Rotten Liquor- Solving a Family Musical Mystery (Travels with my Ukelele)
Updated: Jun 6
Some of my earliest memories involve family gatherings in Louisville, Kentucky, where my mom and aunts would sing. Two of my aunts played piano – one by reading music, the other entirely by ear. The one who played by ear had a “honky-tonk” style and improvised. That same aunt, and a different aunt, played guitar, and often when they pulled out the guitars we would all join in song.
When I started taking ukulele lessons my teacher asked me for a song list. I listed some of these songs I sang with my family. One day I recalled a song we used to sing with the guitars – a song we called, “Rotten Liquor”. The song was memorable to me for several reasons. First, my 10-year-old self got to sing about drinking. Second, I could sing “dammit” in one of the verses. And third, it always made everyone laugh. I googled it – putting in all the lyrics – and came up completely empty. Hmm – wonder where that song came from? I had literally never entered an entire set of song lyrics and come up empty. A mystery!
A few months later, I was visiting family friends in Seattle and we reminisced about family sing-alongs to the guitar. My friend said, “You know I used to love it when your aunts sang “Rotten Liquor” but you know what? I can’t find it anywhere on the internet! We immediately realized neither of us could find any evidence that this song existed.
The next time I was in Louisville, I asked my aunts what they knew about the song. The aunt who first performed it had passed away, so we couldn’t ask her. Nobody knew where the song came from.
After I went home, I kept researching. I found a reference to the lyrics, saving a screenshot of my Google search, which looked like this:
But, mysteriously, when I clicked on the link, the song I searched for was no longer listed on the site.
I finally stumbled onto a website by Drunk with Love Records that referenced the song “Drunk with Love” by Bruz Fletcher. Although there were additional lyrics (an introduction we never sang), the lyrics were nearly identical to our mystery song:
Rotten liquor, and mostly gin,’
In every barroom, that I staggered in,
I got drunk, yes I got drunk on love.
One day he’ll leave me, he’ll walk right out that door,
I guess that’s what that door is really for,
And then he’ll slam it, and he’ll say dammit you’re drunk,
It had to be the same song.
That site led me to another website with more information about the composer. His name was Bruz Fletcher, and he was a gay man - a singer/composer/author - who performed in gay clubs in New York and Los Angeles. He was the son of a well-known Indianapolis family that had once been very wealthy, but had lost their wealth and had suffered many family tragedies. Fletcher committed suicide at the age of 34. It was a very sad story, but one that led me to learn more about a flourishing culture of gay clubs in the 1920s and 1930s – what they called the Pansy Craze. You can read all about it here: https://www.queermusicheritage.com/may2010s.html
After sharing this news with my aunts and family friends, our friend found a recording of the song by Frances Faye. Frances Faye was a bisexual artist who performed in clubs and movies primarily from the late 1930s to the 1960s. Apparently Drunk with Love was a favorite song in gay clubs around the country, especially lesbian clubs and bars. Here is an even more exhuberant rendition of her singing the song. I even found a recording of Bruz Fletcher playing and singing the song himself. You can sense the charm and wit in his performance. Pearl Bailey recorded a version that was sanitized and is almost completely unrecognizable as the same song, at least to me.
But, while part of the mystery was solved, some mystery still remains. How did this club song turn into the acoustic guitar honky-tonk version introduced to the family by my aunt? Did she change it? Did it evolve in clubs she might have visited in the 1960s? Click on the link below and you can hear me sing the song the way our family sang it. If anyone else has heard this version, please let me know!