Music and Marijuana: Pass It On

The influence of cannabis on music and its listeners in the U.S. goes back almost a century, beginning in the brothels of the red light district of New Orleans. In these establishments, jazz ensembles would play late into the night and often partook in smoking cannabis to stay awake. The band members weren’t alone: The audience found the addition of cannabis to greatly enhance their musical experience. Louis Armstrong once said, “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 and his bandmates later coined the term “vipers,” which applied to any person who enjoys cannabis, and many recordings from this time in the beginnings of the jazz era directly referred to marijuana. White authorities, threatened by liberating qualities of both the drug and music, linked the two together claiming that black jazz musicians were playing “voodoo” music and launched an anti-marijuana campaign. New Orleans subsequently banned cannabis in 1923, and the rest of Louisiana in 1927. National alcohol prohibition had taken effect in 1920.

Fast-forward to the 1960s and we find the time where cannabis use was at its apex of polarization. The decade’s biggest star, Bob Dylan, had a large following, many of whom enjoyed the benefits of marijuana. Dylan is also famously known for turning The Beatles on to pot on one historic day at their hotel on August 28, 1964. After that, The Beatles were infatuated. John Lennon later said, “The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.” Needless to say, their indulgence in the herb produced enough world-famous albums to make them one of the best-regarded bands of all time. The group had various run-ins with the law, and members Lennon and Paul McCartney were fined for possession more than five times. During the “Summer of Love” in 1967, flower power and the cannabis consumption that typically accompanied it grew exponentially in and around the San Francisco area. As the hippie era progressed, the tradition of smoking marijuana at music festivals was established and is still popular today.

Meanwhile, on the island of Jamaica, the Wailers, a group including Bob Marley, were rising to local fame. The Wailers were one of the first bands to publicly adopt Rastafarianism, a religion that among other beliefs holds cannabis sacred. In 1972, the Wailers secured their first recording deal with Island Records. After recording a number of albums, members Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh left the band in 1974. Tosh went on to record the song “Legalize It” that would become a staple for cannabis activists and enthusiasts everywhere: The song lists many of the plant’s medicinal benefits and references the many types of people who enjoy cannabis.

As rock and roll became the dominant musical genre of the ‘70s, moving into the ‘80s with metal and grunge music cannabis took a back seat to heavier drugs and was no longer the method of choice for musicians to enhance their music. It still remains a central theme in some genres, particularly reggae, and its impact on jazz and everything else in between is essential in musical history.


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