There’s a million songs about Marijuana (almost as many as those written while on it), spanning almost a century. My choice was based primarily on the angle of the lyrics (this is why I left out the predictable Legalize It by Peter Tosh) and the relevance to a certain Pop culture. I picked songs to represent three specific time period, relevant to Cannabis use: The 1920/30s, the 1960s and the 1990s. Below you’ll also find links to (numerous) runner up songs, and to a few playlists compiled by music sites.
Cab Calloway: Smokin’ Reefers (?)
Marijuana appears in the US sometimes before 1900, initially among African americans. It became popular, along with Jazz, in the roaring 20s (also because of the alcohol ban; weed was still legal and cheaper to make), so much so that in 1937, Harry Anslinger (head of the Bureau of Prohibition, unemployed since prohibitionism was repealed in 1933) managed to make it illegal. Why? “Most Marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by Marijuana, and Marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death – the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
No need for comments. But it’s certainly true that the first traces of Marijuana in Pop culture are from that era, and often come from black entertainers. Cab Calloway is a good example. He was a Pop artists even before the word was invented. He wrote the rules of contemporary entertainment. The way he used his body♾ (he conducted his band dancing), the hair (the longest back then), his elaborate Zoot suits (the blueprint of Pimp fashion for decades), the catchy songs, often exploited to death (much like nowadays): when in 1931 he had his biggest hit with Minnie the Moocher☊ and its hook Hi-de-hi-de-ho, he followed it with Zaz, Zuh, Zaz☊ (1933), Keep That Hi-De-Hi in Your Soul (1935) and Boo-Wah Boo-Wah☊ (1940) – all based on the same concept, and with the same characters.
Minnie the Moocher also includes a drug reference – or two: “She messed around with a bloke named Smoky, she loved him though he was cokey. He took her down to Chinatown, and he showed her how to kick the gong around”. Cokey means exactly what you’re thinking (according to the Urban Dictionary, that quotes another Calloway tune). To kick the gong is a1930s slang term, meaning to smoke opium. The most popular Calloway tune about Marijuana is Reefer Man♾ (1933), that mocks (tongue in cheek) weed smokers.
But my favorite Calloway Cannabis song, and perhaps the most honest lyric ever written about a mind altering substance, is Smokin’ Reefers – a song so mysterious even the Internet seems to know nothing about. It surfaced online, some people questions wether is Calloway or not (it certainly sounds like him), others say it was banned, there are no dates or infos. The orchestral arrangement is very sophisticated, and the lyrics very frank, from the first verse: “Oh weed, cigarette we we must all depend on, marijuana”, to one of the best lines ever written on pot: “It’s the thing white folks are afraid of.” Right down to the grandiose finale: “You hear the angels sing away, helping you fling away your worrying and your troubles and cares.”
Update: “The song “Smokin’ Reefers” originally appeared in a 1932 Broadway production titled Flying Colors“. This and more (including a link to Larry Adler’s 1938 version) on the song’s page at Herbmuseum.ca.
If you want more music from the Jazz era, there’s a YouTube audio playlist: Cannabis music 1920’s to 1940’s.
The Fraternity of Man: Don’t bogart me (Don’t bogart that joint) (1968)
From Wikipedia: “The Fraternity of Man is an American blues rock and psychedelic rock group from the 1960s. They are most famous for their 1968 song “Don’t Bogart Me,” which was featured in the 1969 road movie Easy Rider.” That’s how the world (and myself) came to know this silly hippy anthem (mostly known as Don’t Bogart That Joint), and this bizarre verb, to bogart. According to Urban dictionary it means: “To keep something all for oneself, thus depriving anyone else of having any. A slang term derived from the last name of famous actor Humphrey Bogart because he often kept a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, seemingly never actually drawing on it or smoking it. Often used with weed or joints but can be applied to anything.” This is also confirmed by the word’s own Wikipedia entry.
The tune is obviously an in-joke aimed at Marijuana users. But by 1968, Pot smokers were so many that this song (thanks to the cult status of the film) turned into a 60s meme. It’s one of the most visible (or perhaps audible) manifestations of the same sub-culture that produced comic strips such as Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, or Gilbert Sheldon’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: cultural objects not just about drugs, but made by and for people in the know. The song itself became a minor hit, later covered by Little Feat (with a grandiose, live version☊) and Country Joe and the Fish (another very 1960s band). On YouTube there’s also an acappella version by Phish♾.
I love the Fraternity of Man Nashville arrangement, with prominent Steel Slide and barbershop harmony. It provides the perfect setting for this minor hippy drama: “Roll another one just like the other one, this one’s burnt to the end, come on and be a friend.”
Cypress Hill: I Wanna Get High (1993)
I Wanna Get High is a good example of the 90s resurgence of weed in music lyrics. In fact, Hip hop artists were the first to speak out for the latest legalization campaign (closely followed by Country musicians, at least in America). Among the loudest were Cypress Hill, whose (outstanding) 1993 CD Black Sunday had numerous songs about weed, including the popular Hits from the Bong and the skit Legalize it.
I understand that a song like I Wanna Get High, which opens the album, might seem a bit over the top, with its shameless invocation in the chorus (perfectly out of tune, or stonato in italian). But you should keep in mind that music (and poetry, theater, cinema, etc) has a long history of “praise of intoxication”. There are countless past and present examples of such songs about Alcohol (from wine to beer, whiskey, rum, you name it) , Hashish, LSD, Absinthe, Opium, Mescaline, Heroin and any other mind altering substance known to man – in many cultures around the world. This tune manages to capture, also musically, a certain slo-mo effect of Cannabis Indica. The Dj Muggs production is miraculous, with that eerie sample throughout the track, and B Real delivers his lyrics with gusto:
Well that’s the funk elastic, the blunt I twist it, the slamafied, buddafied funk on your discus, oh what, you messed this, you got to bare witness, catch a ho and another ho Merry Christmas. Yes I smoke shit, straight off the roach clip, I roach it, roll the blunt at once to approach it. Forward motion make you sway like the ocean, the herb is more than just a powerful potion.
Jean Brady & Big Bill Broonzy: Knocking Myself Out☊ (1941) The lady likes to knock herself smack out, gradually by degrees.
Bob Marley: Kaya☊ (first version, 1968) The Ganja man himself has written many songs about it, this being perhaps the most inspired.
Arlo Guthrie: Coming into Los Angeles☊ (1969) A Country, romantic tale about hippie weed smuggling in the 60s.
Black Uhuru: Sinsemilla☊ (1980) Roots Reggae and jamaican hemp.
Muddy Waters: Champagne and reefer☊ (1981) A defiant hemp praising song, by one of the Blues’ greatest.
Dr Dre: The Roach☊ (1992) Hip hop classic from The Chronic, whose subject is the Chronic (“slang term for high-grade cannabis”).
Gang Starr: Take two and pass☊ (1992) The black, contemporary answer to Don’t Bogart Me.
J J Cale: Days go by☊ (1996) Country words of wisdom from one of the great sages (see also Bringing it back☊, 1972).
Afroman: Because I got high♾ (2000) The Freak Brothers Hip hop edition.
Toby Keith: I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again☊ (2003) A tribute to the potency of Country star Willie Nelson’s personal reserve.
Willie Nelson (feat. Snoop Dogg, Jamey Johnson, & Kris Kristofferson): Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die☊ (2012) The last wishes of one of Country music’s most vocal advocate for legalization.
(please note that some require Spotify):
High Times, the historical stoner magazine, features a Top 25 Pot Songs Of All Time.
Spin published a list of The 30 Most Commercially Successful Pot Songs.
Billboard has compiled a commented playlist: 420 songs: 20 smokin’ tunes about weed.
Rolling Stone also made one: The 15 Greatest Stoner Songs.
Predictably, Noisey has got one too.