CultureHow cannabis culture and 20th-century music influenced each other

How cannabis culture and 20th-century music influenced each other


Music has launched and influenced the cannabis culture we know nowadays. And as it turns out, from the beginning of jazz during the prohibition era to today’s world of hip hop, rock, country, and pop, cannabis has been referenced in the lyrics of virtually every music genre.

But for some of us, knowing this fact isn’t enough. We want to know how did it start? Who were the big names? And exactly how did cannabis change the culture of music today? On that front, we don’t have much time to share every little detail of this grand love affair, but we can at least give you a rundown and share some of the most important aspects of its history.

Cannabis, herb, bud, reefer, ganja, or whatever you’d like to call it has been a heavy influence on music ever since the early 1900’s — a time when American anti-cannabis propaganda demonized cannabis and led the public to believe it was the “devil’s lettuce”, despite the evidence that it was and is not the menace to society it has been claimed to be. We have no wordly idea why a plant indigenous to this earth would be so closely compared to evil, but these demonizations that have traveled generation to generation are no match for what cannabis has done for society.

Not only has the plant helped musicians and its fans enjoy life where the grass truly is greener, but it has also been a symbol of protest against social norms, legal restrictions, and formalities.

No matter what kind of music you like or what strain gets you going, in this article, we learn about the significant role cannabis has played in shaping today’s culture, society and catalyzing generations of music and counterculture.

Cannabis and Mexican folklore

In America during the 1800’s, there were no federal restrictions placed on the sale or possession of cannabis.

In fact, hashish and cannabis medicines were sold openly, though, consuming them recreationally was a relatively obscure vice and really wasn’t that widespread. But by the early 1900’s, smoking cannabis in cigarettes (as we now call “spliffs”) started to become more prominent — when it was brought in by Mexican refugees crossing the southern border, while also being imported from the Caribbean by ship. With them, came the practice of smoking. And it took off. However, the plant was prohibited as soon as it became prominent, quickly coming under fire around the same time alcohol was being outlawed during the prohibition era.

Hospitals all across the country were overprescribing opiates to soldiers after the Civil War, which left many hooked on their return home. Eventually, these addictions started to raise public concern, so much so, that Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 which required the labeling of drugs, including cannabis. While this drug abuse epidemic did contribute to cannabis prohibition, so too did racism.

The racist roots of cannabis prohibition and all that jazz

In 1901, it was in the red-light district of Storyville, New Orleans where the especially fascinating relationship between American music and cannabis got its real start. Musicians (mainly African Americans) playing in jazz clubs, aided by cannabis and hidden from the eyes of whites, began to experiment with sound, improvision, and rhythm creating a new form of music called jazz.

Jazz musicians gravitated to cannabis for its relieving powers, which helped many of those who suffered despair and trauma — and we can understand why, given the racial climate of that time. But it wasn’t long before they were imprisoned for its use.

Louis Armstrong, the father of jazz and a lifelong advocate of cannabis, was actually arrested in California in 1930 and spent nine days in the slammer for cannabis possession. “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,” Armstrong said in his biography. “It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happens to a Negro,” — and his song Muggles (a slang term for cannabis) reveals even more about his optimistic attitude towards cannabis. In the 1950s, Armstrong even sent a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower, urging for the legalization of cannabis. However, the humble plant and jazz music have a long and somewhat disappointing history.

Anti-cannabis activists were well aware of the kinship between cannabis and jazz music and so, it needed to be stopped. In those times, the fear was that the plant, which was engraved in jazz, was bringing white and black people together.

Jazz is known for its free-form improvisational style and loose comradery among jazz musicians. But a country plagued by racism and ignorance would use it in an attempt to make cannabis appear dangerous and in resistance of “the man”. This couldn’t be any further from the truth, but that really didn’t matter at the time.

By demonizing jazz musicians as criminalistic, crazy, oversexualized maniacs, anti-cannabis activists were able to outlaw cannabis. Now, were jazz musicians smoking cannabis? Sure they were, but so were a lot of other folks. Are these talented individuals to blame for cannabis prohibition? Absolutely not. Prohibitionists were motivated by personal gain and misinformation and would have used anything as an excuse to demonize it. It’s no wonder why numerous jazz musicians saw resistance and freedom in the plant.

“Reefer madness”

White culture didn’t embrace cannabis consumption, as it was considered low-class and normally associated with blacks, Mexicans, and criminals — many of which would have a difficult time living in such a racially segregated nation.

As cannabis and the underground jazz scene were so closely related and becoming a symbol of black empowerment, an ignorant, prohibitionist government sought to make cannabis a focus of racist paranoia and public outrage. Jazz music was publicly labeled by authorities as “satanic” and stemming from the use of cannabis by black performers. To appeal to the public xenophobia, those in favor of outlawing the plant often made exaggerated and racist claims about the harm of consuming it.

The concept was often showcased in many propaganda publications and films, including “Reefer Madness” — one the most famous film (released in 1936 ) — which depicted young adults descending into violence and insanity after smoking cannabis. And the hysteria continued.

After the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933, Harry Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) made his case for cannabis prohibition and would began to hype what we now call the “gateway drug” theory: that cannabis had to be controlled because it would eventually lead its users to heroin, which could be found in Aslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 — the first national prohibition on cannabis.

He told of sensational crimes reportedly committed by cannabis addicts. “No one knows, when he places a cannabis cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer,” he wrote in a 1937 magazine article called “cannabis: Assassin of Youth.” He also stated the scientifically unsupported idea that many people who smoked cannabis were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers”, and warned the public that “their Satanic music; jazz and swing, result from cannabis use and causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes and entertainers.”

Continuing his campaign into the ’40s and ’50s, Anslinger dreamed of a nationwide sweep of the immoral musicians and kept a keen eye on prominent jazz musicians of the day. He spied and kept files on people like Cab Calloway, Count Bassie, Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Thelonius Monk — he sent the order for agents to handcuff Billie Holiday to her hospital bed leading to her death.

In essence, according to the government, cannabis’ influence was central to the identity of jazz, and it is precisely those effects that were the source of hostility from prohibitionists. Still, the powerful influence of cannabis could not be stopped; what jazz started, other music genres took over.

One love, and the beginning of the turn

Jazz and cannabis remained close through the 50s when the plant got picked up by white beatnik musicians such as Allen Ginsberg and a young Bob Dylan, sparking one of the greatest times music has ever seen — the summer of love. Dedicated fans of this time felt inspired, readily open to embracing cannabis with open arms, as it was as a part of a culture that resonated with their desire for a new world free of limitations. And boom, the counterculture revolution was born.

This, of course, was a hard pill for the white conservative establishment to swallow. In 1972,President Richard Nixon would commission the study of cannabis’ “dangerous” effects in hopes to

justify prohibition. But he was soon outraged, declaring cannabis “public enemy number one”

after hearing back that cannabis was, in fact, not dangerous and therefore, should be decriminalized.

Nixon’s fear lied in the idea that cannabis “eroded of moral fiber in American life” and would do everything in his power to double down in the war on drugs. Until in the 90’s when America (land of the free) earned the ignoble distinction of imprisoning more of its own than any other country in the world.

Despite the drug war’s ever-increasing toll, the use and influence of cannabis on music continued to grow.

Counterculture‘s draw

There are plenty of notable and prominent figures in the counterculture.

The Beatles, one of the most famous pop bands from England, were already a music sensation before they were introduced to cannabis by Bob Dylan in a New York City hotel room in 1964. Their earliest hits were more sweet bubblegum pop, however, it was this encounter that would shape the world of rock ‘n’ roll, which resembled jazz music in parts and also an edged blend of different musical genres — think Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, and Jimi Hendrix. And it’s no question that cannabis influenced reggae. We all know that Bob Marley loved cannabis; that’s an understatement. Derived from ska and rocksteady, reggae music was born in the heart of Jamaica during the 1960s, which was around the same time Mr. Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh formed The Wailers — the most well-known reggae group ever.

Emerging in the late ’70s and ’80s, hip-hop music was also heavily fueled by cannabis and has become one of the most popular commercial musical forms today. Hip-hop may have left out improvisations and live musical instruments in favor of drum machines, computer-based synthesizers, samples, mixes, and remixes. However, the eclectic time signatures and stretched-out rhythms first seen in jazz are more prominent than ever.

There are many hip-hop artists who have openly embraced cannabis and built successful careers around celebrating the plant. That’s certainly true for artists such as Snoop Dogg. His affinity for the plant and the culture surrounding is directly responsible for the creation of MERRY JANE, and his friend Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic, which was considered one of the best albums during the 90s.

Particular sub-genres of hip-hop (along with many other musical genres) often portray hatred for the police amongst other things and for this reason, receives a lot of criticism for being violent. But hip hop didn’t devise prohibition or unintended consequences such as the lucrative black market that naturally followed, which given its many quirks and loopholes, opened the door to a myriad of schemes that have evaded the mandate — bigoted government officials did.

Artists of the musical genre simply portray the world they live in, flaws and all, and in this way the connection between music and cannabis remains alive and well.

The cannabis praises continue

As we’ve learned, cannabis and music have a long and storied history together that all started during the prohibition era. Without cannabis, music that has been incredibly influential the world over where it be jazz, country, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, or hip-hop would not exist today.

For most of the last century, the powers-that-be have sought to demonize and persecute the plant and its loyal fans. But even in the days when lighting up a joint could get you thrown in the slammer, cannabis only grew more popular in the music world.

People kept on toking and making music that paid great homage to good ol’ Mary Jane because they knew the inspirational power of the flower, and they kept the love alive. Truly, this is one of the greatest love stories of our time.

Tamell Green
Tamell, or Mell, is a published writer and advocate of legal cannabis. You can find her work across a number of cannabis publications, where she covers all things wellness, cannabis science, and market changes. Mell is also a proud volunteer of the National Hemp Association.


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