Alcoholic Blues

Words by Edward Laska; music by Albert von Tilzer, 1919

What big 1919 issue is the topic of this song? Prohibition of alcohol. Which constitutional amendment began Prohibition? 18th. What restrictions did it put on alcohol? Manufacture, sale, transportation. What did it hope to accomplish? Curb alcoholism, drunkenness.

Who sings this song? World War I vet. Who is "Mr. Hoover"? What was his job in World War I? Food administrator. What does the rest of verse one refer to? Wartime rationing. Why do they use World War I to argue against Prohibition? How serious is he? What feelings does the humor disguise? Anger.

How successful was Prohibition during the 1920s? Lower alcoholism, alcohol-related accidents, and illness. What bad effects did Prohibition have? Rise of organized crime, bootlegging, etc. What eventually happened to it? 21st Amendment repealed it in 1933.

What similar issues do we face today? Smoking, drunk driving, alcoholism, drug abuse. What laws on these issues have worked? Which haven't worked? (Check statistics on smoking, alcohol and drug abuse in relation to tobacco warnings, D.U.I. laws, etc.) How successful are laws in curbing unhealthy behavior? In what other ways has the government tried? Education, ad bans, age limits, taxes, addiction treatment, etc.

"The Alcoholic Blues" performed by Billy Murray with orchestra, Columbia 78rpm disc [A2702]. Available on YouTube and Spotify.

Billy Murray (1877–1954), the singer on this 1919 recording, began his career while still in his teens. His experience in vaudeville and minstrel shows influenced his singing style. As much a comic, Murray was the first singer to make a living strictly from recording. He was not as famous as other singers, because he stayed in the recording studio rather than performing in public. His career declined in the 1920s when "crooning," a completely different style, became popular.

View the lyrics for "Alcoholic Blues."

View the published score for "Alcoholic Blues".

Albert von Tilzer
Albert von Tilzer

Albert von Tilzer (1878–1956) was, like his brother Harry, a songwriter and publisher. A self-taught pianist, Albert became a pianist and arranger for the publishing firm of Shapiro, Bernstein, & von Tilzer. In 1900 he left Chicago for New York to direct a vaudeville company and later joined his brother's publishing house as arranger. In 1903 he formed another publishing company with brother Jack. Albert von Tilzer composed several of the most popular songs of the early twentieth century, including "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1908), a song that endures to this day. His music is typical of the Tin Pan Alley style with easily accessible melodies and harmonies set to dance rhythms (such as the waltz).

This song was one of many that catered to the craze for blues, as generated by the music of W. C. Handy. These were "commercialized" blues, including the expected words, but not the characteristic repetitive form of pure blues, which was often improvised. It uses the syncopated rhythm of ragtime, and chromatic alterations of pitches that suggest the blues style of singing.

An earlier temperance song: "Father's a Drunkard, and Mother is Dead" (Unit 5)

Some people today argue that the United States needs to learn from Prohibition and legalize—rather than wage war on—drugs. Debate this issue. Research how other countries have handled the situation. Collect statistics and case studies to back up your position. Propose how to implement the solution.