Songs About Pot: A Proposition 19 Playlist



While New York fusses over a mosque and D.C. debates Glenn Beck's sanity—or lack thereof—California is getting ready to make a choice that could rock the nation. Or, rather, stone it. The state that brought you the Proposition 8 Gay Marriage Kulturkampf has a new battle brewing. In less than eight weeks California voters will decide on Proposition 19; a high-stakes (pun intended) ballot initiative that would essentially legalize marijuana in the Golden State, treating weed much like alcohol—to be regulated and taxed, but lawful for adults 21 and up to buy, possess and use.

Prop 19 would be a social experiment on a gargantuan scale, with repercussions too vast to predict. We can safely say that other states will be watching. Closely. If California's tax revenues go up and crime rates stay down, sweeping drug law reform in dozens of cash-starved states could ultimately force a change in Federal policy. Prop 19, in short, might just mean that the War on Drugs is over. And drugs won.

Whatever California decides, the public perception of pot has undeniably evolved over the past several decades. From a dire threat in the '30s, to a badge of youth rebellion in the '60s, pot now is an almost mundane part of daily life for millions. Especially on the health-crazed West Coast, lighting a perfectly legal tobacco cigarette will draw dirty looks, where sparking up a dank fatty will bring only smiles.

How did this change happen? Blame the music. Pop music brought Mary Jane to mass consciousness. And through generations of jazz, folk, rock, reggae, country, and rap, pop has played a massive role in winning mainstream acceptance for the drug. To see this dramatic shift at work, one only need take a tour of marijuana-themed music, of pop songs about pot, tunes about toking, compositions about the chronic, if you will. Or even if you won't.

We start, we do with most trends in American popular music, with Louis Armstrong. Way back in 1929, he recorded perhaps the first song about weed to reach a mass audience, "Muggles." Sorry, Harry Potter-ites, but it's true. Muggles" was a slang term for marijuana before there ever was a Hogwart's. Satchmo was joined by dozen of other jazz stars, like Cab Calloway singing about the "Reefer Man" and Benny Goodman's "Texas Tea Party."

But the straight world caught on, and pot was soon being portrayed in mass media as an evil temptress—as with the unintentional camp of "Sweet Marijuana." The faux-Busby Berkley production from a 1934 movie, Murder at the Vanities prefigures 1936's propaganda film "Reefer Madness," and the subsequent federal law, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act that made cannabis made illegal. Or "The G Man Got the T Man" as Cee Pee Johnson put it. Even St. Nick had to go underground in "Santa's Secret"—a song which does explain why the old elf is so jolly and his constant need for cookies.

Doobie tunes snuck back into the public mind though folk music, with innocuous-sounding titles like "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dylan as folkie and later a rock star probably did more to promote the use of marijuana than anybody outside the Beatles. In fact, the so-cool-it-should-be-apocryphal story is that Dylan himself first turned the Beatles on to weed in a New York City hotel room.

Soon, coded songs about pot came fast, if not furious. The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," "Along Comes Mary" by The Association, "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles, and Dylan's own annoying but inescapable "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its deeply insidious refrain.

Soon, everyone had gotten stoned. They wanted more. Like Fraternity of Man, a one-hit wonder whose one hit was "Don't Bogart Me," alias "Don't Bogart That Joint," from the Easy Rider soundtrack. Or Brewer & Shipley whose 1971 track "One Toke Over the Line, Sweet Jesus" was publicly declared subversive by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who pushed the FCC to ban the song from public airwaves. A few weeks later "One Toke" was performed, before dropped jaws across America, on The Lawrence Welk Show—after which the ultra-conservative bandleader called the song "a modern spiritual" without the slightest hint that anything unusual had happened.

"Sweet Leaf" by Black Sabbath showed that pot music doesn't have to be mellow. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" showed it doesn't have to sound good. Toby Keith's later hit "Weed With Willie" nicely sums up what Willie Nelson, along with Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, and a bunch more county boys were up to. In 1976, Bob Marley and the Wailers released their US breakthrough album, Rastaman Vibration. Over his too-short career, Marley subsequently did more to promote marijuana use than anyone on earth—except maybe Dylan and the Beatles.

At this point, the coded messages were getting pretty easy to decode. 1978's "Mary Jane" by the late Rick James didn't try to trick anyone—and might be the most sampled song of all time, with (ahem) tributes by Redman, Coolio, Mary J. Blige, and every rapper who ever even set foot in the 213 area code. The same year also saw the issue of "Smokin'" by Boston—which you already knew if you grew up in the suburbs. All suburbanites are, by law, issued a copy of Boston's first album on their 13th birthday. Guess how long the track "Smokin'" is? Just guess. It's 4 minutes and 20 seconds. It's 4:20, dude! Just a coincidence?! Yes. Yes, it is.

"Pass the Dutchie" by Musical Youth topped the UK singles charts in 1982. A cover—a reworking of "Pass the Koutchie" by The Mighty Diamonds, Musical Youth changed the title and swapped the line "How does it feel when you got no herb?" for "How does it feel when you've got no food" to hide the song's true meaning. Great work, guys. You fooled everybody.

Tone Loc's very fine "Cheeba Cheeba" dropped all the back in 1989, but it would be three more years before hemp-themed hip-hop took over pop music. In 1992, The Chronic cometh; rapper and producer Dr. Dre's first solo record—named after pot slang, packed in a cover paying homage to Zig-Zags. With the album's devastating success, the success of records to follow and his followers' records Dr. Dre probably did more to promote the use of marijuana than anyone. Except for Dylan. And The Beatles. And Bob Marley.

At last, with full social acceptance nearly at hand, we have that strictly 21st century musical phenomenon—the all-weed band. Artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Kottonmouth Kings, that is, for whom glorifying ganja is a raison d'être. The Kings, especially, love to be silly, and often use stridently nasal vocals. On "Proud To Be A Stoner," though, the Kings let a more serious and melodic side show.

Finally, since bands that only sing about weed are as boring as people that can only talk about it, a more versatile artist will close this show. Ben Harper in his crowd-pleasing "Burn One Down" asks a friend to "light me up before I go." That's wildly inappropriate in this context. But a comment, maybe on how popular music shaped the perception of marijuana? That would very kind.