Saloon Singing a Sadly Lost Art

Damon Runyon

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram/February 1, 1938

Among the lost arts is singing by the cash customers in the drinking establishments of the period. These establishments are known as bars, grills and cafes. We used to call them saloons.

In the good old days before prohibition, which was when we called them saloons, and saloons had swinging doors to veil the cash customers from the vulgar gaze of their wives in quest of them, mass singing by the customers was one of the great American pastimes.

You seldom found a saloon that did not have a coterie of cash customers assembled at one end of the bar, blending their voices in sweetest harmony. A quartet was the usual thing, but trios and duets were not uncommon, and there was no law against a customer singing solo if he desired. He could generally get the bartenders to join in, if trade was a little quiet.

That was a wonderful era—the era of singing among the cash customers of the saloons. It lent zest to drinking. It had a fine effect on the musical spirit of the nation. It helped develop the national voice.

Bar Singing Taboo in Speakeasies

The singing died out with the coming of prohibition, of course. The reason was simple enough. During prohibition, the cash customers did their drinking in speakeasies, in which the noise attendant upon singing was discouraged by the proprietors. They feared it would attract the attention of the prohibition enforcement fellows who might come in and drink up all the liquor.

By the time repeal got around, the old time singers had retired, or been killed off bv the bad booze that circulated during prohibition, and apparently the generation that has come after them has no interest in music. We canvassed a large number of bars, grills and cafes in New York recently, and did not hear any singing whatever, except occasionally by paid entertainers, and that was pretty bad.

Nowhere did we find the cash customers lifting their voices in song. All the cash customers were doing was sitting or standing against the bars drinking their liquor in the glummest manner imaginable.

Several of the pre-prohibition bartenders agreed with us that it was all due to the absence of singing among the customers. They thought some of the customers might be deterred from raising their voices in song by the public nature of the modern drinking establishment, which must be open to general view, but were more inclined to attribute it to the lack of soul among the customers.

In the good old days, the spirit of song came on among the cash customers after about the tenth drink. There was no special rule for the organization of the mass singing. It just sprang up extemporaneously, so to speak.

A customer at one end of the bar might start softly intoning well, let us say “Down By The Old Mill Stream.” Other customers would quietly drift over to him, and pick up the refrain, and there you had a quartet, or even sometimes a sextette made to order.

‘By the O-Ho-Hold Mee-el Stuh-ream’

The way you sang in quartet was to first clear the throat with a good jolt of rye, or bourbon, rest one foot on the bar rail, then take a good grip on the bar with both hands, throw the head back, open the mouth, and let ’er roll:

By the o’ho’hold mee-eel stuh-ream,

Where I first met yoo-hoo, With your huh-heyes of bloo-hoo—”

And so on. If someone in the quartet seemed to be singing off-key, you paid no attention. If could not have been you. Anyway, it was never advisable to be critical about anyone else’s singing in quartet. The criticized one might get sore, gather up his groceries, and go home, and you would then be short a voice. This might not be any calamity at first, but you needed every ounce of vocal power when it got around time to singing:

Cuh-harry me-hee buh-hack

To o-o-hole Vah-jin-yah.

All right there, bartender, give us a little more of that hair oil!

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