The intersections of jazz, cannabis and black history I Opinion
By Rob Mejia
EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is hosting a one-day conference and networking event on March 16 at the Carteret Performing Arts Center, featuring many of the state’s influencers. Tickets are limited.
In honor of Black History Month, NJ Cannabis Insider spotlights black jazz artists who have embraced cannabis in their art and lives. Jazz is a uniquely American form of music and these musical pioneers made history. Note how they incorporated slang words and cannabis messages into popular songs. And of course, this trend continues in rap and other forms of music today!
Here are brief stories about black jazz luminaries such as:
- billie holiday
- Louis Armstrong
- The Hamfats of Harlem
- Calloway Cabin
Besides featuring notable lyrics, you will find YouTube links with all the songs mentioned here.
Let’s start with a brief history lesson and the story of billie holiday.
Historians report that cannabis and jazz began to mingle during the heyday of New Orleans’ Storyville neighborhood, the city’s red-light district in the early 1900s. The culture centered on music clubs and brothels in the area. Then, in New York, with Harlem as its epicenter, cannabis and jazz intersected in music clubs. At that time, you could buy cannabis on the street or in various places called “tea pads”, which were speakeasy. There would have been 500 tea pods in New York.
Harry Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics made no secret of their disapproval of jazz music and cannabis. By tracking down, harassing and arresting jazz musicians, the Bureau believed they were attacking the figurative heart of what Harry Anslinger and his cronies saw as cultural corrosion in America.
Perhaps the most outrageous case of targeted enforcement is Anslinger’s personal vendetta against black jazz singer Billie Holiday. This feud was strongly motivated by racism and became disturbing revenge after Billie Holiday performed a song called “Strange Fruit”, a tribute to African Americans who were lynched in the South.
The Federal Narcotics Bureau issued a formal warning to Holiday to stop performing the song, which she ignored. Anslinger assigned an undercover agent to track Holiday and gather evidence against her. Holiday was arrested, spent a year in prison, and upon his release was unable to obtain an entertainment license. Sadly, after a long battle with heroin addiction, she passed away at the age of 44.
Louis ArmstrongThe song “Muggles” is a dreamy, slow jazz number widely considered one of Louis Armstrong’s masterpieces. He recorded the song in Chicago in 1928. Armstrong was a well-known member of the cannabis community, and the title of the song is jazz-era slang for cannabis, believed to be derived from the word “contraband.” . The song is an instrumental number, but its rhythm and style is supposedly reminiscent of Armstrong’s cannabis high.
In 1936 the Harlem Hamfats wrote “Weed Smoker’s Dream”. Although their name makes you think they were from Harlem, they were from Chicago. The heavily blues-influenced song asks why a cannabis user would give away the product with lines like “Sitting on a million, sitting on it everyday / I can’t make money giving away your stuff / Why don’t you not like, like millionaires do / Put your stuff on the market and make a million too.
Calloway CabinThe 1932 gem “Reefer Man” comically portrays a townsman known for selling cannabis. Calloway sings with a wry tone, “If he trades you pennies for nickels / And calls the watermelons pickles / Then you know you’re talking to that funny cold man.” The song was featured in the popular 1933 film International House in which Calloway and his band performed a frantic version of the song, and the film’s popularity brought unwanted attention from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Other notable jazz songs that featured lyrics about cannabis include:
- “If You’re a Viper” – fat wall -1943: There are some great lyrics, like this boast about smoking tolerance: “I dreamed of a five-foot-long cabanon / Mighty mezz but not too loud / You’ll be stoned but not for long / If you are a viper.”
- “Jack, I’m sweet” – Trixie Smith – 1938: Smith sang this feel-good tune with lyrics like “I’m so high and so dry / I’m far up in the sky / The world seems light / and I’m so right / Jack, I’m fluffy. “
- “The Junker Blues” – Champion Jack Dupree – 1940: Dupree sang a song about vices – in the song he urges people to stick to cannabis. After singing about drinking and cocaine use, he says, “Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey / Lord and so long to gin / I just want my fridge / I just want to feel high again.” This may be the great song of the anti-drug-gateway theory!
Other Jazz Age songs that celebrated cannabis:
- “Pot Dog Blues” – Lucille Bogan -1928
- “When I get low, I get high” – Ella Fitzgerald – 1936
- “Behold the Man with the Jive” – Stuff Smith – 1936
- “Fluffy Stuff” – Lil Johnson – 1937
- “This cat is high” – The ink stains – 1938
- “Viper Mad” – Sydney Bechet – 1938
- “Illuminate” – Buster Bailey – 1938
Robert Meija is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Stockton, where he teaches several cannabis courses leading to a minor in Cannabis Studies. He also owns a cultivation license in Northern New Jersey under the GSCC Management Group, where he serves as Director of Education. Mejia wrote: The Essential Cannabis Book and The Essential Cannabis Journal and runs a cannabis education company called Our community harvest.
Professor Mejia’s Weed Corner is a regular column for NJ Cannabis Insider, focusing on news, trends and innovation in the local cannabis market.
This column first appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider.
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