For most of the last century, the powers-that-be have sought to demonise cannabis and persecuted smokers. But even in the dark days when lighting up a spliff could get you thrown in jail, musicians kept on toking and writing love songs to Mary Jane. They knew the inspirational power of the flower, and they kept the love alive.
When I started to investigate the history of marijuana and music I found a story that reveals the way cannabis has helped to catalyze four generations of American music and counterculture. I think it’s one of the great love stories of our time, and it starts in New Orleans, during the prohibition era.
There was a time in America, not so long ago, when alcohol users were persecuted relentlessly, and cannabis was barely on the government’s radar.
If you wanted to get drunk in the ‘roaring twenties’ you went to an underground bar, because from 1920 to 1933 sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States.
There were a couple of other things happening besides drinking in the underground bars of New Orleans, Louisiana. One thing that was happening was music.
In the dark, crowded, illegal bars of the New Orleans red-light district, people were drinking, smoking joints and partying through the night. These were live music venues, so the band played until the last punters staggered out the door, or fell asleep on the floor. It was normal for a dance band to play for eight hours straight.
The legendary Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans and made a name for himself playing music in the underground booze joints of the prohibition era. In a 1971 interview Armstrong said this about the prohibition bar scene:
“We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine; a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor… We called ourselves ‘Vipers’, which could be anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected ‘gage’; that was our cute little name for marijuana.”
Cannabis was not widely known in the 1920s, but for jazz musicians, it was part of their lifestyle. Working long shifts, late into the night, cannabis sustained their energy in a way alcohol couldn’t, and provoked a kind of imaginative, experimental improvisation that captivated audiences in New Orleans, Chicago and New York.
The pioneers of jazz were profoundly stoned. Marijuana became as synonymous with Jazz as MDMA would be with house music seventy years later.
Because cannabis was associated with the underground jazz scene and jazz was becoming a symbol of Black empowerment, bigoted government officials sought to make cannabis a focus of public outrage and racist paranoia.
Making his case for cannabis prohibition in the 1930s, the chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics stated that most cannabis smokers were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers”, and warned the public that “their Satanic music; jazz and swing, result from marijuana use and causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes and entertainers.”
Starting in 1923, one state after another made cannabis an illegal drug. By the early 1930s, the prohibition of alcohol had been abandoned as a bad idea, but the anti-dope band-wagon was just getting started. Instead of busting beer halls, the Feds were now intent on rounding up cannabis fiends.
With alcohol prohibition a thing of the past, jazz clubs went legit and the booze flowed freely, but the cannabis culture became invisible. Despite the increasing danger of arrest, jazz musicians remained devoted ‘vipers’, and sneaky joints still got passed around the dressing rooms and behind the bandstand, but the heady days of the underground jazz culture were over.
Louis Armstrong himself became the first celebrity musician to be busted for possession. In 1931 he got caught with a spliff in the car park of the Culver City Cotton Club. Fortunately, by the 1930s Armstrong was a sufficiently big star that he managed to get off with a suspended sentence, but he still spent more than a week in county jail for his indiscretion. The night he was released from jail Louis Armstrong went straight to the club and played a hot set. I like to think he got good and loaded backstage too.
Source: Living Life Fearless