Music Monday // A Brief History of “The Cup Song” & “When I’m Gone”

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the song “Cups” from the movie Pitch Perfect. It’s one of my mom’s favorites and a song that I will sing to myself when no one is around. When stripped down and separated from the film, “Cups”—originally called “When I’m Gone”—is a song with a fun melody and lyrics that are equal parts easy to remember, fun to sing, and connects to the nomadic chord that exists in everyone. However, the song also has an interesting history that you don’t often come across in music. So, because I can’t not talk about this story whenever it comes up, this week I’m going to be doing Music Monday a little bit differently as we talk about the history of “the cup song”.

The Carter Family – 1931

The lyrics and melody of what is known as “The Cup Song” come from a song called “When I’m Gone” which was originally written in 1931 by AP Carter and performed by his family band, The Carter Family (which would eventually include his niece, June Carter Cash—Yes, that June Carter Cash). The song appears to have been pretty low on their list of hits seeing as it is near impossible to find a recording of it. The video above was honestly the only one I could find.

It is important to note that “When I’m Gone” is, without fail, almost always confused with “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”, which was written in 1928. Not only are the titles similar, they also have a slightly similar sound, but they aren’t the same song. They’re both beautiful songs (as are most of The Carter Family’s songs), but they aren’t the same song. So—just to be absolutely clear—”The Cup Song” is not based on “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”.

J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers – 1937 or 38

In either 1937 or 1938 (I’ve found equal references to it being recorded in both years, so I’m not entirely sure which one is right) “When I’m Gone” was covered by the group J.E. Mainer‘s Mountaineers, a bluegrass group from North Carolina. As is usual with bluegrass music, Mainer sped up the melody and added a bit more of what I like to call “mountain soul” to it, but otherwise, the song is still pretty much the same at this point. The song is also still pretty unknown and remains pretty hidden.

The Cup Game (Full House 89 & Zoom 99) – 1980s


We’re going to make a bit of a detour through the 80’s for a second here to now talk about the “cup game”. No one seems to know when or where the cup game originated, but in the 1980’s the game became rather popular. At this point in time it was just a rhythm game that involved keeping the rhythm while passing the cups in a circle around the table. If a player dropped the cup or messed up the rhythm, the player was out and the game continued until there was only one (because there can be only one).

The game was briefly featured in an episode of Full House in 1989 and brought back a decade later in the show Zoom. The game was paired with music in 1987 by Christian singer, Rich Mullins, in a stage performance of his song “Screen Door” and, again, in 2012, in a Lennon & Maisy cover of the song “Call Your Girlfriend”, however, neither instance had even close to the same commercial success as “Cups”.

Lulu and the Lampshades – 2009 & 2011


In 2009, the cup game and “When I’m Gone” were finally merged together by the duo, Lulu and the Lampshades. The video of the two performing the song in a kitchen was posted on reddit and the video soon went viral. In 2011, the song was professionally recorded and put on the album Lulu and the Lampshades under the title “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. Though the video and the song went viral, it still hadn’t hit the level of craze that it would the next year.

Anna Kendrick & Pitch Perfect – 2012

Enter Pitch Perfect. In September of 2012, the movie released and for a moment Anna Kendrick’s character performs the first verse and chorus of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. Between the release of the film and the release of the single (dubbed by the film “Cups”—don’t get me started on how much that rubs me the wrong way), the song officially blew up with just about every music youtube channel recording either a cover or a tutorial (even ones that usually aren’t about music) and every high school choir group or glee club obsessing over the song to the point of over saturation.

I’m sure it’s obvious from that last sentence, but the over saturation of “Cups” made me originally dislike the song very heavily. I didn’t loathe it, mind you, I was just very tired of hearing it. Once I learned the history and heard the original versions, however, “When I’m Gone” absolutely won me over. As well, I can’t deny the fact that this instance of musical evolution is proof of what makes music great. The fact that you can take a bluegrass song from the 1930s, give it a percussion beat from the 80s, put it in a film in 2012, and get an overwhelming success out of it is a prime example that some things truly are timeless. This isn’t an example of nostalgia or retro-rehashing (props to my brother for coming up with that term), this is an example of a song that nibbles somewhere at the human experience, making it relatable to multiple generations whether they are aware of how old it actually is or not. I think that’s why I love the history of “When I’m Gone”, it’s one more example of why creators should aim to pinpoint the human experience rather than what is popular at the moment.

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