The Song of the Drunkards

My last formal, parish-bonding attempt to be a part of the Episcopal Church was in 1978, right after I moved to Chattanooga to work in the family business. I was discontented with Roman Catholicism, having crashed from the high of my college years and the problems surrounding the covenant community business. So the Episcopal Church seemed to be a good place to take a look. Although I had left in part over the liberalism, I was willing to give it a try again. My mother, in the last stages of her knock-down, drag-out divorce, passed up the opportunity to join a Continuing Church (she was too Baptistic for such an enterprise.)

The church I picked was St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, at the intersection of Highway 153 and 58 Highway (how do you like the way we designate roads around here?) At the time its Rector was one John Livingston Janeway IV. There was one Sunday when the Psalm for the service contained the following verse:

They that sit in the gate speak against me: and the drunkards make songs upon me.

(Psalm 69:12)

In his sermon he expressed the sentiment that he had never been the “song of the drunkards,” and thought the whole idea silly. I sat there uninspired by such handling of the Word of God. Not only that, I had never been the “song of the drunkards” either, but my interaction with same had taught me being on the butt end of their negative sentiments wasn’t a good thing, whether they set it to music or not. It’s worth noting that people don’t “sit in the gate” any more either, not in this country at least. What the verse needed was some cultural explanation, and that’s the point of this post.

Drinking songs are as old as drinking and music. During the “Jesus Music” era, some of what was served up (especially by the Roman Catholics) struck me as having a “drinking song” feel to it, something the folk group could do over beer and pizza after a successful Sunday evening Mass. Probably the best example of a drinking song that achieved long-lasting fame (with changes in the lyrics) is our National Anthem. The laid, high or drunk crowd that’s kneeling these days needs to think about that.

I come from a long time of serious drinkers who followed the custom of people educated in the Victorian era of setting things to poetry. I wonder sometimes how many or these (some of which are on this site) were done “three sheets to the wind.” At least one of them was set to music. (This custom persisted in Evangelical churches; I can remember our Sunday School superintendent reciting these before church in the mid-1980’s.)

So what happened to the “song of the drunkards?” Doubtless the same thing that killed a great deal of people-performed, sometimes improvised singing and playing: recorded music. Before World War I, if you wanted music in your home, you needed to be able to perform it with played instruments and vocals, as was the case in the tavern. After that the way we interact with music changed dramatically, probably not for the better.

Being the song of the drunkards, however, isn’t the only way you can end up on the wrong end. It’s a hard road being on the receiving end of an abusive drunk, be that abuse verbal, physical or both. That, as much as anything, may have clicked in me when Janeway expressed his sentiment about the above verse. They may not have the wit to make up (or adapt) songs any more, but the drunks have other methods at their disposal, and they’re not pretty.

Janeway ended up leaving full-time ministry, being an Interim Rector from time to time. After my own years of church work, I really can’t blame him for his departure. As for myself the restless urge to find better made me leave St. Thaddeus behind, ending up in the brutally educational experience that was First Baptist Church.

Today hard drinking is back with a vengeance. It’s a way to kill the pain of life while at the same time commiserate with drinking buddies, although its practitioners will find it as destructive as those who went before them. So be forewarned: in some Millennial or Gen Z watering hole, you too could end up being the song–or the trash talk–of the drunkards.

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