Friday 20 August 2010

Spangled Drinking Songs

A spangle is, of course, a little spang: a spang being a small, glittering ornament. To be spangled is to be covered in small spangs, a fate that befalls the best of us at times.

I came across spangled in a work by Thomas Moore - not the famous one, you understand, but the nineteenth century Irish poetaster. He wrote:

   As late I sought the spangled bowers
   To cull a wreath of matin flowers,

It was one of his translations from the Greek poet Anacreon. Anacreon was an ancient boozer and lover and lyric poet. His poems (anacreontics) are about getting drunk and making lyrical, Attic love (by which I mean Greek love, not sex in a garret*). Anacreon was therefore a Good Thing.

Anacreon was, indeed, such a good thing that in the eighteenth century an English gentleman's club was founded in his memory. It was called the Anacreontic Society and was devoted to "wit, harmony and the god of wine". It was a very musical affair and two members wrote a society drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven". John Stafford Smith wrote the tune and the society's president, Ralph Tomlinson wrote the words. The first verse went thuslyly:

To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full glee
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian
"Voice, fiddle, and flute,
No longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And, besides, I'll instruct you like me to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine."

Bacchus's vine is, of course, booze. It was a good song and became rather popular. Because it was hard to sing, it became an ad hoc test of drunkenness used by the Enlightenment police. If you could sing To Anacreon in Heaven in tune you were sober and free to go. This is, if you think about it, an odd fate for a drinking song.
Unfortunately it was so popular that it was usurped and stolen by a chap called Francis Scott Key who wrote new words that weren't about drink but about being able to see a flag flying after a bombardment. His words went:

O say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets' red glare,
The bombs bursting in air.
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

And the new title that he gave to an old drinking song takes us straight back to Small Spangs.

*There was a young man from Peru
Who had nothing whatever to do:
So he ran to the garret
And buggered the parrot,
And sent the result to a zoo.


  1. The limerick would make a far more interesting National Anthem, no?

  2. Unless the Anacreontic Society was filled with trained singers, that tune has no business being a drinking song. It's hard enough to do right when sober.

  3. The fundamental connectedness of all things!

  4. N.B. Sorry to those for whom this page has looked weird. Blogger's auto-formating has been trying my patience to the point where I've nearly run out of curses.

  5. And the drongo, as well as being an anagram of my first name, has a variety called the Spangled Drongo. Do I win a prize?

    (And furthermore, after posting the last comment I realised that Dirk Gently said 'fundamental interconnectedness' but in my defence, isn't connectedness an inter kind of thing anyway - fundamentally?)

  6. There's a Wedding Present song called Spangle: