And more on temperance songs, with recording!

Originally posted 13 June 2012

The overwrought style of most early temperance songs is laughable nowadays, but some had interesting lyrics and catchy tunes. They were pop songs, designed to appeal to Victorian sentiments. The Hutchinson Family were rock stars of their day, and this ticket from an 1843 concert at the Howard Street Tabernacle in Boston gives you a sense of how the Rolling Stones might have been marketed if they had come along 130 years early.


Their lyrics are pretty good – consider this sample from “King Alcohol”:

“King Alcohol is very sly, a demon from the first, He’ll make you drink until you’re dry, then drink because you thirst.”

It would be interesting to know how this group sounded, but they flourished long before the era of recording equipment. There are later versions of their songs, but even the first recordings may not sound anything like the original because by the time Edison cylinders were available, tastes had changed. As an example of this, you might listen to the earliest recording of another temperance favorite, “Father’s A Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” The earliest recording I have been able to find is from 1929, and it was performed by Walter Coon as a singsong country blues. You can listen to it here.

Not only was this tune written for a woman’s voice rather than a man’s, a look at the original sheet music shows that the tune was completely different. Here is a modern recording in something closer to the original style:

This is a very raw recording by the Foss Household Temperance Band (Elizabeth Rose-Marini on vocals, Professor Simon Spalding on octar, Richard Foss on mandolin). We played this take only a few hours after looking at the sheet music for the first time, so the rendition is far from perfect. Even so, you can hear that the tune is more ornate than the better-known version, and Ms. Rose-Marini sounds much more like a starving orphan girl than Mr. Coon. It’s the sound of another era, earnest and naive and dedicated to ending the evil reign of demon rum. If you’d like to see the lyrics so you can sing along, they are in an older post on this site.