The Anacreontics of Popular American Music

Francine DuBois & Hillary Hardcore

Issue 8 * Spring 2002

Most popular for poems he himself did not write, Anacreon (a.k.a. Anakreon), a sixth century BCE poet of Greece, popularized odes to erotic love and alcohol. These two themes have certainly lasted through the centuries, finding a particularly notable home in American popular culture.

The remains of Anacreon's work are fragments, yet his legacy is undeniable. His work praising a hedonistic, comfortable life and the physical pleasures of sex, love, and drunkenness inspired Ben Johnson, Robert Herrick and other carpe diem poets, Lord Byron, and arguably even comedians such as W.C. Fields and Benny Hill. Though a clear line of influence may be impossible to draw, the connections between Anacreon and modern Western humor and literature are easy to infer.

Despite his lack of surviving works, Anacreon's gift to culture lived on through other poets. A collection of works known as the Anacreontea was published in sixteenth century France; however, it was not until the eighteenth century that Anacreon's authorship was realized to be in error. Instead of being his own work, the Anacreontea is a collection of poems in honor and imitation of Anacreon. The popularity of these poems and their themes of wine and women made Anacreon a sort of cult hero, placing him as the honoree of the British drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven," which served as the melody for Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner," clearly and forever linking Anacreon's name with the United States.

In the Anacreontea, it is Ode 14 that speaks most clearly to our American popular music tradition. Bernard Knox's modern translation harkens closely to a pattern found in numerous songs:

If you can count the number
of the leaves on all the branches,
or if you can find the total
of the waves in all the oceans,
I'll appoint you the sole recorder --
you can catalog my love life.
Now for Athens, just to start with,
write down the number thirty
and fifteen more for completeness.
After that, for Corinth, check off
love affairs in runs, in series
(for that city's in Achaea
where the girls are always handsome.)
Then take down the score for Lesbos,
moving on towards Ionia
via Caria and Rhodos--
and the total now: two thousand.

And so the speaker continues to tour the Mediterranean, visiting Syria, Egypt, Crete, and mentions that his love affairs span past the Rock of Gibraltar and all the way to India's shores. "What's the matter? Feeling dizzy?" the persona smugly asks.

It is unlikely that today's readers would get disoriented from reading Ode 14; the cataloging of lovers around the world is quite a familiar motif in American popular music, frequently in songs simply called "Girls, Girls, Girls."

One of the first such instances appears in "The Merry Widow," a Rodgers and Hart musical from 1934. The lyrics to "Girls, Girls, Girls," written by Lorenz Hart, quickly summarized the two major themes of Anacreon's work:

Let us gaze in the wine while it's wet.
Let's do things that we'll live to regret.
. . .
When there's wine and there's women and song
It is wrong not do something wrong!

"Girls, Girls, Girls" here lacks the specificity of the world-traveling lover, as it does in Elvis Presley's "Girls, Girls, Girls" (from the movie of the same name).

Girls, big and brassy,
Girls, small and sassy,
Just give me one of each kind.
. . .
I'm just a red-blooded boy
And I can't stop thinking about
Girls! Girls! Girls! Girls!

A tour of the United States, much like Anacreon's follower's tour through the Mediterranean, is the sole topic of the Beach Boys' 1965 hit "California Girls" (covered in 1985 by David Lee Roth with great success, likely bolstered by the bikini model-saturated music video).

Well East Coast girls are hip,
I really dig those styles they wear.
The Southern girls, with the way they talk,
They knock me out when I'm down there.
The Midwest farmer's daughter
Really makes you feel all right.
And the Northern girls, with the way they kiss,
They keep their boyfriends warm at night.

Although all have their assets, the best girls are in California, or so the song states. It's the old Manifest Destiny theme, a jingoism mixed with sexual pursuit, which permeates "California Girls."

"Yankee girls ya just can't beat," claimed Mötley Crüe in 1987. They also took a musical tour of the United States, visiting not vague regions, but strip clubs, in their song titled, of course, "Girls, Girls, Girls."

Girls, girls, girls
At the Dollhouse in Fort Lauderdale
Girls, girls, girls
Rocking in Atlanta at Tattletails
Girls, girls, girls
Raising hell at the 7th Veil

Here the two themes of Anacreon become intertwined again: drink and sex. While alcohol is not specifically mentioned, it is a certainty based on the locations mentioned within the song.

Anacreon's tradition has found a home not only in operettas, teen musicals, and glam metal, but also in hip hop and rap. In 2001, Ludacris and Nate Dogg released "Area Codes," a cataloging of area codes and a boisterous claim that "I've got hoes in different area codes." Again alcohol is mentioned, keeping Anacreon's 2600-year legacy alive. Also in 2001, Jay-Z released his song entitled, yet again, "Girls, Girls, Girls." Jay-Z returns to the Anacreontic tradition of women around the world, including Spain, India, France, Peru, China, and Africa. Jay-Z revises Anacreon's appreciation of alcohol for substances a bit more "ghetto":

Got a project chick that plays her part
. . .
Hid my drugs from the narcs, hid my guns by the parts.
. . .
Got a chick from Peru that sniff Peru
She got a cousin at customs that get shit through
Got this weedhead chick . . .

Would Anacreon be proud of his lasting tradition? No one can say, but to deny his place in influencing culture, particularly American popular music, would be a tremendous oversight.

The pursuit of sex and slight drunkenness was not the invention of Anacreon, but it was his mastery of the subject matter that has launched centuries of its celebration in poetry. His poems, had they survived in their entirety, would likely fit right in with current trends. Despite all our technological advancements and scientific enlightenment, our growing cultural awareness and attempts to change social order, the theme of "whiskey 'n' wimmen" (to borrow a phrase from John Lee Hooker) still resonates. The forms haven't changed, the words have barely changed. Anacreon lives.


Works Cited

Beach Boys. "California Girls." The Beach Boys Today! EMD/Capitol, 1965.

Hart, Lorenz. "Girls, Girls, Girls." The Merry Widow. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch. Perf. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. MGM, 1934.

Jay-Z. "Girls, Girls, Girls." The Blueprint. UNI/Def Jam, 2001.

Knox, Bernard, trans. "If You Can Count the Number." The Norton Book of Classical Literature. Ed. Bernard Knox. New York: 1993, 245-46.

Ludacris. "Area Codes." Rush Hour 2 Soundtrack. UNI/Def Jam, 2001.

Mötley Crüe. "Girls, Girls, Girls." Girls Girls Girls. UNI/Beyond, 1987.

Presley, Elvis. "Girls, Girls, Girls." Girls! Girls! Girls!. Dir. Norman Taurog. Paramount, 1962.