The 1950s: The Lost Decade for Cannabis-Themed Music

By David Jenison on October 24, 2018

It didn't take much to have your song banned from the radio in the 1950s. Case in point, several radio stations refused to spin the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie" because the song implies the couple slept together (as in literally sleeping), while Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" caused a stir because the main character accidentally walks into a party wearing nothing but a towel. Under this umbrella of Rockwellian family values, songs about reefer, vipers, gage, tea and jive were even less welcome.  

The phrase "Make America Great Again" largely reflects a desire for American values to revert back to what they were in the 1950s, but the realities of this decade differ from how some people romanticize them. In the post-war years, careerism became more important than activism, free speech became a privilege instead of a right, and the Red Scare tainted progressive ideas and movements. In describing the pre-Boomers era, Time magazine coined a term in 1951 that still defines it today: The Silent Generation. In the music world for sure, artists certainly became silent about cannabis themes, making this a lost decade for lit music. 

The Effect of Prohibition on Music

The federal government officially prohibited the plant in October 1937, but cannabis-themed songs continued into the late 1940s as the desired eradication of cannabis failed to come to fruition. Claims that cannabis turned people into crazy, dangerous and violent addicts proved to be nothing more than scare tactics, i.e., reefer madness, and World War II absorbed the public's attention more than victimless cannabis crimes. By the late 1940s, however, prohibition enforcers realized that busting celebs like Robert Mitchum and Lila Leeds (1948) helped get cannabis back into the headlines. Jazz musicians, of course, made for ideal targets. 

Prohibition founder Harry Anslinger is widely remembered as a racist who targeted jazz musicians because most were African-American, but the quotes to back up these claims generally lack credible sources. The Federal Narcotics Bureau (FBN) chief may or may not have been a racist, but he certainly recognized that cannabis-themed music thrived in the jazz community. Anslinger kept files on jazz artists like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk, and his deputy Malachi Harney utilized informants in attempts to take down the jazz community. 

"Not to be too conspiratorial, but post-war America was pretty anti-cannabis," says Great Moments in Weed History host Abdullah Saeed, formerly of Bong Appétit. "I can imagine there actually being some sort of collusion between the government and record companies. I would say there was probably a concerted political, public and social effort to control cannabis or to downplay the acceptance of it."

All That Instrumental Jazz

In 1951, Anslinger scored his next major victory with the Boggs Act, which established harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for cannabis-related crimes like possession. Against the backdrop of an escalating crackdown, musicians naturally became more careful about cannabis use, lyrics and song titles, and jazz in general moved more toward instrumentals. 

In a 1976 article titled "Songs of the Vipers," Danish jazz historian Dr. Erik Wiedemann wrote, "The decrease in the number of reefer songs after 1938 must certainly be seen as a result of the increased illegality of marijuana and everything connected with it. On the other hand, the [apparent] total lack of this type of jazz record after 1945 should not lead anyone to believe that the use of marijuana became less widespread among jazz musicians after that time. Quite the contrary, but after 1945, jazz as a contemporary music became almost exclusively instrumental."

Pot-Smoking Commies

Anslinger wasn't the only person who played a role in scaring the marijuana out of music. His friend Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to fame in February 1950 when he claimed, "The State Department is infested with communists." The Republican Senator then launched a witch hunt to root out communists (and gays) from the government. 

By the 1950s, prohibitionists had paired cannabis and communism, which added a new level of risk for those who openly sang about the plant. Pin a pot-smoking pinko tag on an artist, and he or she might see the radio spins and live gigs dry up. Likewise, a Hollywood blacklist already discouraged studios from employing entertainers (including musicians) accused of communist ties or sympathies. This occurred during the golden age of the Hollywood musical, many of which featured jazz soundtracks and scores, further limiting the opportunities for a musician associated with cannabis and, by extension, communism. 

The Rise of Big Pharma

Legislation in 1951 gave the federal government the authority to control prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) designations, and this marked a major shift in drug marketing and sales. "A History of Drug Advertising" in the Milbank Quarterly noted, "Between 1939 and 1959, drug sales rose from $300 million to $2.3 billion, with prescription drugs accounting for all but approximately $4 million of the increase. Self-medication, which in the early twentieth century was widespread and viewed as a 'sacred right,' now took a backseat to the pharmacological treatments guided by physicians."

Mary Patton, a cannabis advocate and music industry vet, adds, "More money was pouring into pharma research than ever before, bringing about a rash of new drugs. The idea that 'better living through chemistry' had many people seeking new highs from modern medicine. People were increasingly content to switch from the 'old fashioned' herbal remedies of the past to the new 'scientific breakthroughs' of the atomic age."

The pharmaceutical industry experienced explosive growth in the 1950s, and the decade finished with congressional hearings on questionable drug claims and prescribing practices. Drug companies—many of which previously sold cannabis as medicine—did not have a direct influence on music, but they were certainly happy to help relegate cannabis to the ash heap of history. 

Cannabis-Themed Outliers in the 1950s

Despite the combined force of Anslinger, McCarthy and Big Pharma, a limited number of cannabis themes persisted in music during the 1950s. Most were jazz instrumentals, Latin music and new recordings of old songs. 

In 1947, Dizzy Gillespie released the Afro-Cuban jazz tune "Manteca," named after a slang term for cannabis, and it became a jazz standard covered by the likes of John Williams (1956), Eddie Warner (1956), Sal Salvador (1957) and Marty Wilson (1959). The Jacobs Brothers recorded "Stoned" in the Netherlands in 1958, and George Roberts released "Three Stoned Mice" in 1959. Other songs that possibly reference cannabis include Simon Brehms Orkester's "Forever Stoned" (1951), Thelonious Monk's "Let's Cool One" (1952), Buddy Collette's "Green Dream" (1956) and Roy Glenn & the Gerry Mulligan Quartet's "Big High Song For Somebody" (1958). Mezz Mezzrow also re-released "Sendin' the Vipers" in 1953 from his new home in France. These songs contain cannabis themes (if any) in title only. 

On the Latin side, cannabis themes appear limited to covers and classics, including Trío Matamoros' "Marijuana" (1950), Tito Puente's "Mari Juana" (1952), Hector Pellot & Mon Rivera's "Juana Maria" (1954), Joaquina "Chiquita" Serrano's "Mari Juana" (1957) and Cuco Sanchez's "La Cucaracha" in the 1959 Mexican film of the same name. In the R&B world, the Five Keys appear to reference cannabis via Chinese slang in "Ling Ting Tong" (1955). 

Still, the most notable cannabis tune came from a Jersey dude named Mr. Sunshine who dropped the epically funny "Marijuana, The Devil's Flower." The 1951 anti-cannabis anthem declares, "If you use it, you'll be enslaved, marijuana, it brings you sorrow, and may send you to your grave." Though limited info exists about Mr. Sunshine, his music suggests he might've been Wilbur J. Christie, father of a chubby offspring named Chris. 

Great vs. Silent

Tom Brokaw rebranded the Silents as the Greatest Generation, and many people born in this time did distinguish themselves during the Depression and World War II. Still, the generation born into alcohol Prohibition also had its share of blemishes since the war ended. America did not see a push for real social change until their children came of age, and the Silent Generation largely resists change even today. 

According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, the Silents are the only generation that lacks majority support for cannabis legalization, same-sex marriage and the belief that immigrants strengthen the country through hard work. Out of all those topics, cannabis had the least support with only 35 percent of Silents favoring legalization. Being raised during the height of anti-alcohol propaganda arguably instilled a prohibitionist mindset that discouraged cannabis-themed music during the 1950s and cannabis legalization today. 

The Return of Lit Music

Despite several very dry years, the cannabis narrative finally started to shift in the late 1950s thanks to Beat writers like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who in turn inspired many key players in the 1960s rock revolution. In fact, Ginsberg took part in legalization rallies and wrote one of the first cannabis manifestos. On the other side of the fight, McCarthy died in 1957 (likely due to alcoholism), and Anslinger retired in 1962. A massive social revolution that included cannabis was just around the corner, and cannabis-themed music started its long-awaited return in the 1960s

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