The Importance of Drinking Songs

A good drinking song gets you smiling.

A good drinking song is catchy.

A good drinking song draws you in from another table or a distant corner of the room.

A good drinking song can be sung well by even the tone-deaf.

A good drinking song is fun to sing.

A good drinking song is competitive – the louder you sing, the louder your buddies sing, and vice versa until you guys are together making a spectacle of yourselves.

A good drinking song is easy to remember.

A good drinking song is easy to be inventive with and may flexibly change over time.

A good drinking song gets you moving.

A good drinking song draws you closer to those around you singing: closer geospatially and closer emotionally.

A good drinking song gets you to stand up nice and tall and gives you an opportunity to give a joyous, fully extended, full-throated announcement to the world of what a wonderful time you are having. Even some of the sad ones can accomplish that.

A good drinking song gets you to breathe deeply, one of nature’s simplest ways to feel great.

Might I dare say, a good drinking song is more important than the presence of drink. And anyone who thinks otherwise may have lost touch with the beautiful camaraderie that can accompany drink. That camaraderie can come in many ways, – high jinks, athleticism, sport – but if drink alone is the key to the camaraderie, then something is missing.

A good drinking song doesn’t require drink.

A good drinking song is capable of filling in that thing that is missing. With a good drinking song, a group of people act in unison. This is true of any song that is communally sung.

The English language is spotted with references to the importance of breath, that contain divergent ideas from how most think of breathing in our present day, if one even thinks of breathing at all. A few of them include:

Inspire – which etymologically is “to breathe into.”

Spirit – “thing that breathes”

Dispirited – “without breath”

Aspire – “to breathe toward (a goal)”

Perspire – “to breathe through (the skin)”

Expire – “to breathe out (the last breath)”

Transpire – “to breathe something across (the divide that separates thought from reality)”

And a personal favorite:

Conspire – “to breathe together”

In contrast to our nonchalance around breathing, the importance of breath has had cult-like respect, as demonstrated in these far-reaching words passed on to us from wiser minds in wiser ages, kept alive in the buried-in-plain-sight treasure chest from the past we call language.

When singing together, a group of people join together in a common act, and literally breathe together. Performance is how many in our era view song, almost as a thing separated from life itself. This is so much more important than a mere performance.

Psychologists observe that people who are in rapport with each other, as they speak to one another, often will unconsciously end up breathing at the same time together. Their breathing patterns match up as they find rapport. One way that psychologists may attempt to achieve rapport with a client is to do the same: to inhale at the same time as a client and to exhale at the same time as a client, with similar location (nose or mouth, diaphragm or chest), with similar intensity, similar depth, similar resonance, and with similar pattern.

Breath is important in these moments of seeking rapport. Since, one is not able to breathe at the same time as talking, the existence of our breath inevitably makes space for listening. For two people to breathe with each other, and to carry on a conversation brings about a natural, relaxed pace, with lots of room for listening.

Those disinterested in listening will not only put a conversation partner off because of their obvious disinterest in listening, but they will also be off-putting because of their insistence in so desperately fighting their natural ability to breathe rhythmically with those around them. With breath, if it is allowed to follow its calm, natural pattern, nature encourages a relaxing equilibrium between listening and speaking. Such people disinterested in listening are additionally off-putting because they carry with them a desperation as they speak, always unnaturally gasping or hurrying for that next breath.

The act of singing with others automatically achieves this rhythmic breathing with other people in unison – both inhaling and exhaling in unison – as most songs lend themselves to a pause for inhaling, while exhaling takes place as members of a group sing.

As a result, a community grows closer through singing together. Aside from the aspect of breathing in unison, there is the idea of sharing a bawdy, sorrowful, or humorous moment together that is bonding.

There is the idea of doing together, a thing that many find embarrassment around doing – singing. That has a bonding effect for many. Rather than the discomfort of a solo performance on a stage, there is instead great ease because of the fellowship involved. This involves a taking of risks together, however minor those risk may be.

It involves sharing common culture with each other through the values expressed or stories told through the song. It involves evoking good cheer with each other that comes from the lifting of morale that may come with a song.

Another place where communities traditionally met, at least in relatively homogenous communities was in church. And there too, they breathed together in the singing of hymns.

Other than prayer and thanksgiving, those songs served a purpose to unite the community as well. When you sing together, in addition to breathing together, a group of people also together form a harmony that goes beyond the mere music, but says a great deal about cooperation, negotiation, and living in rapport with one another. This is especially true with the more artful care for detail that goes into a church hymn, as compared to a drinking song.

The positive value that joining in song offers people living together in a community is hard to overestimate. And yet, we have so comfortably done away with this tradition passed to us by wiser minds from wiser eras.

In our era, being an observer is asked of us, being a follower, an audience member. Every American does not have his own hustle – bringing value directly to other individuals day-in-and-day-out. Many Americans instead have a job. So much so that not having a job could be enough to attract the attention of the IRS. Every American is taught to consume television and movies and YouTube and music, to go to concerts and listen, to listen to experts, even to go to church and listen to a choir or a praise band. The many in our era are told to listen obediently to the few.

It is an era that works against the two or three signing a drinking song together, the two or three gathered in the name of their maker, the 20 or 30 signing a hymn together, the family singing the doxology before bed, the family putting the devices away and having a singalong together on their road trip, the small group of friends singing Auld Lang Syne because New Year’s Eve offers them that excuse, Little League kids joining in song to lift their own morale and taunt the opposing pitcher on the mound, the secretary leading the team at work in a singing of Johnny Appleseed or the Lord’s Prayer before lunch, or people looking for reasons to celebrate a person and to be able to mirthfully sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in an honest show of appreciation, the band of brothers reliving an old memory through song, the mother and daughter sweetly singing a lullaby together.

For many people in our present era, especially in the United States, the obligatory singing of “Happy Birthday” may be the most creative and social we become in the midst of song. And that is often dismissively done with all the eye rolling, huffing, and groans of many obligatory activities.

How sad for those who take that moment to groan. Who have such resentment for the idea that their voice, their breath is to be confined to the role of the inconsequential and virtually anonymous audience member – a number – a number that no one would miss if one in ten thousand were not present.

It need not be that way.

As society asks you to fall into formation, to be an obedient member of the herd, and to simultaneously be isolated from emotionally intimate contact with any of the individuals from among the throngs of people that surround you, song is among the most rebellious acts possible, as the few of you conspire.

Gaudeamus Igitur – European Graduation Song 

Polo się Ropczyce – Polish Wedding Song 

Macejko – Slovak Drinking Song 

Red Solo Cup – American Country Song 

Kenny Rogers – Gambler 

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver