5 Cannabis Songs Released on the Eve of Prohibition

By David Jenison on October 4, 2017

National cannabis prohibition took effect on October 1, 1937, and the bureaucrat behind it had a particular dislike for the "reefer" and "gage" themes found in jazz music. The ban on alcohol lasted 13 long years, but as cannabis prohibition prepares to turn 80, here's a look at the elevated jazz tunes released between 1936 and the day prohibition officially started. 

Stuff Smith - "You'se a Viper" (1936)

The Buckeye State native is regarded as one of the top swing-era violinists, and his most famous track, "You'se a Viper," is an early cannabis anthem covered by multiple artists like Fats Waller and Rosetta Howard and later by Manhattan Transfer and Ruben Studdard. In some cases, new versions had the alternate song title "The Reefer Song." Smith, by the way, is one of the 57 artists who appear in the iconic 1958 photo A Great Day in Harlem.

Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb - "When I Get Low, I Get High" (1936)

Ella Fitzgerald was only 16 years old when bandleader Chick Webb asked her to become his group's vocalist. The First Lady of Song obviously had a huge career ahead of her, but she had her professional start here, and one year later, Fitzgerald and Webb recorded this high-energy ballroom banger. Worth noting, this recording features trumpeter Mario Bauzá, who would launch the Latin jazz genre seven years later with his song "Tangá," which itself is a nod to cannabis. 

Larry Adler - "Smoking Reefers" (1936)

This Baltimore-born harmonica legend recorded with Elton John, Kate Bush and Sting later in life, but this cannabis classic features Adler behind the piano instead in his prime. 

The Harlem Hamfats - "Weed Smoker's Dream" (1936)

The name might suggest NYC, but the Harlem Hamfats were a Chicago jazz band that later sold out by changing the song title to "Why Don't You Do Right." So when you hear everyone from Peggy Lee to Jessica Rabbit singing the latter, know it's actually about cannabis. In the group's defense, it did record a cover of "You'se a Viper" with Rosetta Howard four days after prohibition took effect. 

Lil Johnson - "Mellow Stuff" (1937)

The unfortunately named Lil Johnson (at least it's not a male artist) was a dirty blues singer responsible for songs like "Get 'Em from the Peanut Man (Hot Nuts)," "Rock That Thing," "Press My Button (Ring My Bell)," "My Stove's in Good Condition," "Take Your Hand Off It," "Let's Get Drunk and Truck" and "Buck Naked Blues." The Chicago-based singer may or may not have been referring to cannabis with "Anybody Want to Buy My Cabbage" (probably not), but she certainly was with "Mellow Stuff," which she recorded one month before FDR signed prohibition into law. 

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