Here at Lux Row, we’re all legal and above board. But during Prohibition, folks had to take matters into their own hands, usually deep in the woods. The Great Experiment lasted from 1920 to 1933 and gave rise to its own folklore and music.
Particularly in the American South, moonshiners took on a certain Robin Hood aspect — otherwise honest folk just trying to quench their thirst while being hunted and hounded by those nefarious “revenooers.”
Many a moonshine melody eventually became folk music classics, and still retain their beguiling nostalgia and frequent tinge of melancholy. Here are a few sips from the old timey hit parade, all of them recorded by hundreds of singers over the years and worth seeking out for the full performances:
I’ve been a moonshiner for seventeen long years.
I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beers.
I’ll go down to some holler, I’ll set up my still,
And I’ll make you a gallon for a two-dollar bill.
We naturally can’t resist the title of this song, though as Alan Lomax points out in his The Folk Songs of North America, the tune is more often simply known as “Moonshiner” and hearkens back to southern English and Irish tunes. The Bill Staines version is as haunting as they come.
Wake up, wake up, darling Corey
What makes you sleep so sound?
The revenue officers are coming
Gonna tear your still house down
Sometimes known as “Dig a Hole” or “Darling Cora” (in Harvey H. Fuson’s Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands), this tune predates Prohibition, but in any case, things don’t end well for Corey. The earliest commercial recordings of the song date back to 1927. Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe (among dozens of other artists) have also recorded versions of the song.
“Whiskey in the Jar”
There’s some takes delight in the fishing or the bowling
Others take delight in the carriages a-rolling
But I takes delight in the juice of the barley
And courting pretty girls in the morning oh so early
Mush-a-ring-um duram da
Whack! fol de daddy-o
Whack! fol de daddy-o
There’s whiskey in the jar
Okay, so this one is really about a highwayman instead of a moonshiner, and it refers to Irish whiskey rather than bourbon, but hey, it’s a lovely tune and essential to know if you’re ever in an Irish pub when music breaks out. It was perhaps made most famous as “Gilgarra Mountain” by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar
As long as we’re taking liberties, this is less an old folk song and more of a country and bluegrass hit, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967, first recorded by the Osborne Brothers and later John Denver. But with its lively chorus (“Rocky Top, you’ll always be / Home, sweet home to me / Good ‘ol Rocky Top / Rocky Top, Tennessee”), it’s become a staple at University of Tennessee sporting events and is one of nine Tennessee state songs. Still, it goes best with Kentucky bourbon.
Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil
Fill it with new made corn mash and never more you’ll toil
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.
This is the real classic of our batch, best known from an early Joan Baez concert album. The second verse tells what kind of wood to use when building a fire for the still, and the third humorously refers back to the Whiskey Rebellion protest during George Washington’s presidency:
My daddy he made whiskey, my granddaddy he did too
We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792 … .
Ah, the good old days!