The Pot Issue
Pot songs through the decades
From accepted to underground and back
Published: November 3, 2010
As Eric Schlosser recounts the history of pot in Reefer Madness, in the late 1800s, marijuana became "a popular ingredient in patent medicines and was sold openly at pharmacies in 1-ounce herbal packets and alcohol-based tinctures, as a cure for migraines, rheumatism and insomnia." It was the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and an influx of Mexican immigrants, with marijuana as "a traditional means of intoxication," that triggered apprehension and fear of the weed. Likewise, in New Orleans. Reformers tagged pot as the vice of "jazz musicians, prostitutes and underworld whites." Between 1914 and 1931 pot was criminalized in most of the nation; in 1937, Congress made it illegal everywhere. Songs through the 1930s, though, still speak to the waning era of pot acceptance.
"Muggles" by Louis Armstrong (1928)
It's not clear how much of the country knew what the title of this instrumental was slang for. Despite Armstrong's widespread popularity, it's not clear how many people know that the all-American voice of "It's a Wonderful World" and "Hello, Dolly" was a daily pot smoker from his early 20s on, who once wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower singing its praises and pushing for legalization.
"Gimme a Pigfoot" by Bessie Smith (1933)
The empress of the blues asks for "a pigfoot and a bottle of beer" chorus after chorus — until the last one when she goes for variety: "Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin."
"You'se a Viper" by Stuff Smith (1937)/"The Reefer Song" by Fats Waller (1943)
Revived in the 1960s by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and others, it was usually referred to as "If You're a Viper." It opens with the line "Dream about a reefer five feet long" and later offers the stoner's altitude test: "When your throat is dry, you'll know you're high."
"The Reefer Man" by Cab Calloway (1935)
His famous character Minnie the Moocher had a coke-head dude. The "Reefer Man" was another of the Calloway tunes that suggested where the "high" of "Hi-De-Ho" originated.
By now illegal across the land and demonized, lyrics referring to pot grow rarer through the 1940s and 1950s. Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon" went to the top of the charts in 1963, only to be dogged by claims that, rather than an innocent tale, this was a gateway tune that encouraged puffing the evil weed. The authors ridiculed the notion. Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned," a year later, made no claims of innocence, but the lyrics only specified gin. Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" played with ambiguity, while the Association's "Along Came Mary," the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," Sly's "I Wanna Take You Higher" and others left things vague. Not that there weren't exceptions such as ...
"Don't Bogart Me" by the Fraternity of Man (1969)
Usually referred to as "Don't Bogart That Joint," the tune was included in the Easy Rider soundtrack.
"Okie from Muskogee" by Merle Haggard (1969)
With hippie culture on the upswing, leave it to country music to defend small-town American values. The song begins, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee; we don't take our trips on LSD." But given Haggard's smirks and chuckles, it makes sense that he later called the song "satire."
For a time in the early '70s, America seemed on a trajectory to legalize marijuana. Instead, the nation turned away from the prospect, and in 1982, under President Ronald Reagan, the War on Drugs was officially declared. But in the world of music, there was no retreat ... in fact, just the opposite.
"Sweet Leaf" by Black Sabbath (1971)
This paean to recreational smoking not only starts with a tape loop of guitarist Tony Iommi choking on doober smoke, but has the lyrics of a love song — that is, if you're whacked out enough to be singing to your "best bud," a plant: "You introduced me to my mind, and left me wanting you and your kind. ... I love you, sweet leaf, though you can't hear."