420: Classic cannabis songs from the Jazz Age as stoners mark unofficial Weed Day

Odes to marijuana date back at least as far as Prohibition

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 20 April 2018 13:50 BST
'Reefer Man' singer Cab Calloway
'Reefer Man' singer Cab Calloway (Underwood Archives/Rex)

Friday marks “420”, effectively an unofficial National Weed Day in the US and around the world, where proud stoners gather to smoke cannabis and lobby for its wider legalisation.

Often wrongly assumed to be California’s police code for illegal marijuana consumption, 420 actually simply refers to the date, 20 April, on which the occasion takes place.

Why that should be the date for the celebration remains a mystery, although the day has been traced back to San Rafael, California, in the 1970s and a group of Grateful Dead fans known as the Waldos who used “420” as all-purpose slang for referring to the herb and their pressing need for its acquisition.

Recreational cannabis is now legal in nine states and in Washington, DC, for adults aged 21 and over with more expected to follow suit. Twenty-nine states meanwhile permit medical marijuana use.

The industry is estimated to be worth $10bn (£7bn) in sales already, while 64 per cent of Americans expressed support for marijuana legalisation in a recent Gallup poll.

Weed has of course been closely associated with the music industry as both subject and creative stimulant since the earliest days of recording.

Reggae, hip-hop and rock have all embraced it as readily as the Flower Power generation did. Willie Nelson practically runs on it.

But marijuana’s roots in song go back much further, at least as far back as the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

With that in mind, here’s a selection of early choice cuts very much in the 420 spirit.

Lucille Bogan - ‘Pot Hound Blues’ (1928)

This legendary blues singer, famous for her sexually explicit lyrics, here offers a character study of a feckless lover prone to rolling a joint at the expense of being able to afford the rent.

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Cab Calloway – ‘Reefer Man’ (1933)

Zootsuited bandleader Cab Calloway, a mainstay of New York’s famous Cotton Club in its Prohibition heyday, was no stranger to the drug song, recording popular versions of “Kickin’ The Gong Around” , “Minnie the Moocher” and “The Ghost of Smokey Joe”.

“If he trades you dimes for nickels/And calls watermelons pickles/Then you know you’re talking to the reefer man.”

Cannabis was known by many nicknames during the interwar years, “Texas tea” being one and “viper” another.

Here, well-named trombonist Jack Teagarden takes lead vocals to complain of a girlfriend who has hidden his stash.

The Harlem Hamfats – ‘The Weed Smoker’s Dream’ (1936)

Dixieland jazz band the Harlem Hamfats got in on the act with this reworking of the torch song “Why Don’t You Do Right?”.

The tune perfectly captures the atmosphere of a nightclub of the period engulfed in the sleepy haze of a weed fug.

Trixie Smith - 'Jack, I'm Mellow' (1938)

This Georgia blues chanteuse here articulates the fun of being on a "bender" and not caring who knows it.

"The world seems light and I'm so right..."

The Ink Spots – ‘That Cat is High’ (1938)

A brilliant encapsulation of the comedy of inebriation, this celebrated vocal group better known for romantic songs like “Whispering Grass”, “If I Didn’t Care” and “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” essay a laidback, stoned style complete with a Django Reinhardt-influenced gypsy guitar solo and scat singing to mock a reveller who has badly over done it.

Barney Bigard's Sextet - 'Sweet Marijuana Brown' (1945)

Featuring the great Art Tatum on piano, the wonderfully dozy vocals on this beauty get the mood just right.

​From Ray Charles singing “Let’s Get Stoned” to Peter Tosh’s “Legalise It”, Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” and Redman’s “How To Roll A Blunt”, marijuana has continued to inspire creativity from this starting point over the succeeding 80 years.

What these great old recordings emphasise is how relaxed performers’ attitudes to cannabis once were – and that any stigma attached to spliffs and stoner culture were imposed much later by conservative social forces.

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