The ten best songs about beer

Singing about beer: almost as good as drinking it. Except there are as many rubbish songs about beer as there are rubbish beers: which is to say, far too many. When the Beer Crimes Tribunal is convened, Tom T Hall will be among the first in the dock for “I Like Beer”, a dreadful dirge. Alongside him will be David Gordon “Slim Dusty” Kirkpatrick, for the even more awful “Pub With No Beer”, a song than which there is none so dull or so drear. Just because the song has the word “beer” in the title, or the lyrics, doesn’t make it any good.

Search among the dross, though, and you’ll find beautiful gems. Here’s my top ten selection, some of which you’ve probably never heard. I sincerely hope you’ve heard Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”, though. Written by Wesley Wilson and his wife Coot Grant, and released 80 years ago, just when it was legal to drink beer in the United States again, this is still, for all its years, as powerful a call to combine pork products and the juice of malted grain as you’ll find on the planet.

Atongo Zimba

Atongo Zimba, griot and beer celebrator

“In Heaven There Is No Beer” is generally performed by cheesy polka bands, but the marvellous Atongo Zimba from Ghana had a big hit in his homeland in 2004 with a version called “No Beer in Heaven” that is so far above the accordion band renditions they should slink away off stage in shame. Why this isn’t better known in the West – why Zimba isn’t better known in the West – is beyond my comprehension.

I misspent much of my youth in Stevenage Folk Club, which served Abbot Ale and the much-mourned Rayment’s BBA straight from the cask, and of the many beery folk songs I sang along badly with, one of the tops was Oh Good Ale:

Oh good ale, you are my darling!
You are my joy, both night and morning!

Who could disagree with that sentiment? Not I. The song was part of the repertoire of the Copper family from Sussex, but the version you’ll hear if you click that link is from the Voice Squad, a three-part harmony group from Ireland, who, again, are far too little known. The lyrics are folk poetry at their finest.

Of course, the best-known folk song about beer is “John Barleycorn”, which comes in a surprising number of very different versions. The one Stevie Winwood did is perhaps the best known, but rather than all that guff about grinding him between two stones, the take I like best is performed here by the Wilson Family from, I believe Teesside (push through to 2:20, when the music starts):

“Give me my native nut-brown ale, all other drinks I’ll scorn
For English cheer is English beer – our own John Barleycorn”

D’ye know, I’d love to see that adopted as the English national anthem … how fantastic would that be?

Mind, there’s a song about beer that should be the Belgian national anthem: La Bière by Jaques Brel, of course. Pity it’s in French, but Brel was of Flemish descent, so maybe the Vlaamse wouldn’t mind.

It smells like beer
From London to Berlin
It smells like beer
God! That’s good
It smells like beer
From London to Berlin
It smells like beer
Give me your hand

(Um – Des de Moor, you’re far better at that than me …)

That’s a hymn to the all-round marvellous communiality of beer, and here’s another from an Irish singer, Pierce Campbell’s “One Pint of Porter”. There’s a truth buried in those lyrics I think, again, we can all agree with.

A pint with the lads is a fine time indeed
A talk in the social is something every man needs

And for those occasions when you’re drinking on your own – which can be good, can be very good – there’s Jake Thackray’s melancholy “The Black Swan”:

“Give us a another pint, one more pint,
Landlord, of your very, very best bitter beer –
We’ll be here all night
We’re on a bender, we’re tanking up
We don’t care”

Enough of drinking on your own: back to conviviality. Nothing, I think, is more convivial than an Irish pub, where you simply wouldn’t be allowed to sit on your Todd, even if, like the oul wan in Waxie’s Dargle, you haven’t got a farthin’:

“What will ye have?”
“I’ll have a pint!
I’ll have a pint with you, Sir!”
“And if one of ye doesn’t order soon
We’ll be thrown out of the boozer!”

That’s the version by Sweeney’s Men: I love Andy Irvine.

And now for something completely different: Captain Beefheart’s Long Necked Bottles, from the album Clear Spot, release in 1972.

“I don’t like to talk about my women
But this one sure could chug ’em down”

I had a girlfriend like that once: nine pints of Greene King XX dark mild in an evening. OK, only 1032 OG, but since she was skinny as a broomhandle and weighed about seven stone, still very impressive. Mind, she was completely obliterated by the time I drove her home, and she received a very nasty shock when she went downstairs the next morning, suffering badly, looked in the plastic bag by the front door and discovered the rabbit I’d run over on the way back down dark Hertfordshire country lanes while she’d been unconscious in the seat next to me. Delicious it was, too, after my father had skinned it for me.

My favourite beer song of all, though, is another one from Africa, celebrating a beer I’d love to try one day: home-made South African sorghum beer, called umqombothi in the Xhosa language (that “q” is a click), in a cracking tune sung by Yvonne Chaka Chaka from Soweto and written by Sello “Chicco” Twala and Attie van Wyk.

Umqombothi‬ is magic beer
‪Umqombothi‬ is African beer
Everybody come and drink my magic beer
Everybody come and drink my African beer

Yes please.

And now, let the arguments begin …

40 thoughts on “The ten best songs about beer

  1. …no “Born Slippy” by Underworld?

    haha…ok, maybe “lager lager lager” is not the right message for everyone.

    Here’s my best 10 from the Australian pub rock scene, for anyone who loves their music a little rough and raw at times…because beer + pub + live music is my favourite pastime:

    Drinking beer is awesome – Regurgitator
    Nice day to go to the pub – Cosmic Psychos
    Let’s drink a beer – Frenzal Rhomb
    The Nips are Getting Bigger – Mental As Anything
    Old Man Sam – Spiderbait
    Blood, sweat and beer – BugGirl
    The Beer Song – Elbow Skin
    Beer Nut – The Lucksmiths
    The Bar Song – Bob Evans
    Wrong Turn – Darren Hanlon

    I put together a “soundtrack” of beer songs for the recent Good Beer Week festival in Melbourne: http://beerbarband.com/2013/05/17/good-beer-week-soundtrack/

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      • True…’The Nips are Getting Bigger’ is mostly about spirits and excessive drinking, but I love the opening verses…

        “Started out, just drinkin’ beer
        I didn’t know how or why
        Or what I was doin’ there
        Just a couple more
        Made me feel a little better
        Believe me when I tell you
        It was nothin’ to do with the letter

        I ran right out of beer
        I took a look into the larder
        No bones, nothin’
        I’d better go and get somethin’ harder…”

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        • Oops – I confess, my eye was caught by the Coppers reference & I skimmed the rest looking for folk stuff. (Of which more in my main comment – check the pending queue!)

          Yes, TPWNB is a load of rubbish, but I’ve heard it enough times in sessions to be quite fond of it in that context – along with “A mon like thee”, “Uncle Joe’s Mintballs”, “Fields of Athenry” etc. I’d never listen to any of them on record.

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          • For my friend and I, hearing the Pub With No Beer on our road-trip spurred a great, impromptu drive out to Taylors Arm, NSW to actually visit the the Pub With No Beer in 2008. At the time there was a craft brewery there turning out some very worthwhile beers, and the pub made the best meat pie I’ve ever had. (We found out the brewery was going to relocate outside of Newcastle, NSW the following year due to issues trying to distribute from Taylors Arm. They’re now called Murray’s Craft Brewing.)

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  2. Good to see you remember Jake Thackray! I first heard “The Black Swan” when it was on the B side of “Lah di dah”, forty-odd years ago – and if that pairing was Jake’s choice it was a bold one. A fine song but depressing as hell, particularly if you’re eight years old at the time.

    Oh Good Ale – a song I’m rather fond of, obviously – is at least partly a song about the evils of beer. It makes it sound very attractive, though!

    From the folk scene, I’d also nominate Keith Marsden’s Bring us a barrel (composed 1966), the sort-of-traditional Glorious Ale and (my personal favourite) the proper-old-traditional When Jones’s Ale Was New – which was originally “Jone’s Ale”, i.e. the ale brewed by Joan, the lady of the house.

    What else? Beer figures rather crucially in John Blunt. The Brown and the Yellow Ale is a wonderful old Irish song, but it’s not actually about beer. I’ll probably think of more later.

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  3. What about
    “Beer, beer, glorious beer,
    Fill yourselves right up to here;
    Drink a great deal of it,
    Make a good meal of it,
    Stick to your old fashioned beer.
    Now don’t be afraid of it
    Drink ’til you’re made of it,
    Now all together a cheer
    Up with the sale of it,
    Down with a pail of it,
    Glorious, glorious beer. ”

    dates from about 1895 according to one website.

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  4. what? no Tome Waits?
    Warm Beer and Cold Women.

    One of those nights

    Warm beer and cold women, no I just don’t fit in
    Every joint I stumbled into tonight that’s just how it’s been
    All these double knit strangers with gin and vermouth
    And recycled stories in the Naugahyde booths

    With the platinum blonds, tobacco brunettes
    I’ll be drinkin’ to forget you, I’ll lite another cigarette
    And the band’s playin’ something by Tammy Wynette
    And the drinks are on me tonight

    All my conversations now I’ll just be talkin’ about you baby
    Borin’ some sailor as I try to get through
    I just want him to listen now, I said that’s all you have to do
    He said, “I’m better off without you” until I showed him my tattoo
    [ From: http://www.metrolyrics.com/warm-beer-and-cold-women-lyrics-tom-waits.html ]

    And now the moon’s rising ain’t got no time to lose
    Time to get down to drinking tell the band to play the blues
    Drinks are on me, I’ll buy another round
    At the last ditch attempt saloon

    Warm beer, cold women, I just don’t fit in
    Every joint I stumbled into tonight that’s just how it’s been
    All these double knit strangers with gin and Vermouth
    Receeding hairlines in the Naugahyde booths

    With the platinum blonds, tobacco brunettes
    I’ll just be drinking to forget you baby, I’ll lite menthol cigarette
    And the band’s playing somethin’ by Johnnie Barnett
    And the last ditch too soon

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  5. We can’t forget “Tear in my Beer” by Hank Williams and “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” by Motörhead—although that was technically a ZZ Top cover

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    • You’re correct, of course, in saying that one waxie on his (or her?) own could hardly have a dargle, but what can I say? The official name of the Sweeney’s Men version of the song appears to be apostrophe-s Waxie’s. Certainly Andyirvine.com spells the song Waxie’s Dargle, and if it’s good enough for him, all I can say to the Apostrophe Police is: “Come and get me, copper’s!”.

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          • I’m not sure it really counts as a common noun. The location involved is always your actual Dargle.

            We have such cutesy names for our rivers here in south Dublin. I live between the Dargle and the Poddle.

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            • I’ll see your Poddle and raise you the Piddle, in Dorset.

              River names are always fascinating, since they often go back a very long way indeed: many English ones, of course, (Axe, Exe) come from the Celtic word for “water” (as in Irish “uisce”, pronounced approximately “ishk), and there is one near where I grew up in Hertfordshire, the Beane, which is reckoned to come from the Celtic word for “woman” (as in Irish “bean” – which I won’t need to tell YOU, BN, turns up in the English word “banshee”, from Irish “bean sidhe”, “female fairy”.)

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  6. My personal favourite is “Hops and Barley” by old Sunderland punks Leatherface, though it’s probably not to everyones taste:

    Hops and barley will be the death of me
    and it comes from wood
    and does you no good
    So raise your glasses
    to the good men of Kent
    Who worship the hops and the barley

    The brew is on the go once again
    Joe licks his lips and smiles
    for every pint he downs
    he proves that he’s a man
    and he comes home full of vile
    next morning he vows to abstain

    It’ll be orange juice next time
    but the power of this vine still haunts him
    and he raises his glass to the sky

    Hops and barley will be the death of me
    and it comes from wood
    and does you no good
    So raise your glasses
    to the good men of Kent
    Who worship the hops and the barley

    In the garden of England
    where real men could hold a pint
    the hops were picked
    and the barley ripe

    Now we’re told that Foster’s the thing
    become a lager lout today

    Hops and barley will be the death of me
    And it comes from wood
    and it does you no good
    Raise your glasses

    Hops and barley will be the death of me
    And it comes from wood
    and it does you no good
    Raise your glasses

    To the good men of Kent
    who worship the hops and the barley

    Always sent the beer flying when they played live!

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  7. In 2008 or 2009, BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction broadcast a song called Beer by Sjaak. It’s a wonderful song. Unfortunately, I have never been able to find out anything about Sjaak who, I suspect, is not English though the song is about English beer.

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    • If anyone is interested, you can listen to this great song by clicking on this link – <a href="http//:www.hugganism.me.uk/music" and clicking on Sjaak – beer.mp3

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  8. Okay, how about “General Worthington” by Barry Dransfield? Hear it at: http://bit.ly/12GgZw2
    Personally, I’d go for Richard Thompson’s “Twisted” – sitting at the bar with my face in a jar and something tells me I’m twisted.

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  9. Bob Wills – Bubbles in my Beer

    Jerry Lee Lewis – What Made Milwaukee Famous

    The Lego Beer Song just for the visual entertainment

    Homebrew song by I have no idea. I believe the Brewing Network uses it in their bumpers.

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    • Good sing-along, but not that great. Actually, it’s not a music-hall song, it was written in 1938 as a piece of agitprop under the pseudonym Paddy Ryan by a left-wing young medic who went on to be a pioneer in the study of industrial illnesses …

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  10. Canada needs a vote here, and Kim Mitchell Band’s raucous “Lager and Ale” is a fine contender. (Anyone interested should play the version on youtube showing a long-haired, 1980’s Mitchell with smoke in mouth).

    And Canadian-born Joni Mitchell has one of the best lines about beer and love ever: “I can drink a case of you”. (Today it would have to be, “I can drink a baker’s dozen Double IPA about you”. I like the original better).

    Gary

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    • LOL! I have to disagree, if a long haired brewer sang me a song like, “I can drink a baker’s dozen Double IPA of you,” I’d swoon. No doubt.

      I had heard this Lager and Ale song from Trailer park boys! Oh my…

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  11. Late to the party, but I always smile at the line from ‘I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You’ by Tom Waits (again, barfly poet laureate) :

    Now it’s closing time, the music’s fading out
    Last call for drinks, I’ll have another stout.

    Because I find it odd – quirky – that in a land of ‘beer’ and ‘liquor’ being romanticised in music and books, Stout gets a mention. I can completely imagine crumpled ol’ Tom, nursing a glass of Stout, chain-smoking his way to misery.

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  12. Yeah – ok I suppose – although I love Jacques Brel, “la Bière” is definitely his worst ever song ! BUT I have to say that none of that stuff makes me laugh or sing along as much as the traditional old French wine-dinkers’ song “Chevaliers de la table ronde” of which :

    “When I die, bury me in a cellar full of decent wine – my feet against the wall & my head under the tap. On my tombstone, let them inscribe, “here lies the king of the drinkers”. The moral of this story is drink before you die”.

    Goes just as well for beer !

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  13. I just posted on a similar topic on my blog (top 10 beer drinking songs)-I wish I had seen this first, I wouldn’t have posted it! I didn’t steal the idea, honestly! Love the list, BTW

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  14. ANYONE KNOWS THIS BEER SONG WITH few scraps of lyrics: “Well I was sitting in the barroom just the other day, something something something let my thoughts drift away, when suddenly it came to me, the secret of eternity, the answers to the problems of the day, Then I had another beer and it was gone. I had another beer and it was gone, gone, gone. It could have been the greatest thought the world had ever known and then I had another beer and it was gone.”?

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