When it comes to culture, there are many ways that humans choose to express themselves in order to develop ideas that transcend daily life. Perhaps the most important of the devices in which we attempt to communicate this transcendence through is music.
Music and Cannabis have enjoyed quite the relationship throughout the history of humankind. Sometimes this relationship has been sacred, and sometimes it has been secular. Here are some examples of how Cannabis influenced and inspired musical culture over the past century.
It all started with jazz – the first type of “popular music” which coincided with recorded, and thus mass-produced music. In the mid-20s, clarinetist Sydney Bechet wrote a song called “Viper Mad” – a hit that had a long shelf life. The lyrics sing the praises of Cannabis, but one line “wrap your lips around this stick of tea, blow this gage and get high with me” reads like a sort of proto-hip-hop anthem if you substitute some of the words for modern slang around Cannabis.
In the early 30s Cannabis had yet to be made federally illegal, and one of the greatest jazz musicians of the time, Louis Armstrong, was a fan. He travelled with a lot of Cannabis, and was eventually busted by police in Hollywood on tour in 1931, spending nine nights in jail for possession. On the East Coast in Harlem, Fats Waller’s concerts were quite the scene, fueled by the high-grade weed of promoter and impresario Mezz Mezzrow (who’s namesake still graces the club “Mezzrow’s” in Manhattan to this day). Cannabis was federally banned by 1937.
With Cannabis federally illegal, the 40s became the era of the “reefer songs” as the prohibition of the herb led to more usage among the subcultures in society. Specifically speaking, more ‘lingo’ entered the lyrics and titles of songs. Barney Bigard’s take on the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” – which he renamed as “Sweet Marijuana Brown” – showed how Cannabis was still very much in use in the jazz and blues scenes.
The United States was at its conservative zenith in the middle of the 20th century.
This decade was about as white-bread
as it got when it came to artistic expression. Even a home-run Cannabis song like Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was at
the time said to be “all about gin.”
This was the decade dominated musically by the The Beatles, who went through their own transformation as they experimented with mind-altering drugs. This is the decade that gave rise to hippie culture. Songs like The Fraternity of Man’s “Don’t Bogart Me” is a typical example of a song singing the praises of Cannabis with a tinge of humorous sarcasm.
If the 1950s were the most conservative decade, then the 70s were most drugged-out decade in America over the last century. So much so, that it seemed like the U.S. was on a trajectory to legalize Cannabis. Inside the counter culture, songs like Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over The Line” and Rick James’ “Mary Jane” emerged as anthems nodding to the social acceptance of Cannabis. Bob Marley’s “Kaya” and Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” were also notable.
While the 1970s were a time where spirituality and tolerance seemed to be gaining ground in American life, it took one president, Ronald Reagan, to wash it all away. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” still continues to this day. In the 1980s, music about Cannabis became more and more scarce, and limited to underground genres and artists. At the end of the decade it was Tone Loc’s “Cheeba Cheeba” that would set the stage for what was to come in the hip-hop scene.
The 1990s saw advancement after advancement in technology, from the personal computer to the widespread use of the internet at the end of the decade, but it was hip-hop and rap culture that truly cemented Cannabis as something that was becoming more socially acceptable. One could say that Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” was the real turning point. Released in 1992, the album is a tribute to high-grade Cannabis. And like the jazz musicians of the 1920s, Dre and his partner-in-crime Snoop Dogg were more than happy to wax poetic about their favorite herb. The album is a classic, going platinum three times over in the past 30 years.
By the new millennium, the secret was out. More people were consuming Cannabis than ever before and public acceptance was on the rise. The failing drug war was ever-apparent, and people could (for the first time) use a resource like the internet to find out how un-harmful Cannabis really was. Whole musical movements like the freak-folk and dance-punk scenes celebrated ties to Cannabis counter culture. And, music started to tout a connection to weed in a more explicit way, with songs like Afroman’s “Because I got High” and Amy Winehouses’ “Addicted”.
And here we are. In 20% of America, Cannabis is fully legal. In 41 states, it’s at the very least decriminalized. Only nine states remain where it’s illegal. These statistics are wonderful to celebrate as we prepare to enter the 2020s. This decade has seen the tide of public opinion turn back to where we were almost a century ago before Cannabis prohibition. And in music? Now we see pop artists celebrating their love for the herb in song and in public. Examples include Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Lover Girl” and Rihanna’s “James Joint”.