Cannabis-themed music first ascended into the mainstream in the '30s even as former Prohibition agents launched a full-scale propaganda campaign and drug war. In 1930, Louis Armstrong became the first celebrity busted for cannabis, and more arrests followed as federal cannabis prohibition passed in 1937. The backdrop for these tunes also included the Great Depression, Prohibition, the Jazz Age, the Cotton Club, Reefer Madness, the New Deal, the Dust Bowl, Jim Crow, Nazis and Harry Anslinger, giving the songs multiple levels of meaning and cultural significance. Jazz became the signature soundtrack of the decade so hit that jive like a viper with a pipe full of Jazz, i.e., an indica strain of Mexican and Iranian heritage.
1939 Cats and the Fiddle - "Killin' Jive"
Two years after forming, Cats and the Fiddle released this high-energy single about jive (a slang term for cannabis) that stands out as one of the decade's best. The Chicago-based group released "Nuts to You"/"Killin' Jive" as its lead single in '39, but "I Miss You So" became its first hit a year later. Speaking of jive, the year also features Cab Calloway at the top of his game with "Jumpin' Jive," seen here in the 1943 film Stormy Weather.
1938 Trixie Smith - "Jack, I'm Mellow"
Atlanta-born Trixie Smith moved to New York City in 1915 and recorded her first singles in 1922, including "My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)," one of the first recorded references to "rock and roll." Later in life, she released "Jack, I'm Mellow" with lines like, "I'm so high and so dry, I'm sailin' in the sky / Just smoke some gage, come around babe / Jack, I'm mellow."
This particularly stacked year also featured Bea Foote's "Weed," Buster Bailey's "Light Up," The Ink Spots' "That Cat is High," Jazz Gillum's "Reefer Head Woman," Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass," Benny Goodman's "Feeling High and Happy," Bunny Berigan Orchestra's "High Society" and Sidney Bechet's "Viper Mad." To have this many lit tracks during the first full year of prohibition was a big, fat middle finger to Harry Anslinger, who heavily targeted jazz artists for cannabis crimes.
1937 Tampa Red and his Chicago Five - "I'm Gonna Get High"
Georgia-born blues guitarist Tampa Red moved to Chicago during the Al Capone years of Prohibition, and he delivered this defiant anthem the year federal cannabis prohibition started. Tampa Red doubled down on the coolness the following year with the more inclusive "We're Gonna Get High Together." Other noteworthy songs in '37 include Lil' Johnson's "Mellow Stuff" and Georgia White's "The Stuff Is Here."
1936 Stuff Smith - "If You'se a Viper"
Stuff Smith lit up '36 with "Here Comes the Man with the Jive" and "I'se a Muggin'," but the Onyx Club icon owned the year with "If You'se a Viper." The song opens, "Dreamed about a reefer five feet long / Mighty Mezz, but not too strong / You'll be high but not for long / If you're a viper / I'm the king of everything / I've got to be high before I can swing / Light a tea and let it be / If you're a viper." (Tea is slang for cannabis, and vipers are those who smoke it.)
Rosetta Howard famously covered the song in 1937 as did Fats Waller in 1943. Countless more artists also did their own versions, including Kermit Ruffins, Jim Kweskin, Lorrain Walton, Jug Band, Bobby Short, Wayne Kramer (MC5), Helen Humes, Widespread Panic, Wayne Hancock, Ekoostik Hookah, The Manhattan Transfer, Erin McKeown, Alex Chilton, Ben Howard, the Flamin' Mamies and possibly this thrash metal band.
The year that preceded cannabis prohibition happened to be one of the most lit years ever. Highlights include the Ella Fitzgerald-Chuck Webb collaboration "When I Get Low, I Get High" and Andy Kirk's "All the Jive Is Gone," while the Harlem Hamfats' "The Weed Smoker's Dream" became an enduring classic best known as "Why Don't You Do Right?" (see 1942).
1935 The Garland Sisters - "La Cucaracha"
Dorothy sang about weed? Hell yeah, Dorothy sang about weed! Four years before Judy Garland walked the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, she and her sisters sang the Spanish-language revolution song "La Cucaracha" in the film La Fiesta De Santa Bárbara. In total, Garland says "marihuana que fumar" (marijuana to smoke) four times! Other lit songs in '35 include Willie Bryant's "A Viper’s Moan," Richard Jones' "Blue Reefer Blues," Andy Kirk's "I'se a Muggin'," Freddy Taylor's "Viper's Dream" and Lil Johnson's farm-to-joint classic "Anybody Here Want to Buy my Cabbage."
1934 Mezz Mezzrow - "Sendin' the Vipers"
Louis Armstrong released "Song of the Vipers," and Fats Waller delivers "A Viper's Drag," but Mezz Mezzrow officially made it the Year of the Viper with his classic "Sendin' the Vipers." The Chicago-born jazz musician had a major role in the New York jazz scene, but Mezz is best remembered as a cannabis seller whose very name became a slang term for cannabis (see "If You'se a Viper" above). He even got arrested at the New York World's Fair in '39 for carrying sixty joints, and when sent to a segregated jail, the white artist insisted on being locked up with the African-Americans. Mezz is way too cool not to score his own year, even if 1934 featured Gertrude Michael singing "Sweet Marijuana" in the film Murder at the Vanities.
1933 Bessie Smith - "Gimme a Pigfoot"
Bessie Smith, a.k.a. The Empress of the Blues, died in a car crash five days before the start of cannabis prohibition, but she recorded this tune with Frankie Newton, Buck Washington, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and others in her last-known recording sessions. Billie Holiday mentor John Hammond asked her to record this track about wanting pig's feet and beer, but Smith had more than trotters on her mind because she changed the final chorus to "gimme a reefer and a gang o' gin." Holiday, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, LaVern Baker and others all covered the song minus the reefer reference.
1932 Cab Calloway - "The Reefer Man"
The Duke Ellington Orchestra served as the house band for the Cotton Club. When Ellington went on tour in 1931, the Cab Calloway Orchestra was asked to fill in, and the famed Harlem club soon had two house bands. More so than any other artist up to this point, Calloway sang openly about cannabis, and he scored an iconic hit with "The Reefer Man." Calloway performed the song live in the film International House, and Harlan Lattimore, Baron Lee and Joel Shaw all did versions that same year. Many more artists covered the song since, including the New Deal Rhythm Band in '77, Widespread Depression Orchestra in '79, Murphy's Law in '93, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in '09 and this mixtape inspiration in '11, while less inspired versions include this and this. Later in life, Calloway performed in The Blues Brothers film, dominated the Janet Jackson video "Alright" and possibly inspired Michael Jackson's moonwalk.
In 1932, Calloway also released "The Man From Harlem" with the closing line, "Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high." That same year, the Broadway musical Flying Colors featured "Smokin' Reefers," which Calloway and Larry Adler later covered, and the tune possibly inspired a Humphrey Bogart line in the film The Maltese Falcon.
1931 Don Redman & Orchestra - "Chant of the Weed"
There are no actual chants in this jazz-swing instrumental, but it's the first major song to reference "weed" in the title, later becoming a standard covered by the likes of Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and even lounge musician Martin Denny. Previously part of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, Don Redman broke out on his own in 1931, the year he recorded this influential classic.
1930 Blue Steele and his Orchestra - "All Muggled Up"
Arkansas-born Blue Steele formed his Atlanta-based orchestra in the mid-'20s and recorded "All Muggled Up" in Memphis in May 1930. Give it up for the South! Like viper, muggle is slang for a cannabis smoker. Legend suggests Eugene Staples was called Blue Steele because he suffered a head wound in World War I and had a piece of metal patched to his skull, arguably making him music's first true metalhead. The year also featured Calloway's "The Viper's Drag" and possibly the difficult-to-date "Mary Jane" by the Meltone Boys.