SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – To say someone is “drunker than Cooter Brown” means that person is sloshed, hammered, wasted, tanked, plastered, loaded, and inebriated all at the same time—but who was Cooter Brown, just how drunk was he, and why do we use this saying?
The Old Farmer’s Almanac relays a tale of a man named Cooter Brown who lived along the Mason-Dixon line during the Civil War. He had family and friends on both sides of the political divide, and Cooter needed to make a choice: should he fight for the Confederates, or fight for the Union?
Cooter thought about it, according to legend, and decided that he didn’t want to fight for either side.
And instead of picking sides; he supposedly picked up a bottle instead.
Young men were not allowed to simply remain neutral during the Civil War. However, if the origin story of “being drunker than Cooter Brown” is at all valid neither side would have found a drunkard worthy of service or valuable to the war effort.
Now imagine that half of your kin-folk are fighting for the Union while the other half of your family is fighting for the Confederacy. Factor in your friends and imagine what it would be like to stand there, on the battlefield, and either kill or be killed by your friends and family.
Cooter Brown’s musical and literary influence
In the 158 years that have passed since the Civil War ended, the name Cooter Brown has become synonymous with being three sheets to the wind. But the phrase has inspired musicians and writers alike.
Ray Stevens recorded a comedic country song about Cooter in 2009.
Then there’s “Dunker than Cooter Brown” by the Wolf River Rednecks.
An Irish band called My Three Kilts has a quirky bar song called Cooter Brown.
But perhaps the greatest tribute to the Civil War legend who never fought is that of Cooter Brown’s Tavern in New Orleans, established in 1977. They serve up beer by the draft, bottle, can, and have a list of cocktails, ciders and ginger beers, too.
No matter what your palette, the tavern serves up enough options that almost anyone can get drunker than Cooter Brown.
The other legend of Cooter Brown?
Some stories say Cooter Brown was of mixed race and dressed like the Cherokee. Other versions don’t say a thing about Cooter’s race.
And then there’s an entirely different version of the Cooter Brown tale.
“Cooter Brown was mixed race; half Cherokee, half African American,” wrote Jonathon Green in The Stories of Slang: Language at its most human. “He was also all misanthropist, wholly drunk, and he too, though living far from the border in a shack in Louisiana, was unfortunate enough to encounter the Civil War… Yankees and Johnny-Rebs both came to call, invariably found him drunk and shared his bottles.”
The Cajun version of Cooter Brown ends after the war, when a drunken Cooter burned his house to the ground and disappeared from history into the Louisiana swamp.
But whatever, and wherever, led to the demise of Cooter Brown, one thing is certain. He left his mark upon American culture.
In 1981, Lewis Grizzard announced the winner of the First Annual Drunk-As-Cooter Brown Award in his book Don’t Sit Under the Grits Tree With Anyone Else But Me.
“Charlie would be drunk as Cooter Brown and singing cowboy music, and if he had not lost his hat, he waived it, and tried to get the mule to rear up like he was Tom Mix or Lash LaRue,” wrote Rick Bragg in Ava’s Man.
Literary references to Cooter Brown serve as adjectives or nouns by some of southernness’ most beloved authors.
But a Google Books Ngram Viewer search shows that the first known literary reference to Cooter Brown wasn’t published until 1947, so there is always the possibility that Cooter Brown never really existed at all.
Here’s the thing.
Even if Cooter Brown never existed in the flesh folklore and its literary importance have a place in society. It is through legends, fables and tall tales that even lost history can live on and be passed down without us truly understanding how it came to be.
Uncomfortable truths live on in folklore, in expressions, and in literary references that even authors and readers don’t always understand.