These stories provide yet another way in to the histories of recreational, “non-medical” (a loaded term) users of cannabis. Perhaps it’s not that the jazz lyrics validate the worst fears manifested during the reefer madness era, but possibly (I think likely) the propaganda was a complete misinterpretation of the actual experience of recreational users, providing a way to read through (against the grain, or parallel to it) the rich source material in jazz archives across the country. These, along with similar methodological approaches applied to the “official records” of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics are, collectively, small but significant pieces of a larger puzzle that can uncover these stories.
A Radio Stars article from 1938 makes a nuanced perception about the importance of marijuana among jazz musicians. It rejected the idea that the most talented artists used, but contributed to the reefer madness discourse by suggesting that use was quite prevalent among second-rate musicians in swing bands. And instead of improving their musical abilities, marijuana actually degraded them, along with the musicians’ general motivation to participate as useful members of society.
Here’s the connection between marijuana use and mental illness again. As I’ve suggested, the tendency of marijuana to produce depression, mania, and psychosis is well documented in this period, but should probably be attributed to correlation rather than causation. This false-cause was still widely circulated. In 1927, Robert Kingman wrote a fascinating article in the Medical Journal and Record, singing the praises of the “green goddess,”as a miracle drug in emerging psychiatric practice. He argued that “insanity, dreams, and drug intoxication,” were manifestations of the same mental state. Thus, marijuana was potentially a cure for mental illness, particularly suitable for addressing the symptoms of neurasthenia, the classic illness of “over civilization,” and of poverty and depravation.
“And they said, ‘I’m kinda low’/ And he said, ‘I’ve got just what you need:/ Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything.” – Cab Calloway, “The Man from Harlem” (1932)
“The [jazz] musician who uses ‘reefers’ finds that the musical beat seemingly comes to him quite slowly, thus allowing him to interpolate any number of improvised notes with comparative ease.” –Harry Anslinger and Courtney Cooper in “Marijuana Assassin of Youth”
“My whole body’s sent, and I feel like I’m a millionaire/ my whole body’s sent, lord, I feel like I’m a millionaire/ if I’m broke I still got money, if I’m hungry I don’t even care.” -Curtis Jones, “Reefer Hound Blues” (1938)
Marijuana and Jazz
“One leader told me of a young man in his band who was a crackerjack musician, but who used the weed so consistently that he was quite undependable. The fits of deep depression reefers so often, [sic] produce would seize him until he had to be restrained, from suicide.” Jack Hanley, “Exposing the Marijuana Drug Evil in Swing Bands”
“Man whats the matter with that cat there?/ Must be full of reefer!/ Full of reefer?!” -Cab Calloway “The Reefer Man” (1932)
“Man whats the matter with that cat there?/ Must be full of reefer!/ Full of reefer?!” -Cab Calloway “The Reefer Man” (1932) During the 1920s and 1930s young Americans of all stripes were mesmerized by a new kind of music: jazz. The jazz movement combined various musical styles like ragtime, blues, folk, and classical…