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Song Stories: The End of Prohibition

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On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment of 1919 and marking the end of Prohibition in the United States.  The national discussion regarding the issue of alcohol consumption was chronicled through many avenues—political and otherwise.  Not to be left out, music was very much an expression of public sentiment—both for and against prohibition.

Title page to “Comrades, fill no glass for me”, Part of: Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, Ca. 1820 to 1860.

In the decades preceding the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the temperance movement was reflected in many of the songs of the era.  Stephen Foster’s “Comrades, fill no glass for me” was not only part of the temperance movement, but also believed to be part of Foster’s own personal struggles with alcohol.  Many of Foster’s melodies, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Black Joe,” were borrowed by temperance writers for their own songs.

J. B. Herbert’s “Molly and the baby, don’t you know” is about a father committing to sobriety for the sake of his child and ailing wife. Here is a 1916 recording from the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers. Photographic print, 1936.

The effect that prohibition had on popular music was astounding.  With the rise of the “speakeasies”, the jazz age was ushered in with Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. “Me and my Gin” was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1928, and has been recorded by many musicians over the years as “Gin House Blues”.

Duke Ellington, half-length portrait, seated, facing front. Photographic print, 1951.

Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” was used in the 1929 short film Black and Tan, and was recorded several times between 1927 and 1938.  The song refers to jazz clubs in Harlem that catered to black and white audiences—at the time known as “Black and Tan clubs”.

You can read more about Duke Ellington’s film debut, “Headlines”, (1925) in this blog post.

Louis Armstrong, 1900-1971. Half length., facing right; playing trumpet, [no date recorded].
Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording “Knockin’ a Jug” with Jack Teagarden is considered one of the first documented collaborations of black and white musicians. The song was named after Armstrong saw an empty gallon of whiskey in the studio (which was full when the session started).

We have a number of holdings here at the NLS that pertain to prohibition era music and culture.

The Roaring Twenties (DBM00853) Describes the development of the radio, prohibition, speakeasies, gang violence, sports, and politics along with songs from that era. Features popular songs and instrumental music of the time along with spoken word recordings by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

The Era of F. Scott Fitzgerald (DBM00931) Discusses mobsters, prohibition, The Great Gatsby, and the biography of F. Scott Key Fitzgerald, with a narrative that is retold through songs and music of the jazz age.

A History of Jazz: the New York Scene (DBM03615) discusses New York’s position as a prominent city in the jazz industry, dominated by strong musical personalities.

If you would like a great anthology of Stephen Foster songs, consider the Stephen Foster Song Book (BRM29741) from the NLS holdings. It contains 40 Foster songs arranged for voice and piano in bar-over-bar and line-by-line formatted braille.

Finally, one cannot discuss such a topic without making a toast. If you’d like to commemorate the December 5 anniversary of the repeal of prohibition, raise a glass with Whiskey before breakfast (DBM03238) performed and taught on banjo by Bill Brown.

To borrow any materials mentioned in this blog, you may access BARD or request a copy on digital cartridge by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].

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