Give the Fiddler a Dram – Westward the Jug of Empire

Tommy Jarrell - old-time fiddler - Les Blank's 1984 documentary, "Sprout Wings and Fly"

“Gonna eat when I’m hungry, gonna drink when I’m dry.  Get to feelin’ much better, gonna sprout wings and fly” Tommy Jarrell from the tune “The Drunken Hiccups.”

Here’s Poor Benny\’s version of this classic old-time tune The Drunken Hiccups that we learned off of the recordings of Mr. Jarrell.

Drunken Hiccups/Black Mountain Rag

Whiskey, Whisky, Moonshine, Shine, Corn, bourbon,  hooch, liquor, moonshine, moonshiner, mountain dew, poteen, rotgut, rye, scotch, spirits, spiritus frumenti, usquebaugh, white lightning. Whatever the moniker, you can make an argument that liquor won the west.  “Intoxicating spirits” were recognized as a bargaining tool that explorers, government agents, and traders used in dealings with Native Americans in most accounts I’ve read about the Mississippi/St. Croix/Bois Brule river trail.  There were substantial efforts to stop the supply of alcohol to Native Peoples but the stakes were high and any efforts to stem that supply were offset by the labor of those who used it to their advantage.  On Pike Island at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, a historical marker quotes the 1805 journal entry that Zebulon Pike wrote shortly after concluding negotiations with the Sioux delegation.

“They gave me the land required, about 100,000 acres equal to $200,000…..I gave them presents to the amount of $200, and as soon as the council was over I allowed the traders to present them with some liquor.”

But let’s face it, of those settling the area and doing the work, white, red, brown or otherwise, some had a taste for strong drink. This thirst came west to Minnesota and kept right on going.  Samuel Clemens from Life on the Mississippi:

The missionary comes after the whiskey — I mean he arrives after
the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with axe
and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next,
the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in
sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old
grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigi-
lance committee brings the undertaker. All these interests bring the
newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands
turn to and build a church and a jail, — and behold, civilization is
established forever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the van-
leader in this beneficent work. It always is…..Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.

Our own historical character, Pierre Parrant, who some credit as the first settler within the city limits of St. Paul, was a man for his times and a noted purveyor of liquor for anyone with the money to buy it.  Leaning on Twain’s definition, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Pierre helped “civilize” our corner of the world.  Steamboats, gamblers, and whiskey are all part of the lore of our land. You might not have had those stories read to you by your grade school teacher, particularly the whiskey part, but eventually you hear them and acquire a sense of, and perhaps a sense of humor about the rough and tumble image westerners like to present. It often makes a good morality tale or ballad, warning of the dangers of drink or just as likely, a story or song celebrating the stuff – or a least poking fun at the effect.  In this week’s River Tales, newspaper man, Charles Henshaw catches up with old-time steamboater, George Heckman from material found in B.A. Botkin’s, A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore.”

Thanks for the visit. I’ll leave you with a vintage movie of Whistler’s Jug Band’s rendition of  Foldin’ Bed.  It’s what you can do with the container once you’ve emptied the contents.
Believe me, getting that great bass riff out of that jug is harder than it looks.  Corey

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3 Responses to Give the Fiddler a Dram – Westward the Jug of Empire

  1. Gary says:


  2. Dan O says:

    It was nice meeting you at the Wild River Sunrise landing this afternoon (Sunday, May 8). Your trip sounds like a very exciting, challenging adventure. I hope the trip is amazing!

    Paddle safe!

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