or nation; for the palate’s sake; for history’s sake; for the sake of a social class; even for a general sense of contextual fit or rightness, as in calls for Corona beer in supine, beach-bum cowboy songs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here, the drink is not primarily appreciated as a container system for a chemical and is therefore not exchangeable. It is as unimaginable to substitute, say, wine for ale in the song “Nottingham Ale” as it would be to substitute whiskey for wine in the Jewish Passover or Christian Eucharist. And as in the Eucharist and at Passover, the drink is a seal of membership: local, national, convivial, familial, divine. It is a way of orienting to other persons and of reconciling to contingency. The modern Dionysian drinking song pumped in nightclubs moves away from ritual-linguistic pleasures of this kind and toward shared limbic pleasure, usually ending in some form of erotic stimulation. It is difficult to judge whether the resulting anarchic, nocturnal corporate behavior signals Bacchus’s favor or his wrath.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 78
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