Say the words “drinking songs” and what pops to mind is probably a group of swaying revelers, mugs in hand, slurring away off-key in an Irish pub or German biergarten. Asked to name a drinking song, most could probably only come up with “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Lately, though, a new phenomenon seems to be popping up – drinking beer while singing hymns. Sounds kind of strange, a bit sacrilegious, and right up my alley.
Alcohol certainly loosens the vocal cords. Just witness the rise of the entire karaoke industry, as well as most of Country and Western music. However, it seems that carefree singing is something we are losing, whether alcohol-induced or otherwise.
People singing and not worrying about how they sound or whether or not they hit the right notes…it was one of the things I enjoyed most about my brief time in Ireland, and as well as one of the things I loved about our family gatherings. At some point we’ve gotten into our heads that we’ve got to be “good at it.” Singing had become awkward. Don’t even get me started with churches moving from hymnals to words projected on a wall. That’s a whole additional issue as to why singing has declined.
Yes, I enjoy the precision of singing with groups like the Greenville Chorale, but there is so, so much more. I think that’s why I’ve been seeking out other venues. Odd venues, like the Pickens Flea Market Musician’s Circle, Perryville, and various Shape Note Singings. These are just plain fun (with no alcohol involved.)
So let’s return to that idea of drinking songs.
I’m a church music professional. I like to sing hymns. I collect hymnal (the older and weirder the better.) I also like to drink beer. So, imagine my delight in learning about a movement called Beer and Hymns. They apparently used to have one in Greenville at the now-defunct Bavarian Pretzel Factory, but I hadn’t heard of any lately, until now.
There are now several groups offering beer and hymns, or some variation thereof. The “original”, or as close to it as I can find, started in the UK with Tim Fox and Dave Ball. They had been trustees of a YMCA camp. According to their website, at a weekend retreat for volunteers, history was made.
One evening over a beer, after running out of Beatles songs, they started singing classic hymns and discovered that people of all ages, creeds, colours and beliefs enjoyed immensely the singing of the great old Wesley tunes and the majestic words that went with them.
Some years later , Tim was asked if he would consider running the Organic Beer Tent at Greenbelt [Festival], and determined the drinking of beer and singing of hymns would be a great addition to the life of the pub, now universally known as The Jesus Arms.
On the first evening, with just a small piano, no hymn sheets and the first few bars of “And can it be” they were joined by over five hundred people: singing their hearts out and raising glasses in the hostelry. On that day Beer & Hymns was truly born.
There have been other groups getting into the Beer & Hymns act all over the world, with many chapters in the US. Apart from the hymns most of these tend to be non-religious. Some even incorporate folk songs and other traditional songs. I found one in Columbia, but it’s a bit out of our range for regular attendance, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually affiliated with this group.
Fellow singer Don Kirkendoll had recently attended the American Choral Director’s Association national conference. At rehearsal one evening he told me about Beer Choir, created in 2014 by composer and conductor Michael Engelhardt. While the Beer Choir doesn’t involve involve hymns, they do have their own “hymnal” available for download from their website. Most of these are just drinking songs and folks songs arranged in four parts. They are from all cultures and include quite a few non-English songs. I think this one would appeal more to someone who can sight-read well, but it still looks interesting.
Next up is Hymns and Hops. As it turns out there is a group that meets here in Greenville. I haven’t been able to find a single website, but this seems to be organized loosely through Facebook. While Beer and Hymns strives to be non-religious in its overall tone, the videos I’ve seen of Hymns and Hops looks a bit more…churchy, but in a bar. Regardless, Don and I decided to attend the next Hymns and Hops in Greenville.
Even if we visit Hymns and Hops and find it to our liking, Don and I still want to start an informal singing group, possibly mixing elements from all of these traditions. I had tried this once before. Former Chamber Ensemble member Perry Mixter had invited us over to his house for a sing-along with madrigals and other choral pieces. I know this wasn’t what Perry intended, but it took on the flavor of just another Chorale rehearsal. We never had another one, and that’s a shame. I definitely DON’T want that to happen with any of our endeavors.
When it gets down to it, all I really want to do is sing with friends in a non-formal setting. Heck, they don’t even have to be friends. I just want folks to come together and recapture some of our musical heritage. If we sound good, great! If not, who cares? There’s beer!
As I think over all of these options the one song that pops into my mind isn’t a hymn, but rather a concert piece by Steven Sametz. We have closed each of our Chorale Chamber Ensemble concerts with this piece. In the 1960s Ronald Blythe wrote Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village, in which he interviewed farmers, plowmen, and blacksmiths from the countryside. One 80 year old named Fred Mitchell was describing his hard life when he paused and said the following, paraphrased by Sametz:
There was so much singing then
And this was my pleasure, too.
We all sang, the boys in the field,
The chapels were full of singing.
Here I lie:
I have had pleasure enough;
I have had singing.
I know that I have had singing. I would just like for others to have that enjoyment. I think that’s while I got into choral conducting in the first place.