Ganja and song seem to cross all borders. Today more than ever. The octogenarian country icon Willie Nelson (“roll me up and smoke me when I die”) is peddling his branded Willie’s Reserve strains just as he does his albums. You can pick up a couple grams of Khalifa Kush to enjoy alongside the latest Wiz Khalifa record, and Snoop Dogg and the children of Bob Marley all have their own brands. Even country superstar Toby Keith, the Big Dog Daddy himself, released “Wacky Tobaccy,” a not-so-subtle weed endorsement, in 2017.
It’s really no secret. Musicians love marijuana. Always have. I have spoken with many of them about it over the years. Some love to perform while under the influence, others only for composing, and many like to do both. As guitarist and oud master Neil Haverstick, who uses it for creativity, puts it: “I surprise myself. And that is the key word: surprise. I am often able to create new shapes, patterns, something that did not previously exist. And I assure you that, for many artists, that’s the greatest moment of all—the moment of discovery.”
Or as Louis Armstrong, and we’ll get back to him in a bit, told his biographer, “We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
Not surprisingly, it’s not only musicians. Many people who listen to music like it even better after a little elevation. And if you don’t, you know somebody who does.
Keith’s “Wacky Tobaccy” represents perhaps the complete mainstreamization of marijuana songs, and an example of how music about cannabis has always reflected the culture in which it is created. Here’s a guy who’s as all-American as they come, who’s known for his patriotic songs, and on the video for “Wacky,” Keith and his boys are grinnin’ and tokin’ on the tour bus just like Snoop or Dr. Dre or Uncle Willie Nelson (who appears in the video) might.
You can bake it in some brownies,
smoke it through a bong
Roll up a great big fat one
like ol’ Cheech and Chong
Burn it through a hole
in a can of Budweiser
If you can’t take the heat, son,
Before Recording: The Smoking of Dagga
It hasn’t always been out in the open like that. Before sound could be recorded, there are, of course, no concrete examples of pot songs. But to imagine that marijuana was first used by musicians after they started recording in the last 100 years sounds pretty unrealistic, right?
We know there was music for the Parisian elite that included Charles Baudelaire and Alexandre Dumas, who came to Club des Hashischins for séances and hashish experiments. Cannabis historian Chris Bennett has found written records of dervish sects and African tribes with music dedicated to hashish. A 1913 report, “The smoking of dagga (Indian hemp) among the native races of South Africa and the resultant evils,” included a cannabis smoking song of the Besotho people who settled there:
We smoke it and it reminds us
of different things.
We remember the miracles of the world.
We remember those far and near.
The Jazz Age: Vipers and Reefer Men
Perhaps the first popular song to be upfront about cannabis in the United States was “Have You Ever Met That Funny Reefer Man?” The tune, a.k.a. “The Reefer Man,” ostensibly about a guy, obviously stoned, who “trades dimes for nickels and calls watermelons pickles,” was performed by Cab Calloway in the 1933 film International House and is still popular. Likewise, jazz violinist Stuff Smith, playing off the Harlem term for a pot user, had a regional hit with his “You’se a Viper,” in 1936, and it became perhaps the best known cannabis song after pianist Fats Waller became the first of many to record it in 1943.
What we know of the connection of jazz and cannabis in that period comes at least in part from the autobiography of Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a white clarinetist better known for his pot dealing during the 1930s than for his own musical prowess. Mezzrow was an odd fellow who considered himself a Black man, even getting himself placed in the Black prison ward after being arrested in 1937. But his writing about how cannabis was intertwined with jazz reached far beyond his own generation.
Mezzrow’s book included passages like this one, recounting a dancing woman at a party: “The rhythm really had this queen; her eyes almost jumped out of their sockets and the cords in her neck stood out stiff and hard like ropes.”
Lyrics like “The Reefer Man” and comments like that also drew the attention of Harry Anslinger, who, upon being appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, began waging a campaign of arrests and disinformation against cannabis that lasted several decades. By all accounts a nasty piece of work, Anslinger peddled the cockamamie story that jazz musicians on marijuana were creating extra beats in the music that were making listeners, like the Mezzrow woman depicted above, go crazy. As silly as this seems today, Anslinger was able to use it to harass Black musicians, especially those who flouted him.
Then there was Louis Armstrong, who began using it in the 1920s and whose affinity for the plant became legendary. Though busted a couple of times, he somehow escaped Anslinger’s wrath—I even found a clip of him joking about getting high while a contestant on the 1960s TV quiz show What’s My Line?
“That’s one reason why we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now. The warmth it always brought forth from the other person—especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that shuzzit or gage, nice names,” Armstrong once said. Anyone who has shared a joint at a concert with the stranger next to you surely can appreciate exactly what Armstrong was talking about.
But relatively speaking, during World War II and beyond there were few references to cannabis in popular song. General public acceptance for cannabis was at a low. But jazz culture, and Mezzrow’s book, caught the attention of others, like influential poet Allen Ginsberg, writer Jack Kerouac, and others of the so-called Beat Generation, who picked up on his language and style, which they found wasn’t that different from their fledging, marijuana-influenced writings.
High Minded Medleys – Jazz
“Have You Ever Seen the Funny Reefer Man,” Cab Calloway and his Orchestra
“You’se a Viper,” Fats Waller
“When I Get Low I Get High,” Chick Webb & His Orchestra
“Here Comes The Man with the Jive,” Stuff Smith & his Onyx Club Boys
“Wacky Dust,” Ella Fitzgerald & the Chick Webb Orchestra
Reggae & Cannabis
Even more than jazz or rock or hip-hop, reggae music has always been associated with marijuana, mostly because of its association with Rastafari, a loosely defined religion and social movement developed in Jamaica in the 1930s that celebrates a god named Jah who lives inside humans. Many Rastas believe that Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor from 1930-1974, was the reincarnation of God on earth.
More importantly in this context, Rastas consider cannabis as a sacrament. Its most famous musical disciple was Bob Marley, an ardent Rasta who became an international musical star and celebrity. He talked openly about his marijuana use and was often pictured with a large spliff between his fingers.
Americans caught onto the music in the 1970s, and there were plenty of ready/steady musicians on the island to accommodate the growing taste for the music. Reggae today is considered world music and still almost perfect for enjoying with cannabis.
High Minded Medleys – Reggae
“Easy Skanking,” Bob Marley
“Smoke Two Joints,” Sublime
“Come Around,” Collie Buddz
“Police in Helicopter,” John Holt
“Unda Mi Sensi,” Barrington Levy
The 1960s and Beyond: Everybody Must Get Stoned
Perhaps the most important beneficiary of the Beats was Robert Zimmerman, who changed his name to Bob Dylan after moving to New York in 1961 and became close friends with Allen Ginsberg soon afterwards. (That’s Ginsberg hanging in the alleyway behind Dylan in his iconic video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”) One early song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” seemed to many listeners to be about someone under the influence (“Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship/My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip/My toes too numb to step”), especially after it became a massive hit for the Byrds in the summer of 1965.
Less than a year later, his own single, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” with its leering, wheezing horn chorus screaming “everybody must get stoned,” reached No. 2 on the US charts, which, not surprisingly, most listeners took as an appeal to indulge. Interestingly enough, neither song mentions cannabis, but both were immediately and have been forever associated with it.
The floodgates opened, and as the youth counterculture embraced rock and roll as its music of choice, those musicians began writing and recording songs about cannabis. For anyone growing up then, there seemed to be a tune for every situation. Anyone growing up back then knew exactly what Commander Cody was talking about when he sang about being down to “Seeds and Stems Again,” or what an “Illegal Smile,” as described by folkie John Prine, looked like in the mirror. High-end strains like Panama Red and Acapulco Gold were celebrated in song, and titles like “Don’t Bogart That Joint” became buzzwords.
Country star Merle Haggard even penned a reaction to the hippies’ cultural dominance, and “Okie From Muskogee” (“a place where even squares can have a ball”) became a monster hit in 1969. Most listeners never realized that the song’s point of view was written tongue-in-cheek by Haggard, a user himself, who in 2015 wrote and sang, with Willie Nelson, “It’s All Going to Pot.”
Nelson is his own story, and except for perhaps Bob Marley, the most iconic marijuana character of all time. He worked the outside fringes of the country music industry for a couple of decades, living off a couple of standards he wrote while his career went nowhere, before finally chucking Nashville for Austin, where he hooked up with a nascent batch of other similarly minded, former Nashville has-beens and wannabes like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson who became known as leaders of the Outlaw movement.
Today, at 87, Nelson is arguably the best-known musician espousing the new normal, a common-sense voice for cannabis, seniors, and sensible drug laws. As he puts it, marijuana won’t kill you “unless you let a bale of it fall on you.”
High Minded Medleys – Rock and Roll
“Planet of Weed,” Fountains of Wayne
“One Toke Over the Line,” Brewer & Shipley
“Seeds and Stems (Again),” Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
“Illegal Smile,” John Prine
“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” Bob Dylan
Hip-Hop: Snoop, Wiz, and Cypress Hill
With the ascendance of hip-hop as the dominant music form in the US, marijuana made the complete transition to the mainstream. Before hip-hop, there was always the wink and the clever turn of phrase to alert those in the know to what was going on. That went totally out the door with hip-hop. Using the relatively new medium of video—which debuted on MTV in 1981—hip-hop musicians ran with it. By the early 1990s, everybody was hitting the blunts and the bongs and celebrating the wicked weed in song and rhyme, all in front of the camera. Rappers and reefer became synonymous.
Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg, Method Man and bands like Cypress Hill built their songs, recordings, and live shows around cannabis use. That hasn’t stopped, and today rappers who deny cannabis use are in the minority. The smell of cannabis can be detected at nearly every live music event—trance and EDM to country—especially in states where cannabis is legal. “Wacky Tobaccy” rules. The reefer man has become the method man. Cannabis and music have finally come full circle, and perhaps we have reached a time when they are just indicative of the new normal.
“It has a lot to do with calming the nerves,” good old Louis Armstrong once said, “which makes the creative juices flow a little easier.” Snoop Dogg adds, “It makes me feel the way I need to feel.” May it ever be so.
High Minded Medleys – Hip-Hop
“I Got 5 On It,” Luniz
“The Weed Song,” Bone Thugs ‘N’ Harmony
“The Recipe,” Kendrick Lamar
“Mary Jane,” Rick James
“Blueberry Yum Yum,” Ludacris