STORIES

20 Cannabis Anthems From the First Decade of Prohibition

By David Jenison on October 5, 2017

One year before cannabis prohibition became the law of the land, the film Reefer Madness made its debut, and jazz artists released a handful of cannabis-themed classics. The following summer, the government passed prohibition, and it took effect on October 1, 1937. The criminalization of cannabis, however, did not stop artists from singing about "gage," "reefer" and "jive" as evidenced by the following 20 songs all released during the first decade of prohibition. (Ironically, it wasn't until the end of this decade that cannabis disappeared from The Pharmacopeia of the United States, suggesting the medical community might have resisted prohibition as well.) Check out how many came out in the first year anyone.

Rosetta Howard & The Harlem Hamfats - "If You're a Viper" (1937)

The Harlem Hamfats recorded "Weed Smoker's Dream" one year before prohibition, and they recorded this Stuff Smith cover with Rosetta Howard in NYC four days after prohibition started. Numerous artists covered "Viper" in the years following the cannabis crackdown. 


Georgia White - "The Stuff Is Here" (1937)

The American blues singer recorded this song in NYC on the same day Rosetta Howard recorded "Viper," which means the first cannabis songs of the prohibition era were both sung by women. In another nod to her progressive mindset, White formed an all-female band in the 1940s. 


Tampa Red - "I'm Gonna Get High" (1937)

Ten short days after prohibition took effect, the Chicago bluesman recorded this defiant anthem about getting high. Appropriately, one of the verses says, "It ain't no need of no one tryin' to shame me."


Jazz Gillum & His Jazz Boys - "Reefer Head Woman" (1938)

The Mississippi-born harmonica player ran away from home at age seven and survived by playing music on the streets. At around age 19, he moved to Chicago, and after a decade playing the clubs, he regularly recorded with labels like ARC and Bluebird Records. This 1938 recording features swing jazz guitarist George Barnes, who was only 16 years old at the time. Earlier that same year, Barnes might have been the first jazz musician ever to record with an electric guitar. 


Sidney Bechet With Noble Sissle's Swingsters - "Viper Mad" (1938)

NOLA-born jazz artist beat Louis Armstrong to the recording studio by a matter of months, but Pops achieved fame and paid musical tribute to cannabis first. Still, better late than never. 


Trixie Smith - "Jack I'm Mellow" (1938)

Atlanta-born Trixie Smith famously released “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)," one of the first songs to reference rock 'n' roll, and later recorded this early cannabis anthem. Some sources place the song in the late 1920s, but it was more likely recorded in 1938. 


The Ink Spots - "That Cat Is High" (1938)

This pop vocal group rose to fame in the 1930s, and their later influence on R&B, rock music and doo-wop earned them a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in the 1980s. This post-prohibition track showcases the mainstream group at its, um, height. 


Buster Bailey - "Light Up" (1938)

This Memphis jazzman learned the clarinet from the same pro that taught Benny Goodman, and he later moved to NYC and played in multiple bands with Louis Armstrong. He later appeared with Armstrong in the 1965 film When the Boys Meet the Girls. Bailey released "Light Up" with his own project, Buster Bailey and His Rhyme Busters. 


Slim & Slam - "Dopey Joe" (1938)

Sure, the recording sucks, but this Slim & Slam song deserves special note for its reference to cannabis and Mexico, which likely reflects the prohibitionist campaign to tie cannabis to Mexicans coming over the border in the early 1900s. 


Bea Foote - "Weed" (1938)

"Weed, weed, weed, all day long," sings Foote, whose short-lived career is best remembered for songs about sex and cannabis. The pro-weed grindcore band Exit-13 remembered her with this 1996 cover


Cootie Williams & His Rug Cutters - "Ol' Man River (Smoke A Little Tea)" (1938)

Cootie Williams played with everyone, but his notoriety came playing with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club until 1940 when he joined Benny Goodman. He rejoined Ellington in the 1960s and played in the Super Bowl halftime tribute to his long-time friend in 1975. He recorded this song with the Rug Cutters in 1938 while still at the Cotton Club.

 

Gene Krupa & His Orchestra - "Feelin' High and Happy" (1938)

Big band leader Gene Krupa is widely considered "the founding father of modern drumset playing" (per Modern Drummer in 2015), but that distinction is not what's making him happy in this song. 


The Cats & The Fiddle - "Killin' Jive" (1939)

Just two years into a 14-year career, the Chicago-based singing group recorded this cannabis classic that starts, "He's the man that smokes that jive." To be clear, the "killin'" reference is all positive as seen in this lyric, "Everything will seem so funny. Darkest days will seem so sunny. That feeling will arrive when you smoke that killin' jive." The following year, the group scored a monster hit with "I Miss You So."


Cab Calloway - "Are You Hep To The Jive?" (1940)

Cab Calloway rules—just check out his 1932 song "Reefer Man"—but his musical cannabis canon doesn't stop there. Three years after prohibition started, he asks if you're still hep to gage. 


Lil Green - "Knockin' Myself Out" (1941)

Two thumbs up for the artist's name! Thumbs down to what inspired the song topic, namely the toll prohibition took on the community. The song starts, "Listen girls and boys I got one stick, give me a match and let me take a whiff quick… I started blowing my gage, and I was havin' my fun. I spied the police and I started to run." Unfortunately, the story goes all downhill from here with the police captain telling her to kill herself for smoking cannabis. 


Fats Waller - "You're a Viper (The Reefer Song)" (1943)

This preacher's kid was obviously no angel—at least according to church norms—and he remade "You'se a Viper" in 1943. Misbehavin' aside, Waller received a posthumous lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 1993. 


Buck Washington - "Save The Roach For Me" (1944)

This famed pianist, vocalist and vaudeville performer partnered with John Bubbles to form the popular duo Buck and Bubbles in the 1910s. The duo stuck together until the 1950s, but he recorded this cannabis anthem by himself on the piano in '44. 


Cee Pee Johnson - "The G Man Got The T Man" (1945)

This Louisiana jazz drummer and singer moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s and played with Emerson Scott at the Onyx Club in Hollywood. He eventually moved into a lead role and helped develop the west coast scene with songs like this that reference prohibition enforcement. 


Barney Bigard Sextet - "Sweet Marijuana Brown" (1945)

Most people prefer the sweet green (unless we're talking hashish), but the long-time Duke Ellington collaborator and NOLA native recorded this marijuana ode a few years after leaving NYC for Los Angeles. He did extensive soundtrack work in Tinsel Town and made an on-screen appearance with Louis Armstrong and others in the 1947 film New Orleans


Julia Lee - "The Spinach Song (I Didn't Like It The First Time)"

This song missed the decade mark by slightly more than a month, but it deserves honorable mention here for its creative use of "spinach." Switching up the slang is just another sign of music artists navigating the new world of cannabis prohibition, which somehow still exists today. 


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